Primary school teachers are often referred to as ‘second parents’ – they, too, nurture, encourage, and discipline children and act as an important role model in their lives. But when a child’s real parents are going through a high conflict divorce, what is the role of the teacher in caring for that child?
Monash Education Stella Laletas and Michelle Khasin report back on their latest research findings.
Understanding children of high conflict divorce
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, nearly half of all divorces in Australia involve children under the age of 18 – and the figures are much higher when you include de facto relationships. Research shows up to a quarter of those children report their parents engage in high levels of conflict throughout the process.
This doesn’t necessarily mean family violence – rather, it usually refers to long, bitter, and protracted legal disputes over financial support, child custody, visitation, or methods of child rearing. Children may witness their parents’ verbal altercations, be exposed to incredibly stressed and emotionally unavailable parents, and/or be made to feel like a ‘pawn’, forced to choose sides. By its very nature, high conflict divorce can continue for many years after separation or divorce first occurs, creating perpetual turmoil, not only for the couple, but also for their children.
Multiple studies have suggested that children who are exposed to high conflict divorce are twice as likely to have emotional, social, behavioural and academic problems compared to children whose parents have amicably separated.
So what can we as teachers do to reduce these problems for children in our classrooms?
Providing the safe space children need
Teachers interviewed for our study said there are clear signals of a child who may be caught in a high conflict divorce: aggression, anti-social behaviours, and poor academic performance amongst others. “The child’s mind is focused on what’s happening at home,” said one teacher. “They can’t focus for long periods of time in class.”
This is because, as other studies have proven, a child’s sense of protection, safety, and security about their parents’ relationship, and their family unit as a whole, is closely related to their psycho-emotional wellbeing and ability to adapt to change.
“In terms of their emotions, they’re a lot more vulnerable than other kids,” one teacher reported. “They’re a bit more emotionally volatile and every little thing will set them off, like someone will look at them the wrong way and they’ll cry… and lash out.” When a teacher is aware of what’s going on at home, they can approach behaviour management from a place of compassion and understanding, building a secure teacher-child relationship, and representing a safe space for that child.
Encouragingly, the teachers we interviewed spoke confidently about strategies they used to help children to learn how to identify how they’re feeling and how to cope. For example, one teacher shared a strategy that helps a child regulate emotional outbursts when the child feels overwhelmed and angry: “We have spoken about the zones of regulation. So, he’s got to tell me when he’s in the ‘yellow zone’ and try to catch the behaviour before he goes into the ‘red zone’. If I catch him in time, there [are] exercises that he can do to get rid of some of that energy or use sensory rocks to help calm down.”
By teachers intervening and supporting the children to build adaptive and healthy ways to cope with change, the classroom can become a place of respite for these children, as well as lower the likelihood of negative long-term outcomes.
Increasing academic support and encouragement
Student learning was highlighted as an area of concern for the teachers interviewed in this study. The teachers described how distressed children in their classroom struggled with their ability to focus and learn, often appearing confused and lacking confidence. They also reported these children lacked academic support at home.
“They often need a lot more support in their learning just because they’re not getting any support at home, so they don’t do their homework,” said one teacher. “They have to do it at lunch time, and I have to help them.”
Studies have shown that children who are exposed to high levels of conflict in the home can experience prolonged stress, which can have damaging effects on their cognitive development. This level of stress has been likened to experiences of trauma. Research also shows that children whose learning needs are not prioritised by their parents are at a heightened risk of school dropout.
There are serious long-term implications for these children and without appropriate intervention and support for teachers to intervene, children are potentially at risk of not reaching their academic potential, which can restrict access to long-term opportunities.
Taking care of yourself first
As these teachers reflected on their experiences, it became evident that they felt a sense of sorrow for the child and frustration towards the parents in conflict. “Your heart literally bleeds and when you sit there in some of these meetings …with the principal and both parents, we see how the parents are so hostile towards each other and you just think, ‘Oh gosh this poor kid has this 24/7’,” said one teacher.
While the concept of ‘teacher caring’ is noted as an important component of enacting compassion in schools and alleviating emotional distress on children, it was clear that it also can take its toll on teachers.
The tension between wanting to be a caring teacher and the emotional exhaustion teachers experience while working with distressed children was clear.
Some teachers reflected on the emotional intensity related to the amount of time and energy involved when teaching and supporting these children.
One teacher shared she often experienced a sense of “guilt”, and questioned whether she has done “enough for these kids”. Her perception of “failing” to fulfil her professional responsibility may have stemmed from a type of self-induced pressure to ‘do more’ and ‘care more’ about these children who are vulnerable. Feelings of guilt and frustration were not unique to this teacher – others interviewed also experienced similar feelings of ‘not doing enough’.
The findings of our study were consistent with other teacher studies that have examined the concept of care in education. Those studies concluded that teacher caring, while effective, is emotionally exhausting for teachers and can potentially lead to teacher burnout. This isn’t helped by the fact that many teachers consistently report feeling ill-equipped to address the complex psychosocial needs of vulnerable children.
What needs to be done
Given that children are at school for approximately 15,000 hours in their lifetime, teachers are well placed to help children caught in the middle of a high conflict divorce to manage their stress, feel a sense of safety and belonging, and ultimately stay in school.
However, working with children, particularly young children, who experience vulnerabilities requires specialised training – training that the teachers interviewed in our study reported they felt they had not adequately received.
“[We need] training on what kind of questions are appropriate for us to ask and how much information is too little or too much for us to know [as teachers] … and what my responses should be,” said one teacher.
The needs of these teachers can be addressed at a school policy level by providing accessible counselling support, professional development and information on the psychological referral options available for teachers.
Promoting mental health in schools and raising awareness about the experiences of children living with high conflict divorce or separation can help these children to overcome the stigma of family conflict and seek help themselves.
Read the study Children of high conflict divorce: Exploring the experiences of primary school teachers in full
Laletas, S., & Khasin, M. (2021, 2021/08/01/). Children of high conflict divorce: Exploring the experiences of primary school teachers. Children and Youth Services Review, 127, 106072.
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