Written by Roy Souter

Head Teacher at Stoke Hill Federation

One of my early memories is of being extremely upset at school because I had to take a letter home addressed to my mum and dad. I was upset because a few weeks previously my parents had separated and my dad had left home. None of the teachers knew and didn’t know what to say when I explained it to them. This was horrible for everyone, and would have been unnecessary if there had been better communication.

I also remember hating the fact that my mum had told my teachers about my dad leaving. This made the whole situation feel real and permanent. I felt like my life would never be the same again, and that by knowing what had happened the teachers were now part of my new reality.

There are, however, some key things that we have found over the years that make life as easy as possible for children at a potentially traumatic time of their lives.

I’ve shared these memories because I see children going through this situation all the time and can see how the way that their parents behave when their relationship breaks down impacts on their children. How parents handle a separation makes a big difference to the long-term effect it has on their children. We see a huge range of approaches taken, none ever with the intention of making children’s lives more difficult or causing them to be more upset than necessary. There are, however, some key things that we have found over the years that make life as easy as possible for children at a potentially traumatic time of their lives.

Let the school know.

The first action to take is to let the school now that the separation has happened. Children need to know that this conversation is going to happen, and to know exactly what will be said and who will be told. They will often seek out a trusted adult to share their feelings with and need to know who already is party to the facts.

It’s really important that schools hold contact details for both parents, and the order in which parents should be contacted if there’s an emergency. We also need to know contact plans (days of the week that the child is with each parent). This allows us to identify any patterns and changes in behaviour, and also to make sure we hand the children over to the correct person at the end of the day. It also helps us to know which parent to contact if a child is late for school or does not arrive. It wastes time and causes unnecessary stress if we inadvertently contact the wrong parent.

Schools should provide copies of all correspondence to both parents, including copies of school reports and details about parents’ evenings, concerts etc. The school will need to be given both sets of contact details and will need to be asked to send additional copies of information. This is easier if the school uses an email system (such as Parent Mail) to share information, but still manageable if they don’t. Parents need to be proactive and let schools know if they are not receiving information. Mistakes are easily rectified if we know they have happened.

Present a united front.

It’s important that parents present a united front and show that both value and care about their child’s education. This can include attendance at school events and parents’ evenings. Where possible parents putting their differences aside to attend together gives children are really positive message about how important school is, as well as how important they are to their parents. A shared response to any problems in school is also really helpful – children are extremely good at playing one parent off against another. We work on the basis that all behaviour is a form of communication, and that if a child is unsettled or behaving differently to their usual pattern then they are telling us something that they may be finding difficult to explain in words. Working with school to help get to the root of problems, and parents talking honestly to each other, makes a massive difference to their child.

Don’t use contact as a weapon or a punishment.

It’s really important that parents don’t use contact as a weapon or a punishment. Withdrawing contact as a consequence for bad behaviour is unfair to the child, and damages ongoing relationships with both parents (as well as between parents). We find that children can become extremely distressed if they are expecting to spend time with one parent and this is denied. This can then express itself in worse behaviour at home or at school, clearly the opposite of the intended outcome.

We also find that variable contact arrangements can be really difficult for children to cope with. Certainty is really important for children at any time, but especially when they are going through an unsettling time. Parents can set these arrangements up with the best of intentions, but it can be really hard for some children to cope with if they are unsure about where they are staying and who they are staying with.

Finally, I’d like to re-emphasise the importance of communicating with school, and for both parents to remain fully involved in their child’s education. It’s worth the effort involved.



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