Teaching Afghan Students was a joy, for Richmond teacher who worries if she will see them againFebruary 7, 2023
Dealing with disruptions and difficulties in learning due to divorce can be a difficult challenge.
This is how I helped one student.
Lily was a fifth-grade student at the country’s most difficult all-girls prep school. She was a lovely girl and popular with her friends. But as a student in an elite school, she was not meeting the high bar when it came to her studies. There was an additional issue – her parents were getting a divorce.
Lily came to me for remediation three times a week, a referral from her school. School officials were afraid that Lily would suffer shame, in her very competitive environment, if her grades didn’t improve. She had about a year and a half to improve her ability to do the work before the school decided whether she could remain enrolled.
Lily arrived at our first meeting with dark circles under her eyes, an enormous York Peppermint Patty in one hand, and a tissue the other. She was ready for a fight.
“I am a great student. I don’t need help. I don’t want to see a therapist. What do you do, anyway?” she asked.
“I’m an educational therapist. We are not going to talk about feelings. We are going to work on writing and reading for school. That’s our goal,” I said.
Lily wanted very much to stay at her school, the same school her mother and grandmother had attended. It was where she had friends, and it was the world she knew. So, she agreed to work with me.
Lily was an average kid, but one with a powerful will and a great need for control. She would often get ill and want to leave our session early, or her mother would call her in sick. Lily displayed similar behavior at school. The school told me that Lily’s absences were very worrying to them. It would be very hard for her to catch up on the work she had missed. The class might leave her behind.
Many of our days together were a battle. Lily would challenge me and my knowledge of every subject we worked on. She wanted me to be perfect, a perfect font of knowledge and someone who would tell her the answers.
“Lily, my job is to help you learn how to do it all for yourself. And you can.”
“I am an excellent student,” she sniffed.
Lily let me see her anxiety full force in the form of belittling remarks, anger or complaints of illness. She was ill a great deal: headaches would blind her, colds would make her nose run and her eyes tear, she’d get strep throat. All of this was real illness, and a blessing to Lily, who didn’t know how to express her upset any other way, and who could not speak about what she felt. She needed to be “fine,” and I encouraged her belief in herself. At the school’s behest, I brought up what she might achieve with a therapist.
“Lily, the good relationship you and I have? It could be like that, but instead of schoolwork, it could be about your feelings.”
“I don’t need it. I won’t. I’m not sick. I’m going through a divorce.” And in her voice, I heard no anxiety on that score. She was determined to keep her privacy.
Over time, I stopped asking. She’d apologize when she said something angry or sarcastic, and I would say, “Lily, we have such a good relationship that it can stand a little anger now and then.” And we’d hug. She took to hugging me every time she arrived and every time she left.
Remediation and Moving Forward
The remediation had everything to do with finding clue words in text that would supply her with the trail to the deeper meaning of a story, and though that work took a year and a half, it happened. Her school instruction in language skills was impeccable and the work she brought to us from school was always interesting and challenging.
Lily had great reserves of strength. She maintained a steady schedule of living with each parent, and they were interested in every bit of news about school. Her parents encouraged Lily to see herself as a success.
Lily continues to see herself as a strong learner, to be proud of her B and B- grades, sprinkled with an occasional A or C, (“Oh, well, I’ll see the teacher and I’ll do it better next time,” she would tell me). Over two years of reading and writing, she displayed unflagging devotion to getting her work done, to rewriting, retaking tests. She worked on alleviating the meltdowns that would have her raging at teachers, who wanted her writing to “go deeper,” or her mother when she couldn’t find her homework (organization of materials was difficult during the brunt of her parent’s breakup).
This year, Lily sang me a little song about how much she loved her parents. Her high clear voice rang out over the office so that the other therapists in the suite came to their doors to listen.
“She’s adorable,” one suite mate said.
I told Lily the nice things people around me said about her. Near the end of our time together she told me, “If I have myself, I have everything.”
Though she can still be withering in her disapproval, I know that when Lily does this she is at her most anxious. I ask what is bothering her most about the assignment, and she says, “I am afraid that you don’t know enough to help me.”
“Lily, you are in a good position now to learn from everyone. When I can’t help with math or science, then it will be time to get a tutor. And you can get one now, if you wish. Why not bring it up with Mom and Dad?” The worst is over, and Lily’s parents have each done everything asked of them to keep Lily safe from their deep anger with each other. Lily keeps a picture of her parents at a happier time displayed on her desk, a reminder that her family is still connected.
It’s almost time for our work together to come to an end. When she leaves it will be because she is ready to take more responsibility for herself as a student, as she always knew she could. She is learning from her teachers, and she is nearly ready to go. She is so excited to contemplate not having to do this work anymore, to play soccer, have a subject tutor like all her friends, and to check in with her mother and teachers when she needs help. She does this regularly, and though her mother says she can melt down angrily when she doesn’t understand the material, what 7th grader doesn’t? As she likes to tell me, she is normal. She’ll always be struggling to keep up at her school, but she is determined to make it work. She’ll be fine.
There’s no question that divorce can lead to disruptions and difficulties in learning for children. Fifty percent of all marriages in the U.S. end in divorce, and 40 % of divorced couples have children. The stress of divorce manifests itself differently in every child and is one of the leading causes in trauma in children.
Parents experiencing divorce may see their children display more “acting out” behaviors, moodiness, absent mindedness and nervousness, along with poor grades. This is rooted in feelings of loss of control, anger, anxiety and confusion. As with Lily, organizational skills can suffer as well, resulting in poor performance at school. A village of caring teachers, parents and perhaps the help of an educational therapist, can make all the difference in the world.