A report on educating students from divorced and single-parent homes by the NEA Standing Committee on Instruction and Professional Development


When my parents first split up, it affected me a lot. My school work suffered because I was so distracted thinking about my situation that I couldn't listen very well, and for a long time, I didn't work nearly as hard as I should have. My grades went way down. ( the words of Zach, age 13.)

Teachers these days encounter a puzzling array of divorce-generated behavior in their classrooms that ranges from disruptive bullying to sullen withdrawal, from obsessive students to failing students, from attention-craving students to hostile, rejecting ones. Though many teachers respond to the increased needs of these children, they are often uneasy about it. Their training has been academic, not psychological. Many manage only by sheer intuition .

Over the past 25 years dramatic changes have been taking place in the American family, and for more and more students, divorce and one-parent homes are becoming facts of life.

In 1987, the NEA Representative Assembly added this subject to its agenda as part of NEA's commitment to addressing social problems that put students at risk -- problems which also include child abuse and neglect, drug and alcohol abuse, student eating disorders, and student pregnancy . It directed the Association's Standing Committee on Instruction and Professional Development "to synthesize and evaluate existing research on the effects of divorce upon America's youth and support programs that will enable educators to serve those students more effectively."

This paper, prepared in response to the Representative Assembly's charge, provides a brief overview of how the demographics of the American family are changing and explores the following questions:


In 1960, approximately four-fifths of the children in the United States lived with both biological parents and less than one-tenth lived with one parent. By 1985, the proportion of children living with both biological parents had dropped to approximately three-fifths, while that of children living with one parent had climbed sharply to nearly one fourth . In 1987, the Census Bureau reported that over half the babies born that year would spend part of their childhood in one-parent families.

Divorce is the principal reason for the large increase in one-parent families. Every year divorce disrupts the lives of over a million youths. Between 1965 and 1985, the divorce rate in this country doubled. It is recently stabilized, and there is some reason to expect the rate to drop slightly in the future. However, the United States undoubtedly will remain the nation with the highest divorce rate in the world.

The birth of more and more children to unmarried mothers is another reason for the large increase in one-parent families. Between 1970 and 1984, the number of families headed by never-married mothers rose by a startling 500 percent.

A natural consequence of the nation's high divorce rate is a significant increase in the number of parents remarrying and forming stepfamilies. In 1960, only 9 percent of the children in this country lived in stepfamilies. By 1985, the proportion had increased to about 12 percent.

These profound social changes challenge educators to address the needs of students from families that no longer fit the Norman Rockwell image.



The majority of research studies indicate that, for children, divorce and one-parent homes mean a higher risk of having problems in school. For example, the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) and the Kettering Foundation's Institute for the Development of Educational Activities (I/D/E/A) conducted a three-year study of 18,000 students from fourteen states which concluded that --

As a group, one-parent children show lower achievement and present more discipline problems than do their two-parent peers in both elementary and high school. They are also absent more often, late to school more often, and may show more health problems as well.

The research most frequently cited in the educational literature about how divorce affects children is that of Judith S. Wallerstein and Joan B. Kelly (54) whose comprehensive study is known as the Children of Divorce Project. Their investigation, which ended in 1979, involved 131 children from 60 California families over a period of five years. They found that one-third of the children experienced learning problems and two-thirds showed noticeable changes in school behavior.

The majority of studies relating the absence of a father to school performance fail to attribute any significance to race. The factors of income, sex, and age, however, do affect the extent to which children of divorced parents and single family homes are at risk. Income is the most critical. The median income of one-parent homes is less than a third that of two-parent homes. The lower a family's income, the more vulnerable the student. In fact, a number of investigators report that, following divorce, the vulnerability of children to problems in school could be at least as closely related to their families' loss of income as to the absence of their fathers.

The primary significance of income became even more apparent after further analysis of the data gathered for the NAESP-I/D/E/A study cited earlier. This analysis also showed that academic achievement of higher-income girls from one-parent families surpassed that of higher-income boys from two-parent families. Moreover, a number of other studies found that boys of divorced parents and single-parent homes are at greater risk than are girls in similar circumstances.

Divorce puts younger students at greater risk scholastically. Most couples divorce when their children are between the ages of 5 and 12. Wallerstein and Kelly found that, at the elementary level, half the children of divorced parents experienced almost a year of learning disruption. If children in the primary grades are too distracted to develop basic learning skills, they will have achievement problems throughout their school years.

Children whose parents are going through a divorce are under stress. In the classroom, this stress can show up in the form of daydreaming, forgetfulness, nervousness, weariness, sadness, moodiness, dependence, declining grades, acting out, or physical complaints. As Judith Wallerstein explains --

Many of these children, especially the 5-8-year-olds, are very worried about whether there will be anybody at home when they arrive. If you are sitting in class and the teacher is talking, and you are wondering if there is going to be anybody at home, it is impossible, even if you pay attention, to retain what you hear.

On the other hand, students can respond positively to divorce. For example, the Children of Divorce Project discovered that some children reacted to the disruption in their homes by working harder at their studies and becoming more involved in extracurricular activities.

Adjusting to stepfamily situations can also be stressful. The stepfamily has only recently been recognized as a significant demographic phenomenon and there is little quantitative research on the school performance of children from stepfamilies. However, there is information available indicating that these children are subject to many of the same kinds of stress that can trouble children who are trying to cope with the more immediate effects of divorce.



The role of teachers in the lives of students whose parents have recently divorced is a sensitive one and, in fact, puts them in somewhat of a dilemma. While teachers should be attuned to the possible appearance of stress symptoms, they should not make the mistake of assuming they will see them. To do so would be to increase the burden on these students by making them victims of stereotyping. Studies on teacher expectations of children of divorce reveal that teachers made unfounded negative assumptions about these children.

There are many ways schools can support students who are coping with divorce. Wallerstein emphasizes that school becomes more important to children whose families are in transition because it offers them structure, stability, and continuity during a time when their homes are being disrupted. In Growing Up Divorced, Linda Bird Francke, former Newsweek editor and divorced mother of three school-age children, discusses the pivotal role of the school. She has, in fact, titled one major chapter of her book "Divorce and the School: The Second Family," and she calls teachers "the unsung heroes of divorce.

Francke, Wallerstein, Kelly, and others acknowledge the potential importance of the elementary school teacher to young children who are hurt by their parents' divorces. Because elementary students spend nearly one-third of their waking hours with a single teacher, this adult can show anxious children that a vital part of their world is still safe and predictable. In spite of the more diffuse relationships that teenagers have with each teacher, Francke reports that --

...time and time again, they cite a specific teacher, counselor or athletic coach who helped them through the stress of divorce and served as a role model when all their familial role models seemed to be crumbling around them.

A number of authors of both contemporary books and journal articles offer specific recommendations about what can be done in schools to help children of divorce. These authors are in substantial agreement that teachers can --

Encouraging students to read both fictional and nonfictional books about divorce is also highly recommended In counseling and guidance literature, this is often referred to as bibliotherapy. Many of the juvenile fictional books about divorce are very engaging and would be appropriate for a teacher to read aloud to an entire elementary class.

Occasionally, children's television specials will include programs that portray children coming to terms with divorce. Two professors of education from Morehead State University in Kentucky suggest that teachers assign as homework the viewing of carefully selected TV programs.

Including divorce education for teachers in staff development is another important recommendation, and this is happening in states and school districts across the country. For example, the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) has conducted teacher workshops on divorce for school districts and local associations throughout the state and for a number of individual schools. These workshops cover the effects of divorce at various developmental levels and strategies for improving communication with divorced parents. OEA also has developed a workshop for parents in which parent-teacher organizations and other adult groups have participated.

Teachers in Marin County, California, have the opportunity to attend workshops conducted by psychologists from the Center for the Family in Transition, which grew out of the Children of Divorce Project.

In Newton, Massachusetts, a group of teachers, counselors, and social workers that calls itself the Ad-Hoc Committee on Separation and Divorce provides a two-day workshop for elementary and junior high school teachers. The committee also has developed a package of materials for teachers that includes articles on the emotional and psychological impacts of divorce on children, legal information, curriculum materials for elementary grades, lists of local community agencies, and a bibliography.

School counseling and guidance departments offer a range of programs to help children cope with divorce. These include structured groups and peer counseling for students and programs for parents. Structured groups meet for a fixed number of sessions, each with a specific focus or activity. Peer counseling occurs in an open-ended support group that is facilitated by a counselor. Examples are the Divorced Kids Group in Lexington, Massachusetts and Youth of One Natural Parent in Quarryville, Pennsylvania. Parent groups are usually informational and focus on what can be done to help children adjust to the changes in their homes and families.



Carrying out the recommendations for helping students cope with divorce will also make the school a more congenial place for all students who live with single or stepparents. Other important educational efforts and changes are being made throughout the country. According to a 1980 survey of elementary principals, many schools have replaced the father-son banquet with a parents' dinner and are careful to schedule conferences and events that would interest parents outside of conventional business hours. Survey respondents also reported that their schools are providing after-school programs and homework assistance for children of working mothers.

While the image of the family in textbooks has become more diverse, the curriculum materials used by many school systems still convey the message that the only families that count are the ones where children live with both parents. Schools need to be sensitive to this message.

Some schools are helping parents through workshops, support groups, and resource information. The National PTA, in cooperation with the National Association of Elementary School Principals and Boys Town, has published a guide that parent-teacher organizations can use to present a two-part workshop on single parents and their families.

Schools can become more supportive of single-parent homes by providing child care during school events (40) and survival instruction for students. As children take on greater family responsibilities, they need to become competent in child care and emergency health procedures.



Children of divorce and other students who live in one-parent or stepparent homes are more likely to have problems in school than their classmates who live with two parents. But there are many things educators can do to help these students cope with their situations and to create a learning environment that is congenial for them. The resource guide included in this paper lists helpful books both for students and for adults, special materials available through organizations and schools, and films/tapes for use with students or by teachers.






Bienenfeld, Florence. My Mom and Dad are Getting a Divorce. St. Paul: EMC Corporation, 1980. Ages 4-12. Tells "How it is" for two fictional characters, Amy and Dan, at the same time the book describes the feelings of millions of real children who experience divorce.

Blume, Judy. It's Not the End of the World. New York: Dell, 1986. Grades 4-7. Karen and her sister cope with their feelings after divorce in a way that would seem quite real to suburban children.

Byars, Betsy. The Night Swimmers. New York: Dell, 1986. Grades 5-8. An enterprising girl tries to be a housekeeper for her father and take care of her two brothers. She realizes this is not her role when her father remarries.

Cleary, Beverly. Dear Mr. Henshaw. New York: Morrow, 1983. Ages 8-10. Newberry Award winner. In his letters to his favorite author, 10-year-old Leigh reveals his problems in coping with his parents' divorce, being the new boy in school, and generally finding his way in the world.

Cleaver, Vera, and Cleaver, Bill. Lady Ellen Grae. New York: New American Library, 1978. Grades 5-8. A girl in Appalachia survives the aftermath of her parents' divorce even though she does not live with either of them.

Corcoran, Barbara. Hey That's My Soul You're Stepping On. New York: Atheneum, 1978. Grades 5-9. While her parents confront their marital problems, Rachel is sent to her grandparents who live in a residential motel with other retired couples. A new friendship helps her to gain perspective on her family responsibilities and loyalties and to come to terms with her parents' divorce.

Dolmetsch, Paul, and Shih, Alexa. The Kids Book About Single Parent Families (By Kids for Everyone). Garden City, New York: Dolphin, 1985. Grades 7 and up. A look at the single-parent family experience through the eyes of adolescents.

Danziger, Paula. The Divorce Express. New York: Delacorte, 1982. Ages 10-14. The story of a ninth-grade girl who lives in upstate New York during the week and travels on the "Divorce Express" bus to visit her father on weekends. The girl whose name is Phoebe initially expresses her confusion and distress by acting out in school, but comes to some sense of calm and acceptance.

Fisher, Lois I. Rachel Vellars, How Could You? New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1985. Ages 9-12. This story of a friendship between two sixth-grade girls who live with their divorced fathers presents a picture of two very different divorced families.

Gardner, Richard. The Boys and Girls Book About Divorce. New York: Bantam, 1971. Grade 4 and up. A straightforward discussion of issues of concern to children whose parents have divorced. The author, a child psychiatrist, offers children practical suggestions about handling themselves and making the best of their situations. Illustrations enhance the text. Considered by many to be a classic for children and adults.

Gerber, Merrill Joan. Please Don't Kiss Me Now. New York: New American Library, 1982. Grade 9 and up. When her father remarries and her mother starts to date, 15-year-old Leslie feels abandoned and seeks security in a teenage romance. A tragic accident and a faltering romance cause Leslie to reevaluate her mother's genuine concern.

Gerson, Corine. Son for a Day. New York: Scholastic, 1983. Grades 5-9. Funny, poignant novel of a street-savvy boy who creates adventure and perks up his family life in the process.

Gilbert, Sara. By Yourself. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shephard, 1983. Grades 4-9. Illustrated guide for the youngster at home alone. Covers feelings, safety, simple snacks, and helping out around the house.

Harris, Mark Jonathan. With a Wave of the Wand. New York: Scholastic, 1982. Grades 5-8. Marlee, with the help of her brother, tries to unite her parents. She finds another solution, however, and realizes that divorce has not diminished her parents' love for her.

Holland, Isabelle. The Man Without a Face. New York: Harper & Row Junior Books, 1987. Grade 6 and up. A somewhat controversial story about a much divorced mother and her family. Her son, Charlie, has quite a time adjusting but is helped by his friendship with an older man.

Hunter, Evan. Me and Mr. Stenner. New York: Dell, 1986. Grades 5-9. The story of Abby who lives in an upper-middle-class home with her mother and Mr. Stenner, her stepfather. The book has a lot of humor and focuses on the girl's relationship with her stepfather.

Klein, Norma. It's Not What You Expect. New York: Avon, 1982. Grade 6 and up. A "liberated" family weathers Dad's three-month "absence."

Mom, The Wolfman and Me. New York: Avon, 1977. Ages 11-14. The story of a girl who had lived with only her mother for all of her eleven years and the adjustment the girl had to make when her mother decided to marry for the first time.

Taking Sides. New York: Pantheon Books, 1974. Ages 11-14. The story of Nell and Hugo who spend most of the week with their father in New York City and weekends with their mother and her friend Greta in the country.

LeShan, Eda. What's Going to Happen to Me? New York: MacMillan, 1986. Grades 3-7. Answers many questions children have about divorce, discusses feelings, and suggests ways of coping.

List, Julie Autumn. The Day the Loving Stopped. New York: Fawcett, 1981. Grade 8 and up. Julie recounts her reactions to her parents' divorce from initial shock to acquiescence. Although she misses her father, visitation works and the bonds with her mother and sister are strengthened.

Long, Lynette. On My Own: The Kids Self Care Book. New York: Acropolis Books, 1984. Grade 4 and up. Twelve illustrated chapters cover what children need to know if they have responsibility for themselves while parents work.

Mann, Peggy. My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel. New York: Avon, 1985. Grades 3-6. After a struggle, Joey realizes that his father's leaving is not his fault, and Joey learns how to cope with life as it is.

Mazer, Norma. I Trissy. New York: Dell, 1986. Grades 4-9. Trissy uses her typewriter to vent her frustrations about her parents' divorce and problems brought on by her selfishness and unwillingness to understand her parents. Finally, she begins to question her own identity and becomes better able to face these troubles.

Mendonca, Susan. Tough Choices. New York: Scholastic, 1983. Grade 7 and up. Crystal must choose a parent with which to live and makes the wrong choice for the wrong reasons. She lives first with her mother and then with her father and his new family until she rebels at the rules and responsibilities. As a runaway, she is confronted with a new understanding of family life.

Park, Barbara. Don't Make Me Smile. New York: Avon, 1984. Grades 4-7. Charlie, the eleven-year-old hero, tells the story of his parents' divorce and his efforts to reunite them. After disastrous results, he concedes that the divorce is final and he must adjust.

Perl, Lila. The Telltale Summer of Tina C. New York: Archway, 1984. Grades 5-9. Trying to untangle the confusing relationship of divorce and remarriage, Tina begins to understand her loved ones. Positive, open relationships with both parents are portrayed.

Perry, Patricia, and Lynch, Marietta. Mommy and Daddy are Divorced. Ages 3-7. This is the story of two young brothers who visit with their father every Saturday following their parents' divorce. Photographs enhance the story of the mix of feelings as they visit and then miss him during the rest of the week.

Pevsner, Stella. A Smart Kid Like You. New York: Scholastic, 1976. Grade 7 and up. A realistic view of some after-effects of divorce. Nina finds her new math teacher is her father's new wife. This story became an ABC After School Special.

Richards, Arlene, and Willis, Irene. How To Get It Together When Your Parents Are Coming Apart. Summit, N.J.: Willard Press. Grade 8 and up. A self-help book for adolescents with examples of what young adults and teens may need to cope with during and after their parents' marital troubles, separation, and divorce. The emphasis is on awareness of feelings, coping skills, and reassurance that young people are able to take responsibility for their own lives.

Slote, Alfred. Matt Gargan's Boy. New York: J.P. Lippincott, 1975. Ages 9-13. The hero of this baseball story is an eleven-year-old boy whose parents are divorced and whose father is a major league baseball player. Although the boy's relationship with his dad is essentially a long distance one, he fantasizes about his father's return to the marriage while trying to discourage his mother's relationships with other men.

Snyder, Zilpha Keatley. Headless Cupid. New York: Dell, 1985. Grades 5-8. Fun and intrigue result when stepbrothers and sisters begin adjusting to each other and to their new parents.

Stenson, Janet Sinberg. Now I Have a Stepparent and It's Kind of Confusing. New York: Avon, 1979. Ages 6-11. Discusses the variety of feelings children have when parents remarry.

Wright, Betty Ren. Getting Rid of Marjorie. New York: Scholastic, 1984. Ages 8-12. The story of a 10-year-old girl who is very close to her widowed grandfather and becomes very upset and angry when he remarries.




Diamond, Susan Arnsberg. Helping Children of Divorce. New York: Schocken Books, 1985. Clearly answers teachers' questions on "What should I look for?" and "How can I help?" Chapters on preventing potential problems and handling specific behavior problems. Written by a dean of students at Scarsdale High School in New York. Resource bibliography.

Francke, Linda Bird. Growing Up Divorced. New York: Linden Press/Simon and Schuster, 1983. A journalist's comprehensive look at children and divorce that includes a major chapter on divorce and the schools. Expansion of a Newsweek cover story written by a former Newsweek editor.

Wallerstein, Judith, S., and Kelly, Joan Berlin. Surviving the Breakup. New York: Basic Books, 1980. Report and analysis of the clinical research findings from the Children of Divorce Project, a five-year longitudinal study of 60 Northern California divorcing families and their 131children. Includes a chapter entitled, "The Child in the School Setting."




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