Difficult Situations · Exes · Single Parents · Stepfamilies

Know (and Protect) Your Rights When it Comes to Your Kids and School

One of the hardest parts about co-parenting is when you want to co-parent but the other parent doesn’t. That is especially difficult when you are the parent with less time and less access. In my last post, I talked about the importance of reading your decree to ensure you understand your rights as a parent when it comes to school and your ability to be involved.

Know where you stand

Decrees generally say that all parents have the right to attend their children’s school activities, whether the event falls on their time or not. Decrees also usually grant parents access to the children’s school records and enable parents to attend meetings that pertain to the child, such as teacher/parent conferences.

In most cases, co-parents should be listed as an emergency contact, as well as an approved person for drop off and pick up. Additionally, if you are a co-parent, usually you may have a designated person pick up and drop off for you, if needed. That could be a caregiver, grandparent, spouse or partner, or significant other.

Stand up for your rights

When you have a co-parent that is either disorganized or unwilling to co-parent with you for any number of reasons, you will have to take matters into your own hands. Make an intentional effort to be involved in school or you will be left out … and not even know it.

I am not suggesting that both parents be swirling around the school every day. It is okay not to do everything. In fact, school should be the one place where your child is free to not be in the middle of conflict. Neither one of you should be showing up everyday for lunch with your child, constantly talking with the school staff, or always emailing the teacher. However, it is important to establish a connection with the school and the teacher early in the school year to avoid some bumps in the road later on.

Work with  teachers to ensure a smooth school year

Note: These suggestions are for parents of children who are junior high/middle school age and younger. When your children are in high school, ideally, they are handling most of the teacher contact themselves, unless they are having lots of issues.

First, make contact with your children’s teachers, ideally in person at orientation, parent/teacher night or parent/teacher conference. Yes, it can be a lot of work at the beginning of the school year, but it is worth it.

Introduce yourself, but do more listening than talking. Listen to what the teacher has to say about your child. Ask the teacher for suggestions as to how you can support him/her with your child. Ask the teacher for the best way to communicate with the teacher if a question comes up about homework and other issues.

Also, say to the teacher (in private), “I love my child very much and want to be as involved as I can. Sometimes I don’t always get information (or get information in a timely manner), so I may need to reach out to you. Is there an email list that I could be on that would give me extra information about what is going on in class or another way that I could touch base with you about class special events?”

Notice that with that approach, you aren’t bad-mouthing anyone. You are simply speaking the truth about the situation, without going into detail, and asking for solutions to the problem. If you are unable to do that in person for any reason, I would suggest that you email the teacher and ask for a phone appointment, where you discuss the same things.

Don’t forget to clear things up with the office

The next item would be to visit the school office. When you do, learn the names of these folks as they are very important. Introduce yourself to them and meet them with a smile. Then ask to see the emergency designation list and pick-up list for your child. Explain that you want things to run smoothly for your child and need to see these items. If you have any concerns at all that your co-parent has left you off the list, you will probably want to take a copy of your stamped and dated decree with you. The people who work in schools sometimes do not have any idea about how custody decrees work, and they may question you.

If you are not on the list and are supposed to be, do not get upset about it as this will only make you look difficult. It could also explain to office personnel why your ex left you off the list in the first place. It is very important that you act as calm and gentle as possible. Take out your decree, and kindly point them to the page where it states that you should be on the list, and ask them to add you. If you feel that your ex may try to take you off the list again (and often they will), then you may want to ask the school to make a copy and keep it in your child’s file. Again, it is important to remain very calm and nice to everyone.

Connect with people looking after your kid’s mental and physical health

The last set of folks that you should connect with at your child’s school will be the nurse and school counselor. Make a point of going by at the beginning of the school year and saying hello. Introduce yourself and let them know whose child is yours. Once again, just let them know that you and your child’s other parent are divorced or don’t live together, but that you love and care for your child and want to be involved.

If you are supposed to be a contact in case of emergency, ask them to make sure you are on the list. And request they contact you if child is ill or is experiencing problems in school, even if the other parent is also contacted. Once again, you may need to show them or give them a copy of the decree. If you are unable to go to the school in person, have a phone discussion and send them the decree by email or fax. Make sure you ask the best way to keep in touch with them.

You’ll note that I did not suggest that you go marching to the principal’s office first in this post. That is because while I think it is important to know the principal in your child’s school and always suggest meeting them at some point, the teacher and the folks in the school office are the most important place to begin.

Next week, I’ll share additional issues that may come up with teachers and schools and some ideas for how to handle those. We will also be discussing federal and state laws that are supposed to govern how school officials handle giving parents information regarding their children. Stay tuned!

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