Your child may not realize it but meetings with their teachers at school are stressful events for parents. Sometimes they go great, sometimes they go bad and sometimes you might wonder whose child was being discussed. And the challenges often increase when you and your spouse are no longer living under the same roof. You may be wondering how to win at parent teacher conferences after divorce.
In this podcast of Conversations About Divorce, I’m joined by psychologist and single parenting expert Dr. Leah Klungness to discuss the ins and outs of these dreaded meetings. You can download the show here.
During the show Dr. Leah and I discuss eight strategies for making sure your parent teacher conference stays focused on your child.
Consider Separate Conferences
Unless you and your ex have a solid, civil co-parenting relationship, for routine conferences consider requesting a separate conference from your ex. This helps to ensure that the discussion between you and your child’s teacher is focused on your child and the conversation won’t get sidetracked by the dynamics between you and your ex. Your child’s teacher may be reluctant to offer separate conferences since it does increase their workload. If you run into this obstacle then you may need to call on the principal to mediate. The focus of the discussion needs to be about creating the environment in which you can have a productive discussion about your child’s education.
For non-routine conferences, such as any meeting related to the provision of special education services or disciplinary issues, then it becomes a higher priority for you and your ex to attend together. For these meetings, you want to be sure that you are both being told the same messages and the best way of doing this is to be in the same room, at the same time.
If the conference is child-centered where your child is expected “lead” the conference sharing with you what they’ve been working on and what goals they’ve set, then again, barring restraining orders and the threat of physical violence, you and your ex need to attend together. It’s not reasonable to expect your child to do this twice, once for each of you. Your role at conferences like these is to be an observer, a listener and in that role it is much easier to put differences with your ex aside.
Leave New Partners At Home
Unless you are in a long term, committed, exclusive relationship then new partners have no place at parent teacher conferences no matter how active they are or wish to be in your child’s life. When new partners attend a conference it is difficult to stop your emotions about that new partner from interfering with and detracting from the discussion about your child. You may also find that your child’s teacher will hedge what they say in front of the third party either because they are unsure of the relationship dynamics or because of concerns that the other parent may complain that information has been shared inappropriately.
If your ex brings their new partner to a parent teacher conference, you are well within your rights to insist on them being excluded. If the conference is related to the provision of special services, then it may not even be legal for the new partner to be in attendance.
Share The Changes In Your Child’s Life
Your child’s teacher does not need to know the reason for your breakup, how nasty you think your ex is or the sordid details of the affair they’ve been having. These are topics for you to discuss with your therapist. Your child’s teacher does however need to know about the changes that could impact your child’s school work or class participation and if you haven’t already communicated with the teacher about what is going, the conference is a good time to update them. For example, if your teacher sends printed field trip permission slips home then you might talk about how to ensure that both you and your ex get notified. Same too with homework updates. Sometimes parenting time schedules can make it difficult to have the right school books in the right place so you might talk about ways to resolve those challenges.
Discuss The Issues With Your Ex Afterwards
Most conferences are scheduled for a pretty limited amount of time and if the teacher does have concerns to discuss chances are the major concern isn’t going to be the one that is raised first. Discussing your perspective on a particular issue, such as homework not being completed, and then brainstorming solutions with your ex during the conference may not only feel uncomfortable, but may mean that you never get to the more serious issues before time runs out.
A better approach is to take notes of what the teacher is saying, repeat back to them what your understanding is of their concern and then agree to discuss it with your ex and commit to getting back to the teacher with a resolution by a certain date.
If you’re attending the conference separate from your ex then while you might propose a resolution to a particular issue, it would serve your co-parenting relationship well if you discussed it with your ex and got their buy-in before committing to it with your child’s teacher.
Give Feedback To Your Child Immediately
Your child knows you’re attending a conference about them so don’t make them wait for the feedback. Give them the feedback as soon as you see them after the conference. And do give them your feedback even if you know your ex has already shared the meeting information with them.
After divorce, there’s a shift in parent-child relationships – your child will start to see you individually as opposed to collectively. Having individual conversations about conferences reinforces this shift and helps to support your changing relationship. When you skip this conversation you are sending a message, subconscious or otherwise to your child that their education is unimportant to you or that you don’t care what their teacher says. You would want that, would you?
Handle Disagreements With Teachers Respectfully
Inevitably there will be times when you disagree with your child’s teacher. You might feel that the number of pages your child was expected to read was excessive or that the project required more artistic or creative skills than your child has or that there were better ways for your child to display their knowledge of the subject. Such disagreements need to be handled respectfully and it’s best to avoid casual put downs of your child’s teacher. Remember, your child likely has developed a close bond with their teacher and will feel conflicted or confused hearing your remarks.
Your choices are to say nothing, say it out of earshot of your child or even better, be transparent and model good problem resolution skills with your child: share your concerns with your child, tell your child you’re talking with their teacher and then share how the problem was resolved.
Challenge Inappropriate Remarks
Your child’s teacher may make excuses for your child’s behavior or performance because you are going through divorce. These may be more of a reflection of the teacher’s experience of divorce as a child, their experience of the end of their own marriage or assumptions about divorce. If you don’t feel these are applicable to your situation, refocus the teacher on the specific concern about your child. If the teacher is making judgmental remarks about divorce in general such as referring to a “broken home” consider requesting a meeting with principal and the teacher to discuss these negative perceptions.
Avoid Being Overly Sensitive
It’s easy for anyone to make an unintended mistake such as referring to your now former spouse as your husband or wife. Rather than snap back, “He’s not my husband,” cut the teacher some slack. If you respond with, “Johnny’s father ….” the teacher will understand that’s how you would prefer them to refer to your now ex. Similarly, if the teacher is sharing with you behavior they’ve seen, try not to get defensive. Listen to what is being said and then consider how to discuss it with your child that will encourage your child to share their emotions with you.
Leah Klungness, more widely known as Dr. Leah is the co-author of The Complete Single Mother — the best selling self-help book ever written for single parents. Visit her site DrLeah.com and follow her on Twitter @Dr_Leah.