Do you ever stop and think about how resilient kids are? Their brains, bodies, and beliefs about the world are constantly changing, and yet they somehow they learn to thrive.
Experiencing the divorce of parents is one upheaval that can interrupt or challenge this development. Kids may worry about the future, blame themselves, or channel their distress into difficult behaviors.
Teachers and school counselors are in a position to educate and support kids in changing families. Counseling@NYU has released an online guide for school counselors and other staff with practical strategies for guiding families through the transition of divorce.
Let’s take a look at some simple strategies that any school can adopt.
Do Some Mythbusting
Despite the number of divorced parents or blended families in today’s society, many adults subscribe to false assumptions about kids and divorce.
Teachers and school counselors must make effort to bust these myths and educate their colleagues as well as parents and kids. Did you know that teachers have been shown to exhibit lower expectations for kids whose parents have divorced?
Many parents may believe the myth that kids will just “get over it,” and that focusing on the divorce is a waste of time. Or they may believe that giving their child information will cause more damage. The reality is that kids have a harder time when they’re left to their own reasoning or fears about the divorce, so open communication is key.
Finally, educators must challenge the false belief that teenagers will have an easier time with divorce. They’re likely to engage in risky behaviors if they don’t receive the support they need.
Recognize the Signs of Struggle
Growing pains are natural as kids grow and test out new ideas and abilities. It’s important for educators who know what behaviors are an expected part of the developmental process and which behaviors are signs that a child is struggling. These signs will differ by age group.
Very small children will regress to younger behaviors they’ve abandoned or complain of physical ailments like headaches or stomach pains. Older children may act out or try to take emotional responsibility for a parent. Adolescents are more likely to act moody, speak negatively, or engage in risky sexual behavior or substance use. These signs and others may indicate that kids need additional tools and support to build resilience.
Don’t Take Sides
Often children are pressured by feuding parents to take a side during a divorce. School staff can educate parents about this danger as well as using the child as a mediator or communicator when there’s conflict. Similarly, counselors and teachers may be tempted to the side of a particular parent. Keeping open communication with both parents is key, and don’t forget to consider how step-parents and other guardians can be kept in the loop.
Ultimately school staff is called to prioritize the child during times of divorce. Though kids don’t have the ethical privilege of confidentiality, counselors and teachers can talk to parents about how having a safe space to talk can be vital for their son or daughter during a time of transition. They can also take steps to facilitate conversations between parents and kids so that a child doesn’t feel that staff has betrayed them.
Start a Support Group
Staff-led small groups can do a lot for kids who feel alone during a divorce and aren’t connected to other students in blended families. If you want to start a group at your school, talk to teachers about which students might be interested. Groups work best when the participants are about the same age and have the option of changing their mind if they feel uncomfortable. Keep groups short and active for younger students with shorter attention spans.
The Counseling@NYU guide lists several group activities to keep kids engaged and help them feel heard. One example includes bringing older students in to talk about their experiences with divorce and what helped, as kids are more likely to listen to older peers than adults. The guide also reminds educators to be patient, as not every activity will work for every child and some days will be better than others.
Teachers and counselors cannot control everything that happens in a family, but they can provide a supportive, informative, and creative environment for kids to flourish. Simply taking steps to educate staff and students about reducing the stigma of divorce can make a huge difference in the school environment. Consider today how you can advocate for kids in changing families and create a space for them to feel a little less alone.
About the author: Michelle Manno is an education writer at 2U. She works with programs such as Counseling@NYU’s online master’s in school counseling and online master’s in mental health counseling from NYU Steinhardt to create resources that support K-12 students. Say hi on Twitter @michellermanno.