Two houses, lost homework, quarreling parents-no wonder Johnny’s failing.
by Dawn Miller
Kristen and Megan had just moved in with Mom’s new husband and his four kids. They went to visit Dad regularly, but they were so happy to play with their brother there and with their rambunctious stepbrothers in the new household that they rarely had time for homework. No surprise their grades took a dive.
At first, both parents were willing to allow some academic slippage in the name of adjustment. But when Megan started acting out, their dad called school officials. He ran head first into a school culture that seemed annoyed by a noncustodial father’s inquiry and uninterested in repeating information already relayed to her mother.
Sadly, this scenario is not unfamiliar to stepfamilies. But it doesn’t stop there.
A Simple Form-Not!
The trouble often begins even before the first day of school with a simple but painful culprit: those pesky contact forms every school requires for ease of communication. In the case of multiple parents and dual houses, it stops everyone dead in their tracks.
“School registration forms don’t allow for proper contact information to be given. There isn’t ‘the other house’ and the ‘stepparent’ spot,” says Shannon, mom of three and stepmom to one, with six adults in her blended parenting mix.
“They don’t notify all parents of events and conferences. Whomever the kid is with the night he brings home the flyer is who gets the information. I know there is a cost in notifying every parent, but in cases where they don’t live together and both want to have an active involvement, they really need to find a way to keep us all in the loop,” she says.
Cary encountered the same ironclad “one household” mentality in the nation’s largest school district–New York City-where a blue form offers space for only one parent’s address. “The school system acted as if we were living in the 1950s and every family was like the Cleavers,” he says. He recounts his struggle (for naught) to get his daughter a Metro farecard so she could get to school easily from both his home and her mother’s. In a school that regularly supplies a set of books for home to avoid the heavy lugging, he was more successful in lobbying the department heads for an additional set of textbooks to keep at his apartment. Fortunately for this noncustodial dad, his ex-wife shares information with him about their daughter’s school activities and academics. But it’s not that way for many other stepfamilies.
After his divorce, Paul cut back on business travel and became more involved with his two sons and their homework. He was horrified to discover his seventh-grader could not write legibly and was failing two classes. Teachers at the private school had given glowing progress reports to both parents, but then it got to the point where they were considering expelling one of the boys for acting out.
When Paul tried to withdraw his sons and place them in public school, his ex-wife made their continuation at the private school a requirement for a modified separation agreement. After an ugly legal battle, the school admitted it had failed to communicate properly with both parents. The boys moved to public school.
Poor school communication can intensify problems between households and within stepfamilies. “Some teachers and administrators are insensitive to the delicate balance that needs to be maintained between the two households,” said Yaffa Balsam, a marriage and family therapist who has worked with stepfamilies for 25 years in Los Angeles and Newport Beach, California. She has seen situations in which fathers have had to take a court order to school to get copies of a school calendar so they could plan to attend back-to-school night. Other stories abound, from a dad hollering at the coach for not sending basketball schedules to the mom who never got the weekly e-mail and missed a major event.
Further muddying the waters are stepparents. Because they do not have any legal rights related to their stepchildren, they are often cut out of the school communication loop, even though they may be heavily involved in the day-to-day tasks of raising the children. Unfortunately, sometimes a biological parent will go as far as insisting to school officials that they not release academic information to a stepparent.
“This situation causes much heartache and a great deal of agony for the children, since they are exposed to the hostility expressed toward their stepparent, whom they often actually like,” says Balsam. And of course, it also affects the child’s academic performance.
She often sees deeper underlying factors when stepfamilies encounter school problems. “Communication-or the lack of it-over school issues for stepfamilies are symbolic of the power and control issues between the biological parents,” she says. “When one or both parents have not let go emotionally of their marriage, they attempt to stay connected, even if it’s through anger.”
According to Balsam, the remarriage of a parent can reactivate this anger, and it’s expressed through a refusal to cooperate on issues such as school. Newly formed stepfamilies may see an increase in hostility from a former spouse, which, unfortunately, often places the school and children in the cross fire.
The View From the Inside
School administrators frequently are confused and frustrated as well about how to deal with stepfamilies, says Renae Lapin, marriage and family therapist and author of School Daze & the Divorce Maze: A Complete Guide for Joint Custody Parents in Managing Your Child’s Successful School Career. “By the time a school communication problem occurs,” says Lapin, “a child may have suffered unavoidable traumatic school experiences.” All of this contributes to the child’s discomfort with school. She advises parents to remain in constant contact with the school throughout the year, not just when problems arise.
One mother Lapin met was very distraught when she discovered her husband’s new wife was getting information from the school about her child’s behavioral problem. “The school was interested in any and all collaboration with family members to help the student improve,” says Lapin. The family entered counseling to resolve the problem and help all of the adults work together in the best interest of the child.
Special education teacher Mary Ann Lowry in California, who has 20 years of experience in the classroom, says that getting homework completed and medication administered can be even more challenging when a child is shuttling between homes. But Lowry notes it’s not these day-to-day logistics that affect the child’s academic performance the most-it’s the attitude of the parents. Too often those attitudes are simply not focused on doing what is best for the child.
School systems are also scrambling to adjust to the multifaceted communication required to stay in touch with stepfamilies. In Making Parent Communication Effective and Easy, Rich Bagin, executive director of the National School Public Relations Association, advises teachers to have more than one handout per family available at back-to-school night and to prepare enough materials so stepparents can have one too.
Legal restrictions also affect what information school districts can give out. In Fairfax County, Virginia, biological parents, whether they have shared custody or not, have access to their child’s records and can request that information on public school events be provided to them. “As far as stepparents are concerned, we require that the actual parent give written consent for information to be given directly to a stepparent. This requirement complies with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which governs how confidential information on students must be handled,” says Ellie Barnes, director of student services for the Fairfax County Public Schools.
Many school counselors are trying to help children adjust to stepfamilies and remarriage. School counselor Carita Carlyle of West Friendship Elementary School in Maryland holds small group sessions for children going through family changes. The focus is on helping the kids develop coping skills. They practice using “I feel” statements, create a book about their feelings and dreams, and use a board game designed to help them. Children attending the group develop better coping skills and learn that they are not the only ones dealing with these types of changes.
In Fairfax County, Virginia, support services for children facing family changes and other issues are provided at every school. “We have counselors, psychologists, and social workers at every school who are trained to handle situations such as these,” says Barnes. “These professionals can intervene with the child individually or with the parents and family, depending on the circumstances.”
Schools, though, can only go so far. “All children deserve nurturing and structured support from home,” Lowry says. “In situations where parents can’t get along, the child always suffers academically.”
School tests our children in the best of circumstances, with increased pressure for grades and college prep. When we add the layers of stepfamily issues, it can kick the good student off the dean’s list to a path of despair. Communication with the school is the first step toward a child’s success, empowering him or her emotionally and academically.
“I have found that my child’s education is the thing that generates the widest range of emotion and the most passion within me,” says Paul. “It is probably the most tangible aspect of their lives that I can help to guide them into becoming responsible and dependable adults. Now they are thriving, and I take pride in helping them there. It’s a terrific feeling!”
Dawn Miller writes a blog for blended families and maintains an extensive website of stepfamily resources at www.TheStepfamilyLife.com.
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