As the rise in divorce rates is steadily matched by a decline in the influence of such traditional institutions as the church and the family itself, schools are increasingly faced with a dilemma of national significance.
The pressure on schools to act as second parent to its students has been growing constantly since the sixties when the drug and sexual revolutions spread to school campuses. Often, at that time, the schools chose to act as go-betweens in the conflicts of parents and students, trying to bridge what became known as the generation gap.
In the era of abandoned formality, teachers began to be called by their first rather than last names, and became as much mentors and confidants to their students as they were teachers. Now educators and school administrators believe that disruptions in family life have replaced the social turmoil of the sixties with a far more fundamental impact.
And the schools are more involved than ever. Children have two basic homes, their own and the school. When something goes wrong in the home, they look for help at the other.
Poor Performance In School
Though the attitudes of educators may be polarized, the effects of divorce on children as students are distressingly clear. Children's academic achievements are more apt to become losses during the upheaval of divorce.
Their grades go down, their homework assignments are completed irregularly, if at all, and their attention spans lessen, along with their ability to concentrate. Sometimes preschool and primary school-aged children just plain go to sleep in class, exhausted by the stress at home.
There seems to be no age limit to poor performance in school, though gender does seem to be a factor. One highly touted study found that from elementary school right through high school, boys from single-parent homes were more often classified as "low achievers" with grades of D and F than children from intact families.
At the other end of the bell curve, more boys from intact families were classified as "high achievers," with grades of A and B, than were boys from single-parent families. Only girls from high-income single-parent homes seemed exempt from the problem, showing better grades than boys in similarly affluent two parent families.
The youngest children more openly display their problems in the classroom, not being old enough yet to differentiate between the separate worlds of home and school. Preschoolers often become regressively confused, forgetting the names and functions of familiar objects.
The cognitive confusion about their parents' split, which leads some preschoolers to think that the loss of one parent signifies the imminent loss of the other, naturally affects them and their learning abilities.
In one study, teachers' reports on preschoolers whose parents were divorcing included such academically inhibiting behavior as high restlessness, distractibility, fear of failure, excessive day-dreaming, and clinging to the teacher.
Adolescents cope with their parents' separation by assuming an air of false maturity. Sometimes overwhelmed parents push these kids' needs aside, feeling that they can manage on their own for a while. But adolescents need love and affection even more because of their changing bodies and confusing thoughts.
Thus, to seek approval or affection, it's not uncommon for a young girl to fall for the flirtations of an older boy, giving way to early sexual experiences she's ill-equipped to handle. It also explains why adolescents fall into the wrong peer groups or experiment with mind-altering drugs or alcohol.
Kids this age also cope with mixed emotions as they see their parents as sexual persons. It's a startling discovery for adolescents to watch their mom and dad show concern about appearance, begin to date, and become physically amorous with other partners.
It can evoke vivid sexual fantasies in some children, embarrassment in others, and even cause a few to skip visitation with the sexually active parent. This doesn't mean separated parents aren't entitled to their own lives, but it does indicate the need for sensitivity and discretion.