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The Impact of Divorce on Academics

Shared custody may be best on a child's emotions, but academics may suffer.

Often a parent will ask me if their divorce is affecting their child’s academics, and, most of the time the answer is yes, especially when there is shared custody. 

I know, shared custody seems like the best thing for a child and, on an emotional level it may be, but that’s not my area. However, on an academic level, perhaps not so much. But, there are ways to avoid the pitfalls and make a difficult situation easier for everyone.

I hear almost the identical story from a good number of my students with divorced parents. I ask why they didn’t do their homework. If they spent the previous night at their mom’s, they tell me they left it at their dad’s and vice versa. Where is your planner? Textbook? Directions for your research paper? Always the same answer.

Since the kids bounce around so much this seems to make sense. But does it?  When I hear this explanation, I always ask the same question, “Why isn’t it in your backpack?” The usual homework process is … open backpack, take out homework, do homework, put back in backpack, the end. 

It also seems that when the parents were married, one may have taken the role of making sure the child was doing everything they needed to do for school, while the other took on other roles, like cooking or watching basketball. However, when the child spends equal time with each parent, both parents become equally responsible for making sure the child studies and does homework. 

So, what are the pitfalls and how do we avoid them? Because I’m not an expert on this subject, I met with marriage and family therapists and facilitators of the upcoming divorce recovery seminar, “Rebuilding When Your Relationship Ends,” Barbara Bennett, LMST and Dr. Carol Shilliday, Psy.D to get some professional advice. 

First, Barbara and Carol discussed the huge adjustment kids go through when parents divorce, such as bouncing between houses, which I already mentioned, and sometimes having to switch schools. They also said it is important to look at the underlying issues that might be causing the behaviors:

  • The stress from the divorce may cause parents to pay less attention to academics.
  • As time with the child becomes more limited, parents focus more on having “quality time” than dealing with the difficult stuff like fighting over homework.
  • Nobody wants to be the “bad guy,” so parents may become more lenient in hopes of easing the stress on the child.
  • Kids often feel a lack of control during divorce so they may play one off the other. This is where the “I left it at mom’s/dad’s” comes in.
  • Single parents have more responsibilities and don’t have the emotional energy to focus on schoolwork, so it’s easier for things to fall through the cracks.

Once parents recognize the issues they can begin to implement the steps to more effectively manage academics. 

Next week, I will offer more of Barbara and Carol’s advice and review their recommendations, so stay turned!

Barbara and Carol’s weekly workshop begins March 28 and is open to both men and women. For further information you may contact Barbara at 860-233-4321 or Carol at 860-967-8479. 

Sue Schaefer is a student advocate, academic coach, and certified teacher. We encourage you to visit her website: Academic Coaching Associates. You may email Sue at susan.schaefer@academiccoachingct.com.

You can also follow Sue on twitter: @sueschaefer1

Lisa S March 25, 2012 at 04:51 PM
As a single mom, this is spot on. It also provided a fresh wave of guilt. When I was married, I was the one who focused on the shoolwork, homework, projects. But after working a full day outside the home, dinnertime and the evening fly by and I don't have the energy to focus on or argue about homework. My kids are good students, but I wonder if they could be doing better. Do I know what my son is studying in science? Nope. Do I review his planner to see what's due? No, I rely on him to keep track of it all. Do I help my daughter study her math facts? Nope. I do what I have to: give a practice spelling test, sign graded tests to indicate I've seen them, help with projects. But if it isn't due the next day, I tell myself we'll catch up on the weekend. But the weekend brings another host of challenges - kids activities, running around trying to do the things that can't get done during the week, and the kids changing households - that the time to focus on the academics never comes. I'll be interested to see what recommendations your next article brings. Thanks for addressing this subject!
Barbara Schwarz Bennett March 26, 2012 at 09:21 PM
Lisa, I'm so sorry you got attacked with a "fresh wave of internal guilt." Let me just say that I can appreciate how as a single mom, and even for parents as a whole, life with kids is challenging as it is. Then throw on the extra added responsibilities after divorce; some that you may be new at and taking on for the first time. Our goal in addressing this issue was to raise awareness so that both parents, teachers, administrators, divorce lawyers (I believe they address the issue of both parents being involved in their child's schooling as a part of the custody agreement), the courts and anyone else that may be able to have impact on your child's education, can work together to make sure your child's education doesn't slip through the cracks and that both parents are getting the information they need to be an active participant. As we all know, it takes a village to raise a child and when there is a divorce the village gets divided, sometimes falls apart. So our hope is to rebuild the village by raising awareness. So don't be so hard on yourself, it sounds like given the circumstances, you're doing a great job. Your kids are learning a valuable lesson about advocating for themselves and I'm sure that if they asked you for help you'd be right there supporting them. I hope this helps.

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