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GUEST OPINION: The impact of divorce on learning

  • iSplit Divorce app icon (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Teachers and child therapists are acutely aware of the effect divorce and broken homes can have on a child's learning potential as well as school behavior. In fact, teachers can generally predict an evolving divorce based on observation of the student's school performance.

Although each child experiences divorce and separation differently, the one constant that should be addressed is the child's feelings of abandonment and mistrust and/or symptoms that define the emotions of an attachment disorder, factors that also seriously affect school learning.

According to researchers, divorce affects secure attachments, which can have a negative impact on behavior in childhood and throughout their life. For example, children diagnosed with oppositional-defiant disorder, conduct disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder frequently display attachment disorders (trust), due to abuse, neglect or trauma, all of which can be caused by separation or divorce.

A study by noted psychologist Mary Ainsworth in 1978 may offer some clues about the effect divorce and separation can have on learning. The study involved observing children between 12- and 18-months-old responding to a situation in which they were briefly left alone and then reunited with their parent.

One group of infants exhibited distress when separated from their parents but were happy when the parent returned. Although the child was distressed at separation, when the parent left, the child in this group felt he was able to depend on his mother or felt assured that the parent would return.

The children in this group are defined as securely attached. There was a sense of predictability or expectation that these infants exhibited. In brain development terms, when the child experiences a sense of predictability, the experience stimulates the prefrontal cortex, the seat of organization and social intelligence, a necessary ingredient for school and life success.

A second group of infants became very distressed when the parents left. This attachment style suggests that ambivalent attachment is a result of poor maternal availability. These children cannot depend on their mother to be there when the child is in need. Again, we can see the need for predictability but also the need for kinesthetic stimulation or the need of maternal touch or bonding.

To stimulate the child's kinesthetic intelligence or sensory and motor brain areas in a school environment, these parents may need to turn to a school directed toward the child's kinesthetic intelligence. For example, Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori recognized this need when she developed a school curriculum for orphaned children who had severe attachment disorders. Her curriculum centered on stimulating the sensory motor brain areas, which attempts to duplicate the feelings of maternal touch or bonding that could eliminate the feeling of ambivalence.

A third group of children demonstrated a need to avoid parents or caregivers. Children who are punished for relying on a parent will learn to avoid seeking help in the future. This "avoidant attachment" type could be the most serious attachment of disorders because they mistrust and fear relationships, which runs counter to higher order learning and thinking.

Bottom line, all children need support to learn successfully, especially children who divorce and separate from their learning potential and intelligence.

David Sortino, a Graton resident, is a psychologist and retired teacher.


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