Stuck in the middle

When parents separate, teachers can become collateral damage. IEU journalist Emily Campbell explores how working with separated parents can impact on teachers’ wellbeing.

Separation and divorce can be messy, complex, costly and emotionally taxing territory to navigate.

At best, former partners can be civil, amicable and agreeable. At worst, they can become embroiled in expensive and lengthy legal proceedings, bitter custody battles and devastating family breakdowns.

Although most adults in this situation try to shield children from conflict and prioritise the child’s needs, it is often the sad reality that children involved in such situations suffer adverse effects.

Revelatory research

While there has already been extensive research exploring the emotional, behavioural and developmental impacts of separation on parents and children, very little has focused on how teachers are affected, particularly those working in early childhood education.

A recent study (Levkovich and Eyal, 2020) investigated this topic to examine the difficulties early childhood and kindergarten teachers face.

The researchers conducted interviews with 15 early childhood and kindergarten teachers in Israel to examine their perceptions of working with divorced and separated parents, and how this impacted their professional and emotional wellbeing. Three major findings emerged:

  • Kindergarten teachers reported devoting twice as much time to communicating with separated parents than with parents who remained together.
  • When separated parents are in an acute state of conflict, teachers must bridge the gap between them and sometimes act as mediator, which can cause emotional distress for the teacher.
  • Despite this major emotional load and feelings of confusion and helplessness, kindergarten teachers receive very little support – and if they do, it is mostly informal.

Complex roles

Early childhood and kindergarten teachers have a varied and complex role, taking on responsibility for the centre’s pedagogic program, the educational environment and striving for teamwork and positive relationships with the parents of the children they teach.

Strong relationships between these teachers and parents are shown to be highly beneficial for the learning, development and wellbeing of children and are crucial to building a sense of trust and continuity for children between home and preschool.

The teachers interviewed said they saw parental separation and conflict as difficult and traumatic for children, whose worlds can be turned upside down in an instant, their routines disrupted, sense of security broken and family unit destroyed.

Respondents reported witnessing a variety of behavioural and emotional consequences, both short term and long term, in children whose parents were going through separation.

Teachers expressed sorrow, compassion and empathy for children in this situation who exhibited behavioural changes or emotional distress; some children shut down, others expressed fear, were overly clingy, desperate for attention and showed sadness or hostility, especially during the period leading up to separation.

Interview participants saw preschool or kindergarten as being a permanent, safe place for children, a source of stability and consistency during the tumultuous times they experienced at home.

Toll on teachers

It is not just the behavioural changes in children of separated parents that affect the work of kindergarten and early childhood teachers; the actions of feuding parents contribute to work related stress too.

One of the burdens experienced by teachers working with conflicting parents was a significant increase in workload: respondents reported spending double the time communicating with separated parents than with parents who are together.

Many teachers said they had to provide detailed and accurate feedback separately to parents and even organise separate parent/teacher interviews to accommodate each parent, in cases where they refused to attend a meeting together.

Teachers said this was emotionally draining, repetitive and added to an already heavy workload.

Some teachers reported situations in which one parent complained about the other to them or tried to prevent the teacher from including the other parent in their child’s education. In extreme cases, teachers were put in stressful situations with potential legal implications.

Teachers are sometimes required to comply with court orders, making sure to hand over the child to the right parent for pick up, depending on the custody arrangement.

When restraining orders or domestic violence orders are in place, a parent may be legally prohibited from meeting with the child or attending the kindergarten or preschool, although this doesn’t necessarily stop them from attempting to contravene the orders.

Situations in which this occurs can be dangerous for children and teachers, adding fuel to the fire of family breakdown and causing extreme distress for teachers.

Role of employers

IEUA-QNT Industrial Officer Danielle Wilson said employers should have counselling available to staff so they can obtain quick access to support when necessary.

“Employers should also provide any assistance necessary to help manage and control the relationship between staff and parents who are in conflict,” Wilson said.

“There should be a clear path of communication through a parental management policy at the centre, so staff know what to do in the event of parental conflict.

“This might differ depending on the family and the relationships the family has with management – the most suitable person for that family should be identified as a point of reference.”

Employers should also provide early childhood education staff with professional development to equip them to deal with these issues. “Conflict resolution training, resilience training and access to psychologists and counselling for support should be mandatory,” Wilson said.

Clear boundaries

It is important for teachers to set clear boundaries with parents, to maintain professional relationships and include both parents in a child’s education. “Boundaries should be negotiated with each parent at an introductory meeting with the teacher,” Wilson said.

“The meeting should facilitate open and accessible channels of communication and determine how both parents can be involved in the child’s education.

“It’s best to have a member of the leadership team included in those conversations and a formal agreement put in place, similar to those agreements reached between parents and centres when their child may have specific medical, social or program needs,” Wilson said.

“Provide both parents with a written summary outlining their involvement and convey the information verbally, so everyone is clear.

“Where this isn’t possible, each parent should be invited to attend separately.

“It’s better if matters are transparent so that, where possible, each parent should know what the arrangements are for the other,” she said.

However, there may be legal reasons or even personal ‘relationship management’ reasons which make this impossible.

Wilson said kindergartens must recognise any court orders and keep copies on file. Parents are obliged to report should these circumstances change.

“Advice about the management of parents in conflict should be obtained by referring to the centre’s family engagement (or similar) policy, and leadership should use this as a base to support staff and provide directions for management of particular family situations or difficult parents,” Wilson said.

Inbar Levkovich & Gali Eyal (2020): ‘I’m caught in the middle’: preschool teachers’ perspectives on their work with divorced parents, International Journal of Early Years Education, DOI: 10.1080/09669760.2020.1779041