A Taste of 'Banana Splits' Consoles Children Feeling Trauma of Divorce

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Ballston Spa, NY--Jan M. Montesano reacted as many teachers would when a new 1st grader entered her classroom here, crying that he "missed mommy."

"I know," she responded, trying her best to comfort the boy. "We all miss our mommies on the first day of school."

It was not until later that she learned that this particular child's anguish went beyond the standard 1st-grade jitters. His mother, in the heat of a marital conflict, had moved out of the state the night before school began.

In the ensuing weeks, the boy displayed his troubled emotions in behaviors that6ranged from inattention and withdrawal, to lashing out at the teacher, to turning in incomplete assignments.

"He couldn't handle any of the normal stresses of 1st grade," Ms. Montesano recalls.

This boy, however, was helped by an innovative peer-counseling program established here, one of several school-based efforts nationwide attempting to deal with what experts see as a deepening problem for those involved in the learning enterprise.

Not all family breakups are equally traumatic, the experts point out, and not all pupils react as visibly as Ms. Montesano's 1st grader. But the increased numbers of children affected by divorce and family instability are having a profound effect on schools.

The U.S. Census Bureau projects that about 60 percent of children born today will live in a single-parent home before the age of 18; according to the agency, about a quarter of all children, more than half of black children, and 30 percent of Hispanic children lived in such households in 1988. Because a large share of second marriages involving children fail, many face family breakups more than once.

This year, Ms. Montesano says, six of the 25 students in her class were experiencing a family breakup; in another recent year, there were 11.

"Here I am, trying to teach with my planbook, and I can't get through because there is a constant need to interrupt for counseling," she says.

In this district, however, troubled pupils are able to find solace through "Banana Splits," the peer-counseling program designed to help them cope with family "jolts"--including deaths, divorces, and remarriages.

Partly because of the support he received from Banana Splits peers who were weathering similar crises, the pupil who "missed mommy" on his first day of school is no longer, Ms. Montesano reports, "hiding in his desk." His behavior has improved so much that he is now a "mentor" for classmates.

The 10-year-old program begun here has spread to other states and served from 15,000 to 20,000 children. It has been joined by several other similar programs around the country.

According to a recent survey by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, changes in family structure have also sparked "profound alterations" in the textbooks, teaching, and language used in classrooms. And many administrators, the group reports, are juggling their work hours to schedule conferences with single parents and offering alternatives to traditional parents' programs.

By and large, however, schools have been slow to assess the impact of divorce on classrooms, experts say, or to develop strategies to help buffer its effects.

"For the most part, we're the last ones to really become aware of changes in society," says Elizabeth M. McGonagle, a social worker at the Wood Road Elementary School in Ballston Spa and the founder of Banana Splits. Many schools, she says, "are still living in the era where we expected a 'regular' family."

'Sleeper Effect'

Studies show that many children whose parents are in the throes of a divorce or separation suffer at least temporary lapses in their schoolwork. And they may exhibit a wide range of behavioral symptoms--from daydreaming and withdrawal to "acting out" angry feelings with teachers and peers.

"If I'm worried about where I'm going to live tomorrow or whether Dad is going to pay child support, I'm not going to give a damn about Columbus," observes Ms. McGonagle.

In the book Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade After Divorce, the psychologist Judith S. Wallerstein also points to more disturbing long-term implications.

Ms. Wallerstein and co-author Sandra Blakeslee, a science writer, studied 60 families in the midst of divorce over a 15-year period.

If children do not resolve troubled feelings associated with divorce, the psychologist reports, they may enter adulthood leery of commitment, fearful of entering relationships, and skeptical of sustaining them.

The so-called "sleeper effect" of divorce may not be evident until a child reaches young adulthood, Ms. Wallerstein notes. But even in the early stages, she says, children's fears about how their lives will turn out are likely to affect their learning.

"Whether the child sees light at the end of the tunnel is very much associated with what happens in important relationships" in his or her life, Ms. Wallerstein said in an interview. "You cannot learn without hope."

'Profoundly Sad Eyes'

In the early stages of his parents' breakup, the 1st-grader described by Ms. Montesano exhibited "a lot of body language," she says. "He would be slumped down at the desk, falling out of the chair. He would put his head in the desk and refuse to take it out--he would slide it in sideways. He would whine: 'I don't feel good. I'm tired. I have a tummy ache."'

The child also had trouble completing schoolwork and did "a lot of acting out," Ms. Montesano adds. "He would be screaming at me. At times, I had to physically remove him from the classroom."

Other days "he would completely close down," she recalls. "There was no intrinsic motivation."

Other signs of stress displayed by children in the midst of family breakups include fidgeting, bitten nails, and "the profoundly sad eyes that children come to school with every day," says Suzy Yehl, director of Rainbows For All Children, a peer-support program launched in three Roman Catholic schools in Chicago and now used in a variety of settings.

Those who act up or pick on peers are apt to draw the attention of teachers and counselors, but "quietly preoccupied" pupils are less obvious, says Phyllis Richter, a Kensington, Md., social worker.

Many bright children, she notes, can "get by" without such preoccupations affecting their schoolwork. They can "pull it off even if they are miserable."

Children of divorce often feel responsible for their parents' breakup and fantasize about reuniting them, experts say.

One girl "believed for five years that she caused her parents' divorce because she failed to deliver a message from one parent to the other," Ms. Wallerstein writes, and a young boy "thought it was his fault because his dog was noisy."

Children burdened by guilt may become overachievers in the hope that their own good behavior will reunite their parents, experts say.

Others act up in order to bring parents "face to face," says John S. Visher, a Los Altos, Calif., psychiatrist who has taught and written widely on stepfamily issues in partnership with his wife.

"Sometimes a child will get in difficulty or trouble in class," he says, because schools "may call in both of the parents ... and the child has the sense that it's going to patch things up."

'Revisiting' the Divorce

In the largest national study on the impact of divorce on schoolchildren--launched in 1981 by the researcher John Guidubaldi--children of divorced parents were rated generally as less successful than those from "intact" families on a wide range of social and academic measures.

The pattern held constant in a follow-up study in 1984, and a seven-year follow-up now under way is expected to show "a continuation" of such disparities, says Mr. Guidubaldi, who directs the developmental school-psychology program at Kent State University.

School psychologists gathered data on 699 1st-, 3rd-, and 5th-grade students in 38 states for the study, which is based on teachers' and parents' ratings, classroom grades, and standardized-test data.

The children of divorce generally ranked lower than their classmates in academic achievement, communication and social interaction, independent learning, work effort, happiness, and health. They were also characterized as more inattentive, impulsive, and intellectually dependent; less popular with peers; and more likely to be placed in special-education classes or referred to school psychologists.

The disparities generally were "far more pronounced" in boys than girls, Mr. Guidubaldi notes. But he points out that girls in the study--whose performance had all but caught up with that of students from intact families by the 5th grade--began to fall behind again in the 8th grade.

Such data suggest that "at certain developmental stages, children may be revisting their whole reaction to divorce," says Howard M. Knoff, president-elect of the National Association of School Psychologists and director of the school-psychologytraining program at the University of South Florida.

High-school pupils affected by family breakups may skip school or turn to alcohol, drugs, or promiscuity, Ms. Wallerstein reports. And about 75 percent of teenagers who attempt suicide are from split homes, according to Ms. McGonagle.

Parental involvement in children's schooling also declines in many cases, she says, because "the parents themselves are so strung out" emotionally by the strain of separation or divorce.

Financial worries can also compound a child's sense of despair and dampen his ambitions.

Ms. Wallerstein reports that about two-thirds of the fathers in her study who apparently could afford to pay their children's college tuition did not, claiming they had already met their obligations.

"If you know that at age 15 or 16 your father's check stops, that can have a chilling effect on your aspiration level," she observes.

Focus on Survival

Letting children know that they are not alone--and that they can can survive the divorce ordeal--are key goals of the Banana Splits program, Ms. McGonagle explains.

The program helps convey to children, she says, that "you may not like what happened and you can't change it, but you can survive."

The inspiration for Banana Splits grew out of her work as a high-school social worker.

"I realized that many of the kids were having problems based on bag4gage of years and years before" from family breakups, she explains.

When she began working with two children of divorce at an elementary school, the group "snowballed" as friends joined in.

In the Banana Splits model, Ms. McGonagle stresses, children join the group voluntarily and parental permission is required.

Although school social workers direct the Banana Splits groups in Ballston Spa, in other school systems they are led by teachers, administrators, or guidance counselors, Ms. McGonagle says.

When pupils decide to participate, they write their names on construction-paper "bananas" that are posted on a paper tree in the hall.

The Banana Splits emblem, she explains, offers a positive image for children from split homes and fosters visibility and acceptance among other pupils and staff members.

One banana posted at the Wood Road school bears the likeness of Joseph M. Lopez, its principal. Mr. Lopez, whose own parents divorced, serves as a role model and has spoken at Banana Splits meetings.

"They are impressed to learn that I don't even know why my parents divorced--it helps kids to know others feel that way," he says.

'Out of the Woodwork'

Participants meet in small groups during lunch or after school and share their experiences as they work on art projects; play games designed to elicit questions, fears, or wishes; or jot down their feelings on a "graffiti board."

Meeting rooms are also equipped with such items as sandboxes, drawings of cartoon characters depicting various emotional states, and a huge teddy bear.

Topics broached at a recent session for 3rd-grade girls included reactions to mothers' boyfriends, vacations and visitation rights, and what it feels like to be tugged in different directions by parents.

One of the program's most important contributions, Ms. McGonagle says, is that it has helped to reduce feelings of shame or stigma associated with divorce.

"We have brought it out of the woodwork," she says. "You no longer have to be ashamed of it."

When she discussed disbanding Banana Splits one year to focus on other tasks, "the kids nagged and nagged and nagged" until she reconsidered. "Once you get in a school system," Ms. McGonagle says, "the kids will keep it going."

The program has become so popular, she adds, that children of intact families sometimes ask to join in.

Such children, experts say, are also shaken by high divorce rates.

"Children from intact families are jittery about divorce," Ms. Wallerstein writes. "Teachers from all over the country tell me that their students come to school wide-eyed with fear, saying that their parents quarreled the night before and asking in terror, 'Does this mean they are going to divorce?"'

To help address such concerns, a Santa Barbara, Calif., group has developed a curriculum on family transitions designed for general classroom use. The four-day curriculum for children aged 8 to 18 "covers feelings that come up when families change and all the different ways to be a family," says Wendy Geis-Rockwood, director of the Families in Transition Education Project.

'Gallows Humor'

Such group approaches provide a conducive atmosphere for children to air their feelings, experts say.

"It's so hard, when you see children one by one, for them to talk about the pain they are going through," says Ms. Richter, the Maryland social worker. "It's a lot easier for kids in a group."

"They get support and encouragement from their peers that their concerns will pass and that they will have brighter days," adds Frances S. Razmus, a 3rd-grade teacher who launched an after-school program for children of divorce in Columbia, Md.

The group also offers relief in the form of "gallows humor," Ms. McGonagle says. It makes children aware, she says, of "some of the craziness" of parents' behavior in a breakup--like having a child "deliver messages back and forth when phones work, or noting that a father can give money to a girlfriend but not to mom."

Teachers say the program helps ease students' sense of loss of control and calm their behavior.

"They're breathing deeply and thinking about what's causing them to be angry," says Jody A. Wheeler, a 3rd-grade teacher.

Counting the names on the banana tree and perusing graffiti boards also gives teachers a sense of the program's scope--and "a feeling that these are not just isolated cases," Ms. Wheeler says.

"Before, I would have been slamming my head against the wall and saying, why can't these children learn?" adds Ms. Montesano.

School Role Debated

Such programs make children feel less isolated and help them face "feelings they may have been too guilty, ashamed, or frightened to say or even to acknowledge," Ms. Wallerstein says.

But they do not, she contends, address her major finding--that children's "internalized" visions of failed parental relationships can cause them to develop "attitudes and expectations of failure" in their own lives and relationships.

"These are the issues of mid- to late adolescence," Ms. Wallerstein says, and schools are doing "almost nothing" to address them.

Elementary school is "the wrong time" to tackle such issues, she argues, but high schools and colleges could play a pivotal role.

Some educators, however, are leery of having schools take on that task.

Arthur Woodward, a University of Rochester research associate who has studied textbooks extensively, says publishers who go "too far" in depicting divided families may "downplay standard or traditional" families, which are still "one of the major institutions in our society."

Virginia Rovelli, a reading coordinator at the Wood Road school, says colleagues who object to school-based interventions fear pupils may return to class late or upset after counseling sessions.

Others, she says, "think it is society's and families' job to take care of emotional needs--and that if a child has a problem, he should be home discussing it with parents."

In an effort to foster better communication between children and parents, the Pittsburgh Center for Stepfamilies operates a school-based program that runs separate counsel8ing sessions for children and parents.

The one-hour sessions, which run for six weeks, include role-playing and other exercises aimed at helping parents and children understand each other's point of view, explains Judith L. Bauersfeld, the center's executive director.

Banana Splits counselors, says Barbara J. Levine, a social worker in Ballston Spa's Milton Terrace Elementary School, "try to encourage kids to talk to parents" and discuss what is the best time.

Pupils "get ideas from the group" about how to approach a parent, says Carol A. Frederick, a middle-school social worker in the district.

Some 'More Resistant'

But experts stress that not all children suffer long-term harm from family separations. Some conditions, they say, can mitigate the effects of the separations.

Ms. Wallerstein notes, for example, evidence suggesting that children actually benefit when "conflict-ridden marriages" end, particularly those involving violence or abuse.

Mr. Knoff also points out that children who by nature are "more resistant" to external stress tend not to have "ongoing difficulty." And breakups that are amicable, involve continued and close contact with the estranged parent, and ensure financial security can have a less traumatic impact, they and others say.

Mr. Guidubaldi's studies also show that children fare better when split families maintain structured daily routines and family rituals.

Some even question whether all of the behavioral impact attributed to divorce can be substantiated.

"Without a control group," writes the social psychologist Carol Tavris in a review of Second Chances in The New York Times, "Ms. Wallerstein succumbs to her own and her subjects' inclinations to attribute all distress and difficulty to the parents' divorce." Traits such as girls' fear of betrayal in relationships, she notes, "are also characteristic of many daughters whose parents never divorced."

It is a "myth," Ms. Rockwood of the Families in Transition program adds, that children who live with stepparents are necessarily less well adjusted than their peers. Data show, she says, that "just as many kids from biological parents have problems"--and that deaths and illnesses can also take their toll.

A key goal of educational support programs, she says, should be to convey to students that "it's not who is in your family that makes your family healthy, but how you communicate on solving problems together."

Vol. 08, Issue 38

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