As the cliche goes: time flies. Sometimes it feels like right when we've settled into our summer routines, it's already time to prepare for back-to-school.
Maybe your child is transitioning from elementary school to middle school or to high school. Maybe this is the first school year that your child will live in two households. The start of a new school year can be equal parts exhilarating and stressful for any child - new teacher, new schedule, new friends, new school supplies, and hopefully, a pair of some cool new shoes.
Use these last days of summer to get on the same page as your children and your ex, to set goals and expectations, and to set your family up for a successful school year. Some tips below.
1. Eliminate relationship drama in the context of school
Children who are focused on scholastic success typically succeed in life. And yes, children know how to use co-parenting strife to get out of things they don’t want to do, like homework and chores.
Whenever possible, you and your ex must be on the same team when it comes to your children's academic and social needs. Children shouldn’t be distracted by relationship drama. Give your children the security of knowing both parents are engaged. Show your children and their school that they are loved and supported in all they do.
2. Remember that each parent co-parents differently, but always show good faith
You and your ex are not going to agree about everything school-related – that’s okay. Even non-divorced parents disagree on this topic. Parents have a variety of views about academic pressure, strictness with routines, and more. This can be a good thing. Often, different personalities help balance a child.
It can be frustrating when one parent is not as organized or as good about passing along information. Sometimes, co-parents refuse to work together out of sheer spite. Regardless of the other parent's conduct, always act in good faith. Make that extra copy, email the soccer schedule, send a picture from the school play rehearsal. Staying child focused is everything. Children don't care about whose week it is, but they do care about parents showing up.
3. Have a discussion with your children and your ex about school year expectations and goals
If possible, discuss goals and intention setting with your ex and your children. School is an opportunity for academic, social, and extracurricular growth – take advantage of it.
Sit down with your children and have them write down three goals for the school year and three methods to achieve each goal. Let them brainstorm and be creative. Do not judge their goal setting process.
With the other parent, discuss:
- What the children wrote,
- What each parent wants the children to learn in and out of the classroom this school year,
- Specific strategies to achieve the parents' and children's goals (for example, committing to timely completion of homework, encouraging free reading in both homes, and communicating with one another about school projects and progress).
This clarity helps children stay focused and feel supported in their achievement. It also helps parents keep one another accountable.
If there’s too much tension for you and your ex to have this discussion together, do the goal setting exercise with your children and discuss different possibilities to achieve the goals. What do they need to do to achieve these goals and what support do they need from you? This conversation needs to be had without judgment and without any disparaging comments about the other parent whatsoever. Then, encourage your children to discuss their scholastic goals with the other parent.
4. Split the cost of back-to-school supplies
Backpacks, computers, art supplies, lunchboxes – these things add up quickly. Don’t let confusion about financial responsibility delay getting the supplies your children need. As usual with co-parenting, a clearly defined system can help eliminate a lot of arguments.
If your parenting plan is silent on this issue, propose two options to the other parent:
(1) Either one parent gets the supplies and provides a receipt to the other parent to be split or (2) Divide up the school supply list for each parent to go to the store.
Whichever you decide, use the same system for any special supply needs for school projects etc. Keep in mind that children might also need extra supplies to have what they need in each home.
5. Develop a plan for the first day of school
The first day of school is exciting. There's nothing like the buzz of a fresh start when a school opens its doors.
Parents should try to attend the first day of school together with their children. You can meet at the school and walk your children in together. Putting differences aside and being there, as a united front, sets the tone of the school year and will assure your child that he or she is 100% supported, particularly if this is the first school year living in two households.
That said, if one or both of you cannot put your differences aside completely, it’s best not to have both parents there. If you cannot make it a 100% positive experience, it will be a negative. Again, the first day of school sets the tone. In that situation, check to see which parent has custody that morning – that parent should be responsible for the first day of school.
If you have the first day of school, do your best to include the other parent, for example by sending a picture of your children in their first day outfits – even if you know the other parent would not do the same for you. This small gesture can go a long way toward building a positive co-parent relationship. If you don’t have the first day of school, do your best to encourage and reassure your children about going with the other parent.
6. Create a shared calendar for school events.
There are so many great options these days for shared calendars, whether on a co-parenting app like Our Family Wizard, or on Google Calendar, FamCal, Calendly – the options seem endless.
Review the school calendar for the year with your ex and input all important dates, including all school and extracurricular events. This can help eliminate confusion about open houses, parent teacher conferences, early dismissals and school holidays that you might not have off. This also helps keep each parent accountable; each parent is responsible for regularly checking the calendar. Even if a special event falls on “your” day, do whatever you can to facilitate the other parent’s being there if possible. This means the world to kids.
7. Let teachers know about your family and any special needs
Have a conversation early on to discuss your family’s situation with your children’s teachers, particularly if this is their first school year in two households and if they're having any difficulty adjusting. Teachers need this context in order to do their best work.
This is not the time to vent or air dirty laundry about the other parent. No matter the other parent’s attitude about school, keep the conversation 100% child focused and respectful. Make sure the school and teachers have both parents' contact information and ask that, whenever possible, emails, letters, progress reports, and other notices go to both of you.
8. Have a conversation with the school guidance counselor
If you’re concerned about how your children will adjust, give the school guidance counselor a call. They deal with issues relating to children of divorce all the time and tend to have great tips and resources.
Many schools offer lunch or after school support groups for children of divorced or separated parents. Los Angeles Unified School District School Mental Health offers a range of mental health services for children and parents, including classroom consultation and behavior management. LAUSD SMH professionals support positive student connections with peers, family, school and community by facilitating student development and the ability to successfully deal with problems, crises, or traumatic experiences.
9. Commit to specific, regular times for discussing the children's academic progress
Whether once per week or once per month, choose a specific time to discuss how the children are doing in school with your ex. This ensures that no school project, dance recital, or basketball practice slips through the cracks and helps keep parents on the same page about any behavioral or social issues. Some parents do this over phone, others write weekly email summaries. Either way, this can also help build goodwill between parents: if you want the other parent to be fair and transparent, you will also need to be fair and transparent.
10. Don’t stress about what you can’t control – do your best
As we discussed above, it can be frustrating when one parent is not as organized, as good about passing along information, or as consistent with routines as the other. Take a deep breath. If you think you’ll be able to control everything, you’re entering into an arm wrestle with reality – and reality always wins.
Focus on what you can control: maintaining child-focused routines in your home, instilling a good work ethic and passion for learning, healthy habits, regular communication with the school, and communications in good faith with your co-parent.
In my practice, I have seen some of the most contentious co-parenting situations evolve positively based on the mutual interest of the children’s academic success and social well being.
Try some of the tips above and leave a comment about how it goes.
If you are seeking a Los Angeles child custody lawyer, call the Law Office of Emily E. Rubenstein at (310) 750-0827. We proudly serve Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, West Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Culver City, the South Bay, Glendale, Pasadena, Sherman Oaks, Studio City, Encino and all of Los Angeles County.