Classroom Teachers on the Frontlines of Divorce

My daughter has been through a divorce. She now shares custody of her two children with her ex-husband living three states away from the rest of her family.

The children were aged one and three when her husband decided he no longer wanted to be married. Today they peacefully (relatively) co-exist in a small community. Differences still exist between them and have resurfaced recently when their son entered Kindergarten. Information wasn’t reaching both parents because the teacher didn’t use email but sent paper messages home with the child who spent fifty percent of his nights with each parent. Parent Teacher Conferences exposed the conflicts between the parents that had led to the divorce. The teacher’s response was simply that the two parents needed to learn to talk to each other and agree on the issues. I wonder if the teacher realized if they could do that they would still be married.


This situation led me to ask the considerable number of people I know in the field of education what, if any, training they received in dealing with the impact of divorce on their students in the pursuit of their degrees in education. I haven’t had a single one tell me they received any. As a result, I did some research myself on the subject. It turns out there is plenty of information available. My suggestion is school counselors garner some of this information and present an annual professional development exercise for the staff on the subject of helping students deal with divorce, both in their own family or in the families of their friends. I would encourage them to include a thirty-minute session for teachers to troubleshoot together discussing situations they have personally faced and how they dealt with them.

I recently sat next to an elementary school teacher who told me she would be insulted if she were asked to spend thirty minutes of her professional development time receiving instruction in how to deal with the complications of divorce on her students. She said in her school they were so inundated with security threats and violence in their classrooms, they didn’t have time to waste on simple domestic problems like divorce. I wondered where she thought her violent children were coming from. Two parent, stable homes?

On for Younger Children

Before I go any further let me state for the record that in my experience for every one disappointing teacher I have ever encountered, I have known at least a dozen who are exemplary, caring professionals. With so many responsibilities piled on them on top of their basic responsibility to teach the academic subjects appropriate for the grade level they are assigned, you can hardly blame them for not being master counselors concerned with each of their students’ home life.

Still, a child spends more time at school than at home with their parent or parents during their waking hours of the day. When their home life is in crisis, school is often their place of security because it is the one thing in their life that remains unchanged. A million new children a year are affected by divorce, and many of them may not get the support they need at home because their parents are preoccupied with this major crisis in their own lives. This tension from their parents cannot help but create a burden for the child. There may not be obvious outward signs of trouble that would lead to a referral to the school counselor. But the situation often results in a child’s lack of energy for schoolwork and friends. This result does become obvious to the classroom teacher. That teacher should be empowered and equipped to help that student through their difficult period of adjustment.

On for Teens

The example of my daughter’s Parent Teacher Conference problem has a simple solution. Teachers could meet with each parent separately even if the time allotted has to be divided in half. Each parent would be free to ask questions about their concerns without the appointment becoming a venue for conflicts with the ex-spouse. It would also serve the purpose of the teacher being able to observe both parents to gauge their commitment to the child’s education and development and their individual concerns. Further counseling can be recommended to either or both parents if it proves necessary. My researched showed many school districts hold regular group meetings for children of divorce to show them their situations are not unique.

Teachers who simply provide a little extra support to a child going through the separation of their parents can make a huge difference. A few moments spent greeting the child or showing an interest in them personally can help remind the child that school is a secure place in their life that is not changing. A teacher who knows the first year is generally the hardest for divorcing families can go a long way towards making their classroom one constant in a child’s changing world.

In some cases just the passage of time is not enough to heal the on-going problems related to their parents’ divorce. In these situations children can draw comfort from helping a fictional character cope with similar problems. A selected reading assignment to be done as a homework assignment or one-on-one time with the teacher can help a child of divorce learn that painful problems do not last forever and can be solved.

My hope is this hub will stimulate conversations among classroom teachers who are on the frontlines of divorce and its consequences on a daily basis. As advocates for their students, they may be the one constant those children can depend on for the support they need at their most vulnerable time in their young lives. A starting point for professional development might be the use of the paper, Divorce and Children, a collaboration of parents and teachers, first published in “Our Children” the national PTA magazine published in August/September 1999.

A Teaching Tool for Preschool Teachers

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Comments 21 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

Eighteen years of teaching and never received a single instruction on how to handle it. :) They were too busy worrying about the latest test scores.

phdast7 profile image

phdast7 3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

You wrote it! Good for you, and hopefully good for children of divorce and their teachers and the struggling parents. It is amazing that no routine instruction is ever provided for the classroom teacher. Excellent and important hub. Sharing.

Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

billybuc: Thanks for the confirmation. There is plenty of informatiion out there. I'd love to see schools at every level adopt some of it for their professional development sessions that I know are required. If nothing else, they can start with my hub and the information I found. It's a starting point. Maybe hubbers will share it with educators they know!

phdast7: Yes, I looked up from my new book long enough to write a hub. I finally felt strongly enough about something to break away. Thanks for the encouragement.

poetvix profile image

poetvix 3 years ago from Gone from Texas but still in the south. Surrounded by God's country.

Eleven years in education has shown me more children of divorce than those not. It's so sad, but I never got any instruction on how to help them from the district or my education certification courses. Thankfully for my students, I was a behavioral science major before going into education.

Sadly, you never will see such "formal" training offered in public schools because of the fear of lawsuits. Teachers are encouraged to develop relationships with students, but NEVER to counsel. It's a semantics thing, but it leads to lawsuits. Technically speaking, teachers are to send students to the counselor who typically has a huge waiting list. It's the legal certification thing. She's certified to counsel. Teachers are not... And, it is just those kinds of ticky little stupid things that are destroying education in America.

Districts go off at great length drilling it into teachers to make parent contacts, to the primary parent listed. Unless there is a note in the system to contact both parents, most teachers are going to contact the first name on the list, usually mom. In cases of divorce, unless the district has some copy of a shared custody, they are going to stick with who the child lives with as is written on the primary contact line of the form parents fill out on the first day of school. It sucks, but it's true.

Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

poetvix: I should have known lawsuits were at the heart of the problem. So it behoves each teacher to train themselves. I pray they are not all like the one I sat next to the other night.

Divorce has changed and Mom doesn't necessarily have the primary care any more. Dad probably does because when the marriage ended he had a job and Mom didn't or didn't make as much money. The kids probably go to school where Dad lives even if custody is shared because he probably lives in the better school district.

Even if teachers can't formally counsel, they can pay attention and care. They are on the frontline for children of divorce. My grandson's first grade teacher has been wonderful. If my percentages hold, he should be due for nine more before he's done. In all fairness, that Kindergarten teacher was a first year teacher. I hope she gains the experience to do better by her students. With the help of great teachers around her, she probably will.

Jackie Lynnley profile image

Jackie Lynnley 3 years ago from The Beautiful South

Not hearing too many good things about teachers in the news lately. I took my kids out of school because of drugs in the school; more than one day several students were taken to the ER and no parent was even told. Years ago in Junior High. Today you hear they are having girls kiss to get to understand each other deeper (a male teacher, no doubt...or not), wanting them to stomp the bible, and the list goes on. Anyway, what I am saying is you may be lucky just to not have them do anything but teach them basics, and leave the teaching to parents. There really should be something like this to help these kids from broken homes but I am not sure school is the place for that the way our world is changing.

Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

You never know how much of what you hear and read to believe, do you? Thanks for your comments Jackie and for your interest in this subject that affects so many children today.

rebeccamealey profile image

rebeccamealey 3 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

You know, I think the traditional schools as we have known them are slowly turning into dinosaurs. Good or bad? Who knows! Only time well tell.

Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

rebecca: Thanks for your comments. Hopefully, time will show teachers to be trained professionals with tender hearts, which many of them are. They must deal with all manner of imperatives, but surely helping a child through the hardest thing in their little lives is one of those imperatives. It would help if they had some training in this area.

True 3 years ago

I wish I had received training on how to deal with students whose parents are going through divorce. That could probably help me deal with their behavior at school. How do I help them express what they really feel instead of acting it out? I had a very hard case once of a little boy (4) whose parents were divorcing and sharing custody . The only way I knew how to deal with it was to try to talk to him about his feelings, I would let him talk about each parent and reassured him that they both loved him. But I felt that was not enough. I wish I knew what else to do.

In other cases, one parent would blame the child's behavior on the other parent. These are the cases I fear the most. How to make them understand that blaming the other parent only worsen the child's behavior?

Yes, I do believe that such training would be beneficial to both teachers and students.

Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

True: It's so good to hear from someone "in the trenches." I hope these resources help you. I'd think it would be helpful if teachers were encouraged just to share their experiences - what worked for them and what didn't - on a regular basis. Teachers are the ones who deal with this more than anyone outside immediate family. I've said before, any educator is welcome to use this hub as a starting point for discussion. Thanks for commenting here.

CraftytotheCore profile image

CraftytotheCore 2 years ago

When I went through my divorce, it was a mutual, open divorce. No fighting at all. My son is special needs. He had severe speech issues which required intensive speech therapy. His teacher at the time of my divorce labeled him a "bad" kid because I was getting a divorce. The problem was she couldn't understand him. She was passing around stickers and he asked for the green one. She couldn't understand him and he got upset. The divorce wasn't at all the reason he got upset over the sticker. But the teacher blamed everything after that on the fact that I was getting a divorce. She even told other students which I felt was unethical. A few years later she wrote me an email and apologized. She said she had since learned she needed a hearing aide.

Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

CraftytotheCore: (Love your name) Your story is an example of the minefield in education, full of limitations in all of us. Good for that teacher for apologizing, but it sounded like there were issues going on with her beyond needing a hearing aid. Is your son still doing well? My daughter is four years into her new life and thank God, her two seem to be thriving. They are well-loved and cared for in both their homes, and their Dad is a far better father than he ever would have been had he stayed married. Go figure. Thanks for adding your story to these comments.

firstday profile image

firstday 2 years ago from Lincoln, Nebraska

It is nice to see this article. Now we hope the right people see it and get their egos out of the way. Teachers are so important and this country does not value them enough. They make a difference in children's life and can make a big difference. good job!

Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

firstday: Welcome to my hubs and thanks for commenting on this important issue.

firstday profile image

firstday 2 years ago from Lincoln, Nebraska

Thank you for writing the hub. Your hubs tend to be very intellectual from what I have seen. You are a wonderful writer.

J - R - Fr13m9n profile image

J - R - Fr13m9n 2 years ago from Morris County, New Jersey

This is an extraordinary hub and its worthy to share with others.

Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

J-R-Fr13mon: Thank you. I hope it gets shared with as many educators as possible. I know most of them have their hearts in the right place.

bdegiulio profile image

bdegiulio 18 months ago from Massachusetts

What an important issue that appears to be falling through a crack in the system. With the divorce rates so high here you would thinks schools would be right on top of this issue. Apparently not! Great hub Kathleen. Hopefully school administrators are out there listening.

Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 18 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

I guess it is something you don't think about until your family is affected by it. Thanks for the comment and encouragement. I'd love it if teachers used this hub to start a conversation among the staff at their school.

Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 2 weeks ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

Five years later my daughter has learned (sometimes the hard way) how to navigate the teacher/two parent waters successfully. She has separate parent/teacher conferences even if the time is half what is allotted with her ex having the other half. This solution separates the issues of the former spouses from the issues of the child. She makes sure her children's teachers have her email and cell phone information whether there is space for it on the school's enrollment forms. She looks for books on her own that deal with basic differences in children of divorce, like having two equal homes, bedrooms, toys, neighbors, etc.

Some teachers are better than others, as in every situation in life. The good news is that her children are thriving, knowing they are loved wherever they are, and seeing their parents cooperate for their benefit.

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