"Back-to-School Means Back-n-Forth." By William L. Bainbridge and Francesca Adler-Baeder. Stepfamily Embrace the Journey. September/October 2002.



Back-to-School Means Back-n-Forth -
Schools and Stepfamilies


by William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D. and Francesca Adler-Baeder, Ph.D.

With an estimated 40% of children experiencing their parents’ divorce, isn’t it curious that your child’s teacher still greets you by assuming you and your child both have the same last name? In fact, many school districts have more children of divorce and living in stepfamilies than children living in nuclear two-parent families. Yet, attitudes and practices of schools and school personnel are not well matched to this new stepfamily structure. This is not only frustrating for parents, who find themselves writing stepparent information in the margins of the school information form alongside the spaces provided for "mother" and "father" - but it has an enormous impact on children’s developing sense of self and worth.

The school environment is an important context for children’s social and emotional development. Kids, for the most part, feel comforted by fitting in. Younger children, particularly, are fairly black and white on this issue - to feel different is to feel bad. How then does a child feel when the upcoming Holidays are discussed and there is no mention of children’s experiences traveling between their homes? They feel their family is different and therefore, is lesser - and that they are, too. Talking about "binuclear" families (where a child has a parent in two different homes) and stepfamilies in the normal classroom discourse would be very validating for children.

Choosing One or the Other?

As an example, take an incident when a young 4th-grader asked her teacher about making two Father’s Day gifts, one for her father and one for her stepdad. The child was told that she would have to choose.

When the parent questioned the teacher - giving her the benefit of the doubt - the mother asked if the issue was time or materials. The teacher stated that it was both. She explained that it was not intended to de-value one of the child’s parental relationships. Yet, it had. Why wasn’t this situation planned for based on the teacher’s knowledge of her students’ family structure? Why are the practical issues of having post-divorce and stepfamilies not factored into many schools’ budgets?

Unfortunately, many U.S. public and private elementary and secondary schools have not developed policies and practices that take the needs of these students and their families into account. Without such efforts and policies, schools may unintentionally be contributing to increased emotional distress for the children and increased tension between parents, stepparents, and children. Children may not complete homework assignments on time and may not be able to attend school events and activities because one parent may not have appropriate information. Performance and attendance may suffer.

In areas where schools continue to assume the nuclear family model in their attitude, practices, and policies, change should start with parents advocating for their children’s needs. They should contact the teachers often, show up at school events, and ask for extra copies of notices and newsletters. Parents should offer assistance to school staff members. The more school staff members see and hear from stepparents and parents, the sooner they will accept two-family situations as typical...and positive. Once that happens, the culture of the school can change.

Back to Basics for Schools

What can school administrators do to ease the tensions for children who move between homes and who are in stepfamilies? The most important idea is to make sure all school personnel understand stepfamilies are the norm for many children, not a deviation from a two-parent, one-family standard. They should also understand the importance of recognizing and validating children’s families to support healthy emotional development. Suggest a professional workshop or staff development session for school personnel on post-divorce families and stepfamilies. The Stepfamily Association of America can provide names of recommended academics and practitioners who could provide such a program in your area.

This list below suggests things school principals and superintendents can do to encourage stepfamily-friendly attitudes.

  • Provide a well-worded memo to faculty and staff to help create school-wide awareness and acceptance of stepfamilies.
  • Assume that a child's parents and stepparents all want to be as involved as possible in their children's school lives. Establishing a positive attitude of inclusion will improve communication all around.
  • Review all forms to ensure that multiple parents’ information can be included.
  • Adopt an official policy that ensures communication with all of a child's parents; put the policy in writing.
  • Review documents intended to communication with home to be sure they carry the appropriate parental surname or are addressed to "the parent(s) of child’s name."
  • Create proactive, practical means of communicating with all adults involved in a child’s life. Send duplicate copies of materials, especially performance reports, notices of field trips and events, and permission slips to both households. Include both households in all mailings. It is unwise to assume a successful method of distributing information is sending the information to the primary custodial parent with a suggestion to send duplicates to the other parent.
    • Or, create pick-up points in the school where all parents can drop by to get materials.
    • Avoid "kidmail" as much as possible. Children frequently fail to pass information along to parents. This can reduce the pressure children feel if they are caught in the middle between parents who still have communication issues themselves.
    • In areas where the majority of parents have access to email, create a listserv of parent email addresses and use routinely for communication. Until this is more universal, a listserv can serve as a supplemental means of communication.
    • Initiate on-line homework hotlines, events calendars, scheduling information, etc. Parents, students, and staff can access these 24 hours a day. Parent volunteers and students could maintain this hotline interested in technology.
  • Be sensitive to children’s experiences in joint custody arrangements. It is not uncommon for children to forget homework assignments at one parent’s home. They may not be able to retrieve assignments until several days later when they are at the home again.
  • Do not assume that co-parents will want to participate in a joint parent-teacher conference. Ask for their preference and factor in double conference time for some of these children.
  • Make "divorce" and "stepfamilies" and "stepparents" a normal part of the classroom conversation. Avoid perpetuating taboos of the past.
  • Anticipate that there will be multiple-parents attending "mother-child" or "father-child" events. For example, in addition to a "Muffins with Mom" morning and a "Do-nuts with Dad" morning, add a "Sandwiches with Stepparents" lunch and a "Bring a Grandparent" party.
If these practices do not exist in your children's school, ask for them. These changes will make school life better for all of our children.

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Dr. Francesca Adler-Baeder is a researcher, educator, and writer in the field of child development and family science. She is a professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Auburn University in Alabama and the Alabama Cooperative Extension State Specialist for Children, Youth, and Families. She also serves on the Board of Directors for the Stepfamily Association of America and is SAA’s director of family life education. For more information, mailto:adlerfr@auburn.edu

Dr. William L. Bainbridge is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and is President and Chief Executive Officer of SchoolMatch, a Columbus-based educational research, data and auditing firm. He also serves on the Board of Directors for the Stepfamily Association of America. For more information about School Match, see http://schoolmatch.com/ or email