One of the biggest challenges for kids of divorced or separated parents is managing school schedules, homework, and school-related events while moving back and forth between two households. The transition is especially difficult when it comes time to resume school after summer break. Just when you, your co-parenting partner (CPP), and kids have settled into a vacation routine, September arrives, and you’re faced with the need for a new plan. Dealing with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic makes this more true than ever. The transition back to school routines can seem rocky and stressful, especially for those kids who have grown use to a looser schedule during the school break, or whose lives have been significantly disrupted by the pandemic. Some kids lose track of what day, week, or month it is when they have an extended break; others are starting the school year as part of a new, blended family and will attend school with their stepsibling for the first time. The challenges kids face are vast, regardless of their parents’ relationship status—some challenges are universal and some will be unique to your specific co-parenting experience.
Worrying about how your kids will cope when they head back to school is common, but there are strategies that will help. While even the most organized of households find back-to-school adjustments to be challenging, the transition doesn’t have to be chaotic. These five tips can help you and your CPP lay the groundwork for a solid start to the school year while minimizing stress for you and your children.
Regardless of whether your child spends roughly the same amount of time at each parent’s home, it’s a good idea to designate one home as the “paperwork headquarters.” With this method, CPPs decide which home makes the most sense to be the clearinghouse for school documents—e.g., one parent might be better at organizing or has a printer—and determine how the other parent will be kept in the loop about permission slips, assignments, and additional paperwork.
By having one house as paperwork headquarters, you avoid placing the burden of coordination on your child, which can be a complicated and fraught process that puts them in a position of choosing between parents. This strategy also helps you be proactive in preventing scheduling mix-ups, missed deadlines, and lost assignments. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that both parents are still responsible for discussing, “okaying,” and completing any paperwork that your child brings home. Just because one parent is the keeper of documents doesn’t mean it becomes their sole responsibility.
Kids benefit from structure, especially when it comes to schoolwork, which is why it’s important to have a designated homework area in each home. By creating set locations that are solely for homework purposes, you help your child form associations between the focused mindset they need to complete assignments and sitting down at their homework station. When occupying this space, they are primed to concentrate on the task at hand and set aside distractions such as technology, pets, or toys. Having designated workspaces at each home also means that you and your CPP are establishing a parallel set of homework expectations, which reinforces the consistency and mutual support that kids need to achieve their academic goals.
When choosing a homework station, don’t worry about it being a formal office space. Instead, try finding a spot where your kids can complete their assignments with relatively few distractions while accessing to the tools they need to succeed. Work together with your child to pick a place that is comfortable but also requires them to be upright and attentive. Avoid crowded or noisy “hubs” of the home, like the kitchen table or TV room. A quiet alcove, dining room, or even a desk in the mudroom are possible locations. Wherever the station is, make sure there is access to outlets, scrap paper, homework-specific technology, or whatever else is needed so that your child isn’t distracted by searching for materials.
Between textbooks, sports equipment, lunches, musical instruments, laptops and other items, your kids already carry heavy loads when they travel to and from school. Avoid adding more to their packs by keeping a set of “basics” at each home. This includes a few changes of clothes, sleepwear, toiletries, medication, as well as seasonal necessities like a pair of hat and gloves in the wintertime. It is okay for kids to only have one set of expensive items, like snow boots, but relatively inexpensive items like a toothbrush can easily be duplicated. Encourage your child to keep a few personal items—books, stuffed animals, posters—at each home to limit the number of possessions that go back and forth.
If your child does need to bring some extra bags with them to school when transitioning between households, communicate with staff to find a discrete place where they can store their belongings. Do your best to work around kids’ requests to return for “just one more thing” at their other parent’s house after transitioning; it complicates the situation and can interrupt your CPP’s schedule.
When you and your CPP establish similar before- and after-school routines, it means your kids only have one “blueprint” to follow for how to operate on a day-to-day basis and frees them from juggling two sets of expectations and rules. However, there will inevitably be variability in what works for each parent, depending on schedules, priorities, and values. For example, your CPP might require that homework or chores be completed right when they get home, while you prefer to have them relax and spend time with friends. Rather than pushing back on your CPP’s expectations, do your best to acknowledge its benefits and support them in their choice, even if it’s not how you choose to parent. Consistency and routines within each household and between can help children feel safe and secure, but kids also are resilient and can adapt to different rules in different places. Consider how your child adjusts between the “no hats” rule at school and wearing their baseball cap at home. Kids are required to respect different boundaries in different settings every day, and those same skills will transfer to your new household arrangements. For effective co-parenting, it is key for kids to know what the rules are and understand that each set of rules is supported by both parents. For this to happen, you must communicate the expectations of your house to your CPP. Having to guess what happens in the other household or relying upon the kids to tell you is not a workable co-parenting strategy.
While it’s normal for routines to vary, be mindful that your blueprint is not undermining your CPP’s blueprint. It is fine to have your kids relax and hang out when they get home from school, rather than immediately diving into their assignments like they do with their other parent. However, encouraging your kids to push back on your CPP’s expectations or feeding into any grievances they might have creates a “good-guy-bad-guy” dichotomy that can lead to resentment, “acting out,” and negatively affect your kids’ relationships with their other parent. Do your best to endorse and support both routines, despite their differences. You wouldn’t demand that your child’s school change their rule about wearing hats to match your own; the same goes for how you respond to your CPP’s rules and routine. While differences in style and expectations are part of co-parenting, trust that each of you have the same interest in the success of your children. In that sense, your blueprints are ultimately the same.
Getting through the school year will be infinitely easier for you, your children, and your CPP if you maintain respectful, regular lines of communication between households and the school. While this means coordinating with your CPP and teachers about due dates, events, and other school-related obligations, it also includes sharing positive moments and working together to support your child if they are struggling. It is much easier to navigate the tedious logistics of co-parenting school-aged kids when you and your CPP are unified in the more fundamental goal of creating an environment where your children can thrive.
Something as small as sending a celebratory text—"Jake made the varsity football team! He’s a rockstar!”—alongside a logistical one—"How do we want to divvy up the kids’ practice schedules?”—is a reminder of your shared goal. Your positive communication is setting the tone for collaboration, which makes cooperation that much easier. Similarly, checking in about challenges your child is facing at school is more likely to have a productive outcome if the communication reflects mutual concern, in addition to formulating action steps. Opening the conversation by acknowledging that you both care about your child—"I know how much you want Jake to have confidence in himself around other kids”—before addressing problems and solutions—"I think he might be dealing with a bully and needs some help with language to respond”—avoids the potential for blaming and grounds the discussion in shared values. Successfully dealing with the details, be it pick-up and drop-off times or parent-teacher conferences, starts with recognizing the broader picture.
Finally, work to maintain communication channels between the school, your support system, and your CPP so everyone is on the same page. If teachers, coaches, and child-care providers are aware of your co-parenting situation and strategies, they are more prepared to accommodate and help your child succeed. It is each parent’s responsibility to confirm that their CPP is aware of how to access information from school, such as teacher portals and emails. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that your CPP has the same information that you do or has the same capacity to navigate the school system. In an ideal world, each parent would have the same information at the same time. The reality is that it often takes two parents to keep up! If you find yourself saying, “They should know about that; I’m not their secretary,” you need to take a step back and remind yourself this journey is about raising healthy, well-adjusted kids and not a contest between parents. Sometimes the journey will be unfair, if you’re doing 95% of the work and getting 5% of the credit—or no credit at all. If this sounds like your situation, you are not alone in feeling undervalued or under-appreciated. Over time, you will come to realize that your sacrifices have a profound impact on your children and their ability to focus on just being a kid. Co-parenting is like a team sport: each player gets to raise the championship trophy despite some only playing a minute of the game (or not playing at all!). The more communication you have with your CPP (even if it is hard), and the more you express gratitude to them for any effort, big or small, the greater the likelihood that you share in the labor, joy, and challenges equitably, and your child’s school experience is a positive one.
If you have any questions, are looking for more tips about how to co-parent while going through a divorce, or are interested in one of our co-parenting classes, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check out our upcoming virtual co-parenting classes by visiting the calendar page on our website.
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