As any teacher knows, a student who’s mentally or emotionally distraught is not a student who’s ready to learn. Few things cause mental and emotional upheaval for children like divorce does, and thanks to the financial, social, and emotional strains of the COVID-19 pandemic, divorce rates are on the rise. Even in the most amicable divorce situations, kids face rough transitions as they adjust to moving between houses, potential stepparents, and birthdays and holidays without both parents present.
The question for teachers is: How do we help our students through such personal hardships without upsetting them further or crossing appropriate relational boundaries? In this article, we’ll discuss some of the behaviors you might encounter with kids whose parents are divorcing, plus some strategies you can use in the classroom to help them through this tough time.
Know the Signs of Struggle
Child psychologist Stephanie Samar says not to be alarmed if students start exhibiting negative or distraught behaviors when parents divorce. In fact, she discourages adults from pressuring kids to feel happy or okay about the transition right away. According to her: “Think about how chaotic it feels for adults in the situation, who have at least some control. That adjustment period has to happen, so honor it and don’t start to send the message ‘I just want you to be happy.’” Instead, students need space to work through their emotions without feeling like they need to put on a brave face to please their parents or teachers.
That being said, it’s helpful to know the signs that your students are struggling, even if the behaviors may not seem related to the divorce. Here are some things to watch out for with students of different ages, from New York University’s school counseling program:
Elementary and Middle School Students
- Difficulty concentrating on schoolwork: When students are experiencing big changes outside of class, it’s often hard for them to “turn it off” and focus solely on schoolwork.
- Frequent crying or emotional distress: Students in these circumstances may cry more often or have lower emotional resilience for other challenges (e.g., a difficult assignment, conflict with peers).
- Lack of interest in fun activities: Students may be more socially withdrawn or not want to participate in activities they once enjoyed.
- Headaches or stomach problems: Emotional struggles can sometimes manifest physically in problems such as headaches, stomach aches, low energy, or loss of appetite.
- Increased separation anxiety: Divorce can often make students feel unstable or insecure, and this can naturally lead to increased feelings of stress and sadness when they’re away from friends or loved ones.
High School Students
- Feigned antipathy for activities once enjoyed: Being withdrawn and aloof is common for teenagers, but especially when they’re going through something tough, their tendency can be to “cocoon” rather than open up.
- Premature interest in sex: Although it’s beyond the scope of this article to delve into why, studies have shown that children whose parents divorce have romantic and sexual encounters at younger ages on average than their peers.
- Headaches or stomach problems: As with younger students, teenagers can also experience physical symptoms related to their emotional distress.
- Increased conflict with peers: Teenagers may feel angry or misunderstood when processing their parents’ divorce, and may lash out at their peers as a result.
- Overfunctioning in responsibilities: Especially when they have younger siblings, teenagers in divorce situations may feel they must step up to take care of household responsibilities and the emotional health of family members, including their parents.
Teaching Strategies to Help Students During Divorce
Whether students display all or none of the above signs of struggle, the effects of divorce can last for months as children learn to accept the news and adjust to the changes in their lives. That’s why it’s important to employ the right teaching strategies to help your students stay on track at school. Here are some tips from the University of Delaware about how to keep your students calm and focused on learning despite whatever’s going on at home.
Maintain structure and normalcy. When kids are dealing with parents separating, the consistent schedule, routines, and behavioral standards at school are more important than ever. Children often find security in predictability, so do your best to maintain that sense of normalcy for them. However, there will inevitably be moments when they’re reminded of the changes at home (e.g., a different person now picks them up from school, a book or lesson mentions divorce). In these moments, make sure to reinforce that all families and all feelings are valid, and give your students a nonjudgmental space to share their thoughts.
Be consistent but flexible. When students act out because of stress from a divorce, there’s a fine line between being understanding and allowing them to use the situation as an ongoing excuse for poor behavior. That’s why it’s important not to lower academic or behavioral standards, but at the same time be flexible about giving students extra time or space if you can tell they’re sincerely having a hard moment. Make sure to keep parents in the loop if you notice issues such as inattentiveness, lower grades, or extreme emotional displays. However, be careful to stick to reporting the child’s struggles without judging or speculating about the causes behind those behaviors.
Listen and reassure. Some students may be reluctant to share their thoughts and feelings about what’s going on at home, but if they do, it’s essential you listen to and validate what they’re saying. You don’t necessarily need to have answers to their problems; just the act of listening can help a great deal. In fact, the Child Mind Institute says that not intervening immediately can sometimes be the best course of action. As they put it:
Taking a step back and just listening allows your child to feel heard and feel that her opinion matters. It also lets her know that her emotions aren’t a problem to be solved or “gotten over.” … Instead of immediately looking for a way to cheer her up, you could validate that emotion by saying that you understand why she might feel that way and invite her to tell you more.
Proactively affirm all family structures. Students might struggle with a sense of loss or insecurity after a divorce, so it’s important to affirm the ongoing value and worth of their family, even if that family looks different now. In the next section, we’ll look at some classroom activity ideas to help you discuss different family structures. Here are other small things you can do to help students feel accepted:
- Provide fiction and nonfiction books that show different types of families.
- Adapt activities to include all students on occasions like Mother’s and Father’s Day.
- Make sure forms and policies don’t unintentionally discriminate against different kinds of families (e.g., using language that only addresses intact families).
Keep appropriate boundaries. As much as you want to help your hurting students, it’s important to remember you’re not ultimately responsible for their psychological well-being. If you sense that a student is experiencing severe distress, or if parents have expressed concerns, make sure to seek help from mental health professionals at your school or district. Similarly, be careful not to get so personally or emotionally invested that you lose sight of boundaries or take undue burdens on yourself. Listening to and guiding your students with the strategies above are the best way you can help.
Classroom Activity: Teaching About the Family
Kids whose parents are divorcing might feel like they’ve lost their family or there’s now something wrong with their family structure. That’s why it’s important to remind them that families come in many shapes and sizes, and divorce just means their family’s shape is changing. One great way to help reinforce this idea is to do a classroom activity discussing all the different shapes a family can take.
FamilyNuclearSciences.com offers some great, simple activities to help students understand different types of family structures (nuclear, single parent, blended, multigenerational, etc.). Through a series of visuals and coloring activities, you’ll help students define family structures, talk about the functions of a family, and validate all students’ experiences. These activities include PowerPoint presentations and printable worksheets, and you can easily customize the PowerPoints with different examples depending on your students’ ages or family circumstances.
Video: Mister Rogers Discusses Divorce
Fred Rogers was a masterful communicator with children, especially when it came to tough topics. In a 1981 episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Rogers outlines how divorce stirs up many feelings, but that they are all normal.
If you teach young students, consider watching the episode together and discussing some of the concepts he teaches. You can view the full episode here.