The kids are back in school. Lots of things are in transition as we start the new school year. As parents, we have school obligations to help our children stay safe, feel secure and be happy. In the case where parents are divorced or separated, there can be a lot in question.
Who signs the permission slips?
What about parent conferences?
And what happens in case of emergency?
No matter what your child custody arrangements might be, and whether your divorce was years ago or the split just took place over the summer, we know there’s no “easy A” when it comes to co-parenting during the school year. But we do think it can be much less stressful!
How? Here are ten top, tried-and-true tips for making this school year a successful one for your child in the case of divorce or separation of parents and, believe it or not, maybe just maybe a good one for you and your former-spouse, too.
Tip 1: Pre-School Pow Wow
Once you have the coming year’s school calendar (typically available on a school district’s website starting in early summer), schedule a meeting with your former-spouse at some neutral locale and make sure you each BRING A CALENDAR. Map out the school year schedule from September to June, making visitation plans and custody arrangements for school breaks, long weekends, and/or early release days, keeping in mind your child custody agreement. Things may change as the year progresses, but having a basic plan in place is a good starting point.
Tip 2: Keep School Contact Forms Current & Complete
When that huge stack of forms comes home with your child on the first day of school, make sure contact information is filled in for both you and your ex-spouse, including cell phone, work numbers, physical address and email addresses. Again, it might be easy to meet in some neutral place to fill out the forms together, but however you obtain this information, make a photocopy before returning forms to school to make sure you have these numbers too! If things aren’t so amicable with your ex and he/she filled in the forms separately, call the school to request a copy for your own records.
Tip 3: No Panic Pick Ups
While filling in forms, make the following items very clearly understood: the child’s primary physical residence, who is responsible for picking the child up from school on a daily basis, which adults are allowed to pick up children from school, and which parent to call first in case of emergency. Often, there is a box to check off or fill in with this information for divorced or separated parents. Make sure your former-spouse understands and agrees to the responsibility of picking up the child in case of sickness–or if an emergency on your part prevents normal pick up.
On the other hand, there may be custody issues, such as a parent not being allowed visitation with a child, which should be noted. If so, school forms usually provide a space to write in who is NOT allowed to pick up a child, so don’t overlook naming names, even if the person is no longer part of your lives. In the event a parent without child visitation rights shows up at the school, this documentation can be very important.
Tip 4: Keep Child Custody Swaps Away from School
Even if your child’s visitation with her other parent begins on Friday afternoons, avoid making school the spot where the two of you meet. Because seeing your spouse may be filled with tension or outright anger, and mixed emotions from your child, save yourselves the embarrassment and further stress of putting these issues on display for your child’s school. If your former-spouse lives in the same town, it might be possible for your child to ride the school bus to a stop closer to the other parent’s house (provided the other parent is there to see the child home from the bus). If not, pick a neutral spot like the mall or library.
Tip 5: Participate in School Conferences Together
Back-to-school nights, sporting events, concerts, and parent-teacher conferences are important parts of the school year and you should both make every effort to be there. If there’s still animosity with your ex, make sure the school is aware of lingering family difficulties long before it’s conference time or family fun night. A simple meeting or call to the guidance counselor to explain your family’s situation is all that is needed. The school, in turn, may have a guidance counselor present or on-call during parent conferences or have their own suggestions for how to make the situation work for all parities involved, especially your child.
Tip 7: Non-Involved Parents
If a parent has moved away or is no longer involved in a child’s life, make sure to let your child’s new teachers know this. This avoids embarrassment both for your child and the school when it comes to a “Dad’s Day” type of event and your child has no one to attend. Trust us, your son or daughter won’t be alone in this. If possible, line up a grandpa or uncle to step in at moments like this.
Tip 8: Don’t Make Your Child a Messenger
“Mom says we have an early release day next week so you need to pick me up.” “Our class field trip is an overnight one so I won’t be here next Friday.” It seems easy enough to task your child with letting your ex-spouse know about upcoming schedule changes, but this information really needs to be coming from you. Want to talk to your ex as little as possible? That’s what email is for! Email also creates a written record, so your ex can’t later claim, “but I didn’t know.”
Tip 9: Everybody Helps With Homework
If you are not the custodial parent, still make the effort to help your child with homework. Though this is rarely written into any child custody agreement, the burden of keeping up with homework assignments and longterm projects typically falls on the shoulders of the parent who has custody or who is taking care of the child at the time the work is due. Want to really help your child feel consistency and stability, even as they shift between two homes? Ask them to pull out their assignment notebook and see what you can help with–this works especially well with big projects that can be worked on over the weekend. Have weeknight visitation rights? Instead of going out to dinner, why not go to the library instead?
Tip 10: When There’s a New Spouse in Town
If you or your former-spouse remarry, unless a legal adoption takes place, the new spouse should not be listed on your child’s record as a parent, no matter how close the relationship. It’s fine to let the school know that your spouse is allowed to pick up your child and can be contacted in case of emergency (though in most circumstances, the other parent should always be the primary emergency contact). If your current spouse is highly involved with your child’s life, it is completely appropriate to attend school events together. To avoid any fireworks, and any embarrassment on the part of your child, extend your former-spouse the courtesy of letting him or her know about your plans.
— Jacqueline Tourville, writes about parenting and educations issues for various web and print publications. She holds a Masters of Education from the State University of New York.