Kids, Separated Parents, Stepfamilies and School Success

kids, separated parents, stepfamilies & school success

Prior to separation, when parents lived together in the one home, they each had a role in monitoring and guiding their children’s schooling, essential to academic success. This does not change just because they are now separated and living in different households. But it certainly makes it harder – especially, when there are tons of things about a child’s educational experience that easily lead to arguments and conflict, between parents and also between stepparents and parents (think private vs public, state vs religious, co-ed vs single sex, how costs are managed and divvied up, subject choices, uniform issues, friendships, location of school and of course homework).

Let’s face it, from plays and concerts to award ceremonies, camps and fundraising cakes stalls, conferences and homework, school events don’t stop just because parents divorce. In these changing times, effective partnerships between parents and their respective households are essential to meet the needs of the children they both love and “share.” For stepparents caught up on this shared care maelstrom, it might be difficult to know what you (and your partner)  can do to be/remain involved in your stepchild’s education post divorce.

A good place to start is to remain mindful that, inevitably, there will be times when it will be awkward, frustrating and challenging. There will also be times when, because of the drama and the conflict, it seems easier to disengage or exclude the other parent. But all the difficulty and complexity does not change the simple fact that both parents continue to have a part to play in supporting their children to learn and engage in school life – irrespective of how much midweek time they might spend with each of them during the school term.

If the kids spend more time in your household during weekends and holidays than they do the school week, it can be really difficult to know how to remain involved in school life or what you and your partner can do to help them do well as school. But remember there is always something you can do and research tells us it’s well worth making the effort!

Box 1. Why get involved in your child’s/stepchild's education?

Students of all ages benefit from parent/carer involvement in many ways:
Better grades
Better attendance
Higher graduation grades
Better self-esteem
Lessen the risk of your teen engaging in high risk behaviour such as drug and alcohol use
Less violent behaviour
Better social skills
Complete homework more consistently
Have better relationships with their parents/carers


Remain geographically close.

If at all possible, continuing to live in relatively close geographical distance to the other parent and/or to the children’s school inevitably makes it easier to remain involved in the day to day grind of school life. It also makes it easier to be involved in drop of and pick-ups; to participate reading groups; attend parent teacher evenings, concerts and carnivals; and participate in school fundraising efforts.

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Don’t let your emotions cloud your behaviour at school or at school events.

A parent’s or stepparent’s goal should never be to get the teacher, the school, or the child to side with you and against the other parent. Those kinds of tactics are all about the adults, not about the child and their school success.

Emotional outbursts at school by the adults tend only to increase the chances of the children not wanting that parent or stepparent to visit their school. They also risk thethe kids being embarrassed in front of their friends and teachers running for cover when they see you.

Put aside differences for school events.

You don’t all have to sit together. But both parents and stepparents should, ideally, be able to attend graduation ceremonies, school productions, and other sports events, by keeping the mood light and the focus on the children. Whilst the parents may have nothing is common any more, our bet is that the one thing they do still share is pride and delight at their kids talents and achievements. Remind your partner of this should they baulk at attending an end of year concert for fear of bumping into their Ex.


Effective planning is the first key to lessening parental conflict and making sure both parents are in agreement about expectations and helping the children focus on school. The more that can be clearly laid out the better — that includes communication with teachers, household policies on homework and TV, who will attend school functions etc. Encourage your partner to think about these things and, if necessary, it can be helpful to include them in any parenting plan or orders.

Make sure the children have the right supplies.

Even post separation, parents continue to have an obligation to ensure their kids have the text books, equipment, computer and access to the internet and other resources that they will need to succeed and engage in the curriculum. They need to be able to get to and from school without drama. They also need the right uniform. That uniform will inevitably need to be washed and ironed. Work with your partner to sort all this out prior to the school year starting or in a timely fashion should things arise during the school term.


If your stepchildren are in your household on a school night, make sure that they are getting to bed on time and getting a good night’s sleep. No-one can focus and learn if they are tired.


Encourage learning at home.

Irrespective of where the children may live during the school week, there are things you and your partner can do with them when they are with you which will help them immeasurably at school. Guiding TV viewing, reading aloud, taking trips to museums and historical monuments etc., having books around the house and doing other activities can stimulate your child’s mind and imagination and really does help them to learn.

Role Model.

Show your children that you both value learning, self-discipline, and hard work. Let them see you learning and reading (even if it is just a newspaper or a magazine). Children tend to value the things that they see their parents and other important people valuing.


Show them you value school and education.

Let them know that you and their parent have high (but realistic) expectations for their education; that you both expect them to go to school; to be there on time; and to always try their hardest.

Encourage your partner to have regular conversations with their child, during which they help them set (realistic) goals. You and your partner can then encourage them to create a plan of action to achieve these goals – whether that goal be getting up in the morning on time, or perfect school attendance record for a school term, or helping pack their bag the night before, every small step taken helps children build momentum to academic success.

Positive vibes.

Always speak positively and with respect about their school and teachers (even if you and your partner wanted them to go to a different school, or are unhappy about something the school has done or is doing). If possible, go to the school regularly. This helps the children view home and school as being connected and plays an important part of step-family life.

Demonstrate interest.

Even from afar a parent and stepparent can encourage progress in school by showing an interest in a child’s schoolwork (even if for one reason or another they can’t help with homework) and by staying in touch with teachers.

Email and websites have made it very easy to connect with schools, obtain school newsletters, be alert to school announcements, find information about what’s going on in the school community, student assignments, school rules and school programs. Support your partner to be proactive; make sure they are on the school email list if there is one and to check the school website regularly. Many schools also have apps to share information with families. Don’t rely on or expect the other parent to be the one to keep you and your household informed.

Get to know and work with your child’s teacher(s).

Knowing the name of a child’s teacher is always recommended. Communicating with them is also key. Don’t just call them when there are problems. Make an effort to talk with the teacher even when things are going well. Support your partner to ask about their child’s learning. Ask what you can do in your home to help your child learn better.

By taking the time to get to know and talk to your child’s teachers, you and your partner will find that teachers will better understand how to meet your expectations as well as the child’s needs. It will also help teachers to know how to best teach your child/stepchild. It is also easier to advocate for your child/stepchild if you know their teacher and or other members of the staff.

Tip: Always find out how the teacher wants to be reached (e.g. email, phone, in person etc.) and always be respectful of their time

Ultimately being/or remaining involved in your children’s/stepchildren’s educational lives will require parents and stepparent alike, to keep the focus on the kids, to leave their egos to the side and ensure that lines of communication remain open.

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