I have had three students this year on my caseload experience a divorce. Their parents have contacted me and our district's LSSP (licensed specialist in school psychology) for support. During these challenging times, you will often see an increase of behaviors (withdrawal, difficulty regulating emotions, misconduct, etc...) in the classroom or even during therapy sessions. I am usually sought out to assist with students with language delays or to assist a student on the Autism Spectrum with this difficult transition in their lives. Parents may struggle explaining the divorce to their child, I came up with 5 ways an SLP could help.
PLEASE NOTE: I only offer these supports if a parent asks for it. I collaborate with the student's teacher, school counselor, and LSSP in these cases. If you are seeing increased behaviors from a child going through a divorce, please contact their parents and ask them if they want support for the student at school. These are sensitive situations and the student may already be receiving counseling outside of school.
Before I was an SLP, I was a social worker for three years. I have experience working with different family structures providing parenting training, life skills training, and connections to community resources.
Here are 5 ways you can support a student on your caseload going through a divorce:
1. Make a visual story
(also can be referred as a visual social story). I was asked to create a story for a student this year. I used simple images and easy to follow text. You can get a script with image ideas on how to write this below. DO NOT use stories like this unless you have expressed permission. Social stories work best when it is specific to a student's situation, you may use my examples as a guide to making your own.
Title: My Family is Different Now
Page 1: I have a family (with picture of family together)
Page 2: I have a mom, I have a dad (pictures of parents separate)
(I have a mom, I have a mom - I have a dad, I have a dad - I have a mom, I have a step-dad, etc...: UPDATE all lines with the specific family structure of the student)
Page 3: We all lived in the same house for a long time (picture of family in front of a house).
Page 4: Then my mom and dad (mom/mom, dad/dad, etc...) got a divorce (picture of parent separate with arrows going opposite ways and a zig zag line between them).
Page 5: Now I have two houses and that is okay. (picture of two houses with picture of the kid with each parent in front of the house and label houses "mom's house, dad's house)
Page 6: Sometimes I am with mom and that is okay (picture of kid and mom/dad)
Page 7: Sometimes I am with dad and that is okay (picture of kid and mom/dad)
Page 8: My mom loves me very much (picture of kid with mom and a big heart).
Page 9: My dad loves me very much (picture of kid with dad and a big heart)
Page 10: I can talk to my mom and dad about my feelings. (picture of kid with feelings emojis)
Page 11: Sometimes I feel sad or mad that my parents are divorced. That is okay.
Page 12: My mom and dad are not together anymore, but I know they still love me (picture of a mom and dad with a heart in the middle with the kid in the middle of the heart)
Page 13: I love my mom and I love my dad and that is okay (picture of kid in the middle and two hearts on either side with the parents inside the hearts).
Page 14: My mom and dad don't live together anymore but they are still a part of the family. (Picture of parents in front of their houses and kid in the middle).
Page 15: My family is different now and that is okay (picture of the kid with each parent on each side of the page with a heart).
I use images from Smarty Symbols (an affordable option) www.smartysymbols.com
My speech room is a positive environment and sometimes my students will open up and talk to me about their lives. It is important that students have a safe place to talk about their feelings. If a students opens up to me in therapy about a sensitive topic, I contact the teacher, parent, and the school counselor to see if extra support is needed, especially in the case of divorce. I created "My Feelings" boards to help students identify their feelings. This is a great resource to share with the student's counselor and families. Get your free copy below:
3. Teach the vocabulary associated with divorce.
For students with language delays, they may need someone to teach them the new vocabulary they may hear when going through a divorce. Please get parent permission before you introduce the vocabulary (and to decide which words to teach). Parents may want to teach these words to their children themselves, but you could offer the cards to assist them if appropriate. I have also found these useful for students on the Autism Spectrum.
Common vocabulary associated with a divorce that a student may hear:
divorce, separation, custody, visitation
4. Create a visual visitation schedule for your student's families.
My son is on the Autism Spectrum and has visitation with his father. When he was younger he had a lot of stress and anxiety wondering when he was going to his dad's house. I created a visual calendar for him for "mommy days" and "daddy days" and this decreased his anxiety dramatically. I bought a magnetic monthly calendar (white board) and used magnet tape on the back of the house symbols that had Ms and Ds on them. I have also created calendars like this for my students to use at home with velcro. I made a printable template that you can use for your students. If parents report the student is struggling with visitation, this is an amazing resource you can make for them (speaking from experience with my own family!). You can tailor this board to whatever family structure the child has (mom/dad, mom/mom, dad/dad). I would ask what they would like on the houses.
5. Read books about divorce and different family structures.
I use books in therapy frequently and found several that could be used for students going through a divorce. Reading these types of books can help create awareness that they are not the only ones who have gone through it. It can also create opportunities for open communication about their feelings. I do recommend you collaborate with teachers, counselors, and parents before reading a book like this to a student. I don't always read these books with students but I often recommended them.
Here is a list of books that I have used or recommended to parents (for younger students). Disclaimer: Affiliate links
I hope you found this post helpful! Please remember that the above suggestions are not intended to replace professional counseling advice. Please collaborate with the staff at your school on how your team will support a student going through a divorce. You MUST contact the student's parents before implementing any of the above suggestions.
A personal note: I went through this with my son when he was very young and I also have two step sons. All of the above resources have helped my children cope with the blended families. My son with ASD needed the visual support the most. I hope as a professional you can help families when needed in this way. I believe it would have been extremely difficulty for my son without it!
All of the images used in this blog post are by Smarty Symbols. They are an online symbol/picture library with over 20,000 images.