Impacts of Parental Conflict on Student Achievement

The Fleming Education Group (FEG) Team is acutely mindful of the impact that parental conflict and stress tends to have on children. Of course, children are resilient; they can be inspired to cultivate new friendships in new settings, and, in time, can learn to thrive in new academic surrounds. Credible research substantiates that, in many instances, a child’s capacity to leverage her/his resilience and grit is directly correlated to the degree and frequency of ‘variable stressors’ they are required to navigate in their lives.

While the body of research is varied on whether children of family trauma (separation, divorce) matriculate to colleges and universities and achieve at the same levels as children from intact families, there is generally broad agreement that the potential for increased levels of stress, distressed parent-child relationships and low academic standing is elevated for children experiencing the throes of separation, family-marital discord and divorce. In fact, some studies support the notion that individuals from bi-nuclear, separated or divorced families are not as likely to go to college, in comparison to those with parents that have not divorced, or have an intact family. Additionally, Wallerstein & Lewis (2004) report that in addition to a lower likelihood of attending college, children that have experienced family trauma were considerably less likely to complete a four-year degree.

One positive among students of divorced families is the ability to be resilient. Children and teens who have experienced divorce or family trauma, who have positive attachments and relationships with their parent(s), and whose parents have found a path to collaboration show advanced signs of coping strategies in dealing with stress, more so than an individual raised in an intact family (McIntyre, Heron, McIntyre, Burton, & Engler, 2003). Still, though many teens are quick in adapting to the changes of a divorce or family trauma, even their possessing resiliency, infer that their parents’ separation or divorce is one of the most difficult experiences of their lives (Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1999).

Findings from the South Wales Family Study suggest that the quality of relations between parents not only affects children's long-term emotional and behavioral development but also affects their long-term academic achievement. "The study shows what many have long suspected - family factors exert a real influence on children's emotional and behavioral problems, as well as their academic achievement," said Dr. Gordon Harold, of the University's School of Psychology, the Director of the study. "In particular, children living in a family environment marked by frequent, intense and poorly resolved conflicts between parents are at greater risk for deficits in academic achievement than children living in more positive family environments", he said.

Cardiff University. "Parental Conflict Can Affect School Performance." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 9 May 2005.


Effects of stress on cognitive functioning and ability –

I.    Interference with a person's capacity to encode memory and the ability to retrieve information.

II.   Meaningful learning, literally, cannot occur when a child’s brain is experiencing stress overload.

III.  Stress can cause acute and chronic changes in certain brain functions which can cause long-term damages.

It is also critical to illuminate the literal, physiological impacts that “cognitive-environmental” stress could have on a child’s capacity to learn, interact socially, exhibit empathy, express emotions and be attuned to social conventions. The effects of stress on a child’s processing might include interference with her/his capacity to encode memory and the ability to retrieve information. During times of stress, the body reacts by secreting stress hormones into the bloodstream. Stress can cause acute and chronic changes in certain brain functions which can cause long-term damages.

So, if we extrapolate on what the implications for learning are for children who may be legitimately experiencing residual effects from moderate to significant parental conflict and cognitive-environmental stress, it becomes prudent to pause and consider the implications of selecting an appropriate, “best-fit” school setting. Children experiencing a school-setting placement change without ample transition time and/or support will experience some degree of academic and/or social-emotional distress. When families are considering a new school-choice option, it’s vital that children have considerable time to preview and digest any potential school transition.

Finally, regardless of the degree of family conflict, it is imperative that parents and guardians wear a lens and spirit of cooperation and positive regard when determining school placement. Employing this approach will serve to give children an optimal chance to continue developing as curious, empathetic learners. When curiosity and empathy are nurtured within a supportive learning environment, the result is a positive impact on a child’s confidence, esteem, happiness and sense of agency. These are critical learning attributes, which serve as foundations for processing information, for learning, for engaging with others, and ultimately, for thriving in school and in life beyond the school years.