SAN DIEGO – August 20, 2012 – Sixty million American kids are heading back to school this fall. They are going to be excited, anxious, terrified, nervous, sad, happy – and so are their parents. Mixed feelings are natural at this time of year, no matter how old your kids are or how many times you’ve been through it all as a parent.
But if you are a divorced parent, especially freshly divorced since your child’s first day of school last year, you have some new school-related issues to deal with. Who is paying for what? Who does the school call if there is a problem? Who gets to chaperone what field trip? What activities will the child get to be involved in? You might even need to work out what school your child will attend, near Dad’s house or Mom’s house.
Lawyer Myra has some tips for you that will make sure back to school doesn’t end up meaning back to court for you and your former spouse.
Get on the same page about routines. Don’t make school any more complicated than necessary. Kids will adjust faster if you’re in agreement about routines, and so will you. Meet before school starts without the kids in a neutral location to discuss the routine details first. Work out any potential disagreements now such as emergency procedures, meals, pick-up, weather, after-school activities and all the other components of the school week. Once you agree, write it all down and share the plan with your children. Keep the steps simple and be consistent.
Meet the new teacher. Divorced or not, it is always good to meet with your child’s new teacher. Let her or him know your child comes from a divorced home or a shared custody home. Children of divorce and separation often act out at school, have emotional moments, or just a bad day. Your child’s teacher should know what’s going on. But avoid drawing teachers and school personnel into any conflict you’re having with your former spouse.
Share information. Don’t play games, hoard information, or create obstacles for the noncustodial parent to get information. Unless you have a protective order, give permission to the children’s teachers, counselors, and medical professionals to share information with both parents.
Arrange for duplicate notifications. Although information should always be shared, it helps to arrange for separate, duplicate notifications about academic progress and school activities so one parent is not responsible for copying and sending information to the other.
You should also try to share graded papers and tests that come home. One method is to keep a folder inside a child’s backpack for these kind of papers. Each parent can check the folder for new materials. Using this system helps parents avoid putting the child in the middle, and also keeps the child from being responsible for papers he might lose anyway.
Coordinate events. Agree in advance to be courteous to one another at school events so you can attend at the same time. You can suck it up for the hour it takes every few months. If this is really, truly not possible, arrange to attend on different nights or at different times. Most teachers are willing to do a quick one-on-one to meet one of the parents at another time.
Deal with school expenses up front. Custodial parents usual pay for back-to-school wardrobes and school supplies, unless both parents agree to share those expenses. Try to buy everything at one store if possible to minimize confusion. Keep copies of the receipts so you have a record of what you’re owed.
Share supply information. You may be the parent in charge of school shopping, but your ex might want to be involved. It’s not uncommon for a divorced dad to take his child out and buy a hot pair of sneakers, backpack, or electronic device. Make sure you have talked in advance about whether Sam or Susie gets a cellphone or iPod. Purchases like this on a whim rarely end up without an argument and upset parents and kids.
Coordinate calendars. There are going to be lots of events when school starts: sports and music practices, meets, science fairs, concerts, etc. Coordinate the school calendar with your parenting schedule. You want to make sure your child is able to attend important events. Have calendars in each house, one in your child’s backpack and give one to teachers or coaches to show which parent he will be with.
Plan Projects. Kids may have project they want their dads to help them with. You and your former spouse should anticipate this so you have a plan in place when the science fair or soapbox derby comes along. If the noncustodial parent is overseeing a project, make sure he or she has all the details, including the deadlines and requirements. You may want to force a “sink or swim” situation but it’s your child who ends up in a bind and sinks in the end. Be sure deadlines are clear, but try to remain hands off as much as possible so your child and ex can have a positive experience together. Everyone wins here.
All of this advice assumes you and your former spouse are not a danger to the other. If you are not permitted by court order to be in each other’s physical presence, you will need to take precautions. Inform the school in the event law enforcement needs to be called to intervene. Be sure pickup agreements are on the record, clear and enforced.
Communication is still important and a written record can help keep legal issues straight and problems at bay. If necessary, you may need to arrange to have a third party assist and be the point of mutual contact between you to ensure civility and cooperation. Getting help from a counselor or therapist to help create a supportive school environment is worth whatever the cost to help your child.
Remember who school is for. It’s not a battleground to establish who is the better parent. It’s great for you to be involved with your children but don’t let it become a competition with your former spouse. Your child is struggling through your divorce while juggling the demands of the new school year. Let school be your kid’s refuge, a place for him or her to have fun, learn, achieve and excel, and forget about the issues at home.
No matter what, you can’t go wrong making a decision if you stop and ask yourself this: what’s in the best interest of my child? That gets you an A-plus anytime.
Myra Chack Fleischer founded Fleischer & Associates in 2001 and serves as Lead Counsel with a focus on divorce, property, custody and support, settlement agreements, mediation, asset division and family law appeals. Read more Legally Speaking in the Communities at The Washington Times. Follow Fleischer & Associates on Facebook and on Twitter @LawyerMyra
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Copyright © 2012 by Fleischer & Associates, Attorneys at Law
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