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Ask an Expert: Divorce and choosing a school

Denver mental health expert Steve Sarche says navigating divorce and doing the best for your children’s education can be tough. But changing schools is OK as long as both parents communicate and put their children first.

Q. My ex-husband and I are trying to decide on the best school for our children. Our children have attended the same elementary school for the past 2.5 years (kindergarten through second grade). We are struggling with trying to determine if we should change their school as this school is not in either of our resident school districts. My question is: Is it worth changing schools to have them attend a school within one of our districts? The three schools we’re considering have similar achievement levels. What are the benefits and drawbacks of changing schools shortly after a divorce?

A. Divorce is always a difficult situation. Fortunately, it sounds like you and your ex-husband are communicating well in regards to the needs of your children and I hope that is the case. I always advise divorced parents two things – put the needs of the children first and work on good communication.

There are not a lot of studies (that I am aware of) that address the exact question you have. The broader question would be, “How does it affect children to switch schools frequently?”  It is generally agreed that the more a child changes schools, the higher the risk for behavior problems and possibly depression or anxiety.  Think about it this way: starting a new job tends to be stressful. As the new person, you “stick out,” you have to start over in terms of establishing relationships and understanding the flow of the environment.  At your children’s ages, as long as the kids are doing well and there is no depression or anxiety or other significant issue, they will likely assimilate quickly socially and academically.

A school move may not be harmful. If it is logistically better to move to one of the new schools, you should strongly consider that with the goal being that it would be the last change of their elementary school careers. To best ensure success with a move, it is important that you and your ex-husband work on keeping both homes as consistent as possible in terms of daily routines, such as homework and bedtime.

To that end, here are some tips:

  • Have a backpack or small suitcase that they can easily transport back and forth for the sake of consistency.
  • Consider each parent owning a set of textbooks.
  • I would also advise both parents make sure they are in communication with the school so there are no misunderstandings around school concerns, academic performance and school activities.

Whatever decision that you come up with, remember that there is no actual “right or wrong” in a case like this. Do your due diligence, and make your choice.  Remember that you will be there to handle any problems if they arise. Many things may come up that you didn’t predict or think about. As long as you are attentive to the kids’ needs, focus on their needs first, keep them out of the middle of any animosity and provide them consistent love and support, they will be fine.

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