The Impact Of Divorce On Children And Adolescent's Academic Performance; Efficiency Of Therapeutic Intervention Literature Review Samples
This paper is dedicated to reviewing publications addressing the impact of family structure transitions, especially, parental divorce, on academic grades of young children and adolescents. The body of literature, explored in this paper, analyses the underlying mechanisms causing negative impact on child and adolescent wellbeing and school grades and future career prospects, suggests various intervention and therapy methods for children of divorce aimed at developing strong support systems for these children. Also, this paper summarized the findings of different studies about the potential benefits the children of divorce may have from various types of interventions, aimed at preventing internalizing and externalizing problems and promoting higher academic performance and tailored to meet the needs of different age groups.
Keywords: impact of divorce on children’s grades, impact of parental divorce on children’s academic performance
Although the divorce rate in the U.S. in young couples tends to decline, the share of divorces among people aged over 35 has increased twice over the past two decades; generally, there was a significant growth in age-standardized divorce rates in the time period between 1990 and 2008 (Kennedy & Ruggles, 2014.) According to Livingston, only 46 per cent of the U.S. children under 18 years old live in so called “traditional” family with “two married heterosexual parents in their first marriage” (2014.) Divorce is a psychologically traumatic experience for all family members, especially for children. Conflict between parents, preceding a family disruption, and further divorce has a dramatic negative impact on children’s emotional and mental development, cognitive abilities, and the socialization process. All these factors negatively affect academic performance of children and adolescents.
This paper is aimed reviewing publications addressing the impact of family structure transitions, especially, parental divorce, on academic grades of young children and adolescents. There’s a significant body of knowledge accumulated up to date; and there are numerous publications addressing the impact of family structure transition on child wellbeing, including health conditions, emotional development and behaviour, mental development, cognitive abilities and social interactions. The focus of this paper is limited to analysing the impact of divorce on children and adolescent's academic performance. Also, this paper summarized the findings of different studies about the efficiency of therapies and also about the potential benefits the children of divorce may have from various types of interventions, aimed at preventing internalizing and externalizing problems and promoting higher academic performance.
As a theoretical basis for reviewing the effects of divorce of children, the attachment theory may be considered. The attachment theory, based on the works of Bowlby, addresses the effects the person’s early relationships have on their future development through life. After a child experiences parental divorce, their attachment style and relationship with their caregivers and parents may influence their study habits; in other words, the feeling of social support impacts the child’s attitude to studying.
Numerous scholars agree, that “children of divorced parents are disadvantaged in a variety of ways” (Hanson, 1999) as compared with children of intact families. Except lower academic performance, these children are more likely to exhibit emotional and behavioural disorders, experience communicational and psychological difficulties and have relatively lower academic performance. The main hypothesis addressed in a variety of early studies was that a conflict preceding divorce is the main factor associated with negative outcomes for children in disrupted families (conflict hypothesis). The longitudinal study conducted by Thomas L. Hanson (1999) and based on the data of the National Survey of Families and Households has found that though there’s an association between parental conflict preceding marriage disruption and negative outcomes for the children, the conflict is just one of the numerous factors, responsible for only 10% of the effects of marital separation on “the school-related areas of well-being” (Hanson, 1999.)
So, as the elevated level of conflict and aggression can be observed even in families when parents don’t end up in separation, the parental divorce itself is a complex and stressful event for children. Fabrizio Bernardi and Jonas Radl (2014) studied the long-term consequences of parental divorce for children educational attainment and have found the strong negative impact of separation on children’s academic achievements; they called this effect “the breakup penalty” (Bernardi & Radl, 2014.) The findings of this international study demonstrated that children of divorce have in average 7 per cent lower probability of obtaining a university degree as compared with kids from intact families. Unfortunately, the study does not cover underlying micro mechanisms of the “breakup penalty”, but it has investigated correlation between levels of parental education with an extent of negative consequences of divorce for children. According to Bernardi & Radl (2014), the parental separation appeared to be “more detrimental for children of highly educated parents”: for these kids, a parental divorce is associated with a 12 percentage points’ decrease in the probability of obtaining a university degree.
Parental separation, being a dynamic and multidimensional process, often causes social, economic and psychological losses for the family members; children of divorced parents have to adjust to new parental roles, relations, changes in family routines and traditions. The children of divorce are vulnerable to emotional and behavioural problems, affecting their attitudes to studying and destroying their social connections with peers and teachers. For example, the study of Hoyt et al. (1990) found an evidence of higher levels of anxiety and depression in young children of divorce as compared with youth from intact families. Pett et al. (1999) developed a multifactorial statistical model for influence of divorce on children adjustment. The scholars argue that divorce has indirect rather than direct impact on children’s adjustment, including their social life and attitudes to studying, through the influence on interaction patterns between the parents and the children and through the influence on maternal strain (Pett et al., 1999.) So, as all the mentioned studies agree, relations between parental divorce and academic performance are mediated by a number of underlying mechanisms, including the impact of marital disruption on effectiveness of parenting, on interaction models between the parents and the children, on children’s emotional condition, behaviour, self-esteem, cognitive and social functions.
The mentioned above study of Bernardi & Radl (2014) covered one group of individual differences, affecting the reaction of children on family disruption and creating variations in children’s post-divorce adjustment at home and school, - the socio-economic stratification and educational level of parents. There’re a number of other factors, for example, age and gender. For example, young girls often demonstrate better adjustment to changes accompanying divorce, than boys (Guidubaldi, as cited in Hoyt et al., 1990.) Results of the study conducted by Martinez and Forgatch (2002) are consistent with the previous body of research and provide evidence that boys demonstrate poorer adjustment in the key areas of functioning, including academic performance.
Martinez and Forgatch (2002) have proven by their multiple-factor research findings that “the accumulation of family structure transitions was associated with more adverse child outcomes”, caused, among other factors, by decreased parenting effectiveness. Wood, Repetti & Roesch (2004) in their study of children’s post-divorce adjustment problems agree that parenting model is one of the key factors affecting children’s adaptation. The scholars studied the most common post-divorce family pattern – a middle-class divorced mother with a pre-adolescent child (or children). The study’s findings suggested that depressive/withdrawn parenting, expressed by a majority of divorced mothers, was responsible for the elevated levels of internalizing and externalizing behaviour in children, especially at school. Despite multiple limitations of this study, it has an important implication for the practice. According to Wood, Repetti and Roesch (2004), preadolescence is an important period to plan and implement intervention programs for children of families going through divorce, in order to prevent deterioration of adjustment problems in adolescence.
The longitudinal study by Lansford et al. (2006) summarizes and extends the previous body of research, analysing how experiencing parental divorce affects “developmental trajectories of adjustment”, including externalizing and internalizing problems; at the same time, the authors address the impact of family dissolution on children school grades. The scholars have found effect of timing of divorce on outcomes for the children’s wellbeing. The results and conclusions are consistent with the previous studies. According to Lansford et al. (2006), experiencing parental divorce during elementary school is associated with worse adverse effects on externalizing and internalizing problems, while later divorce produces more adverse effects on academic performance and grades. When a child experiences family disruption in a time, when grading standards become more and more strict, it puts more pressure on him or her. According to Jeynes, changes in parenting model (including support and monitoring) may result in children’s behaviors that lead to poor academic performance (as cited in Lansford et al., 2006.) Although the study sample lacks size and diversity, the general trends found during the research have implication for the practice, especially in terms of tailoring interventions to various age groups. While in early age children of divorce the focus of interventions should be on preventing serious behavioural and adaptation problems, for older children and adolescents the efficiency of interventions, focused on promoting academic performance, may be greater.
A significant body of research is dedicated to efficiency of various methods of preventive and therapeutic intervention. The interventions, assessed in these studies, addressed different age groups and targeted mainly three areas of life of the children and adolescents: sense of support, enhancement of social competence and increasing of academic performance (for adolescents – taking into consideration future career prospects). The studies covered both school-based and family based intervention programs.
The study, conducted by Pedro-Carroll, Sutton & Wyman (1999) addressed the effectiveness of school-based, preventive program targeting young children of divorce (kindergarten and first grade kids). The key constructs of the intervention program named CODIP (The Children of Divorce Intervention Program) were the following: creating a supportive group environment and training in social competence. The program was aimed at facilitating self-identification and self-perception, at helping children to express feelings, related to parental divorce; at promoting understanding of divorce-related issues and at creating supportive environment for young children, who went through the separation of their parents (Pedro-Carroll, Sutton & Wyman, 1999.) The method used to assess efficiency of the program was two-year follow-up evaluation, based on interviewing children, teachers and parents. The program appeared to show results, as the participating children, who progressed significantly during the program, were able to maintain these gains during the follow-up period. Especially, the program participants scored relatively higher in school-related competences (Pedro-Carroll, Sutton & Wyman, 1999.) So, the findings of this study, combining with the results of the previous studies, confirmed that preventive school-based interventions for young children of divorce can have significant effect on reducing risk of maladaptation, especially in school settings. But the interpretation of the results of the study by Pedro-Carroll, Sutton & Wyman should be careful, because the participants were selected out of those who volunteer, so, the sample may be not representative for the entire population.
The same year research by Richardson and Rosen (1999) summarized the previous data on school-based intervention programs. The authors emphasize the features of the programs designed by different scholars that appeared to be the most efficient. According to Richardson and Rosen (1999), effective school-based intervention programs create strong support system for children, who experienced parental divorce. Involving parents through a variety of mechanisms such as meetings, questionnaires, parent-child interactions, etc. helps to enhance parent-child communication. Teachers and peers should be also involved in communication, contributing to building strong supportive environment for traumatized children. Various studies (Goldman & King, PedroCarroll et al., Stolberg & Mahler) support this argument (as cited in Richardson and Rosen, 1999.)
Apart from building group support, Richardson and Rosen recommend focusing on skill building. Skill building not only contributes to academic performance and creativity, but also “produce significant adjustment gains, specifically internalizing and externalizing behaviors were reduced” (Stolberg & Mahler, as cited in Richardson and Rosen, 1999.) And the very important component of intervention program should be its flexibility; adjusted to the needs of children of different age, gender, cultural origin, and socioeconomic status. If school-based programs meet the above listed conditions, their effectiveness in terms of eliminating adjustment difficulties for children, to the opinion of Richardson and Rosen (1999), may be significant.
The study of Thomas & Gibbons (2009) focuses on intervention programs for adolescents – children of divorced parents, who often demonstrate lower levels of academic performance and vocational attainment. The authors suggests that the narrative career development counseling for adolescents, focusing mainly “on deriving meaning from students' lives using the metaphor of a story” (Thomas & Gibbons, 2009) has significant potential for the school psychologists working with adolescents from separated families, because narrative approach helps the youngsters to make sense of the impact of the parental divorce and other life events on their personal choices and career decisions through a method that utilizes the child’s point of view, opinion, and experience. This approach to counseling, according to Thomas & Gibbons (2009) not only contributes to understanding, but also helps adolescents to redesign their future much earlier, to avoid the results of career-limiting decisions and also to make career-promoting choices. So, career-development counseling programs may be efficient not only for academic performance of adolescents, but may also have a long-term positive impact on their entire lives. The authors give several case studies in support of their arguments; but the further evidence-based research is absolutely needed to prove efficiency of narrative career development counselling for adolescents of divorced families, taking into consideration also various additional factors of impact such as family history, socio-economic status, cultural origin, age of experiencing parental divorce, etc.
The study by Sigal et al. (2012) is one of the most complete and detailed researches, aimed at examining whether a preventive intervention for children of divorced parents is effective in terms of educational and occupational goals achievement for adolescents. The study also addressed indirect positive effects on academic performance and occupational goals of “program-induced changes in in mother–child relationship quality; effective discipline; and youth’s externalizing and internalizing problems, self-esteem, and academic achievement” (Sigal et al., 2012.) The analysis of the multi-factor model, developed by the authors, demonstrated that quality with relationship with mother, self-esteem and school performance mediated at the 6-year follow-up the results of the intervention program on educational expectations (Sigal et al., 2012.) The family-based and school-based intervention programs for children of divorce help to overcome negative consequences of parenting divorce on children’s academic and occupational success in the future, and to decrease risk of low achievement and significant economic problems.
Summarizing the review of current literature, it’s necessary to mention that the impact of parental separation on children welfare and educational performance is well-studied in the existing body of research. The studies prove both direct and indirect long-term negative consequences of experiencing parental divorce on children’s wellbeing, academic performance and career choices. There are a lot of preventive and therapeutic programs designed to meet the needs of children from divorced families. Many of these programs demonstrated significant positive results. Without reference to content of these programs, it’s necessary to say that efficiency of these programs for academic performance of children is determined with compliance to the following conditions: the program should assist to build strong supportive group environment for the children; the program should target skill-building and also it should be flexible enough to meet to needs of specific populations.
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Hanson, Th. (1999). Does Parental Conflict Explain Why Divorce Is Negatively Associated with Child Welfare? Social Forces. June 1999, No. 77 (4): 1283-1315.
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Livingston, G. (2014). Less than half of U.S. kids today live in a ‘traditional’ family. Pew Research Center. December 22, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/12/22/less-than-half-of-u-s-kids-today-live-in-a-traditional-family/
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Wood, J.J., Repetti, R.L., and Roesch, S.C. (2004). Divorce and Children’s Adjustment Problems at Home and School: The Role of Depressive/Withdrawn Parenting. Child Psychiatry and Human Development. Vol. 35 (2), Winter 2004.
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