Coparenting Children with Disabilities by Jeremy Kanter

Although divorce rates are high among parents of children with disabilities (e.g., Hartley, Barker, Seltzer, Greenberg,  Bolt, Floyd, & Orsmond, 2010) coparenting education classes are just beginning to develop tracks, components, or programs for separating or divorcing parents who have children with disabilities. At the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC) annual conference last month, the fact that coparenting education classes have neglected to attend to special circumstances linked to coparenting a child with a disability was discussed in a few of the sessions I attended.  I followed up with a few coparenting education classes when I returned from the conference and was energized to learn that some of the online programs are beginning to address this issue!

Michelle Muncy of Online Parenting Programs is one example of an online program that is planning to develop an online coparenting education program for parents who are coparenting children with disabilities. Focus on Kids, an online coparenting education class developed by Dr. David Schramm and colleagues at The University of Missouri is another example. Focus on Kids now offers fact sheets for families with special circumstances. The fact sheets that Dr. Schramm and colleagues have created for divorcing parents who have children with disabilities cover a range of topics that are especially relevant to this special circumstance; some of the topics include:


  • Custodial rights or what to expect as a primary caregiver of a child with a disability
  • How to divide medical costs for children with disabilities
  • The children’s cognitive capacity to understand their parents’ divorce
  • Special issues that need to be documented in parenting plans
  • Issues specific to children who have life-threatening, chronic, psychological & behavioral disabilities

With the high divorce rates for parents of children with disabilities, some of these issues in the Focus on Kids’ fact sheets are crucial components to coparenting education. Although many parents experience similar challenges when going through the separation or divorce process, it is important for programs to address the unique needs and challenges linked to families with special circumstances. Special circumstances are not limited to children with disabilities; coparenting when intimate partner violence, alcoholism, or military duties influence parents’ roles also provide unique challenges in the separation processes. In some situations, one parent may be largely absent from the child’s life, and these families may benefit from additional support in educational settings (online or face-to-face). Although the transition to tailoring information to families with special circumstances has been slow, it is promising to see that programs have begun to address these issues!

How Extensive Can a 4 Hour Program Be? by Jill Bowers

Although laws vary from state to state, 4 hours is the most common, mandated dosage for divorce or coparenting education classes.  In other words, many parents (of children under 18 years old)  are required to spend approximately 4 hours in a coparenting education class before a judge will grant the divorce.  The coparenting education classes are designed to help parents manage conflict and communicate cooperatively with their coparent to ensure their child(ren) successfully adjust with transitions throughout the divorce or separation process. But is 4 hours enough?

Reviews of divorce education programs reveal that coparenting education classes largely cover topics surrounding children’s adjustments and how parents can help the.  Scholars suggest that these classes could be improved with additional content that includes more emphasis on adult and court-focused content (see Blaisure & Geasler, 1996 or Bowers et al., 2011). Discussions in the divorce literature and presentations at the 2013 AFCC Conference indicate that coparenting education programs would benefit from including more focus on the following topics:

  • The emotional turmoil surrounding adult adjustments to divorce, including differences in love anger and sadness surrounding “the leaver” and “the left” (see Emery’s book, Renegotiating Family Relationships)
  • Parenting plans
  • Court processes, such as difficult terminology, what happens with mediation, or examples of how parents could handle the legal aspects of divorce
  • Topics specific to families with special circumstances (i.e., children with special needs, domestic violence, military family relationships, substance abuse); for a few examples, see Holtzworth-Munroe, 2011 for discussion of court issues and domestic violence

These are just a few of the topics that scholars have recommended for improvements to program content. Additionally, researchers call for skill-building techniques (e.g., opportunities for parents to practice approaching or reacting to their coparent; see Geasler and Blaisure’s 1998 work or Salem and colleagues’ 2013 article for examples).  At the same time, if parents are only required to attend 4 hours of education (or less in some states), program administrators struggle to fit all of the topics parents could benefit from within that time frame. Administrators of online coparenting education programs could potentially have additional hours or sections of content that parents could explore on their own.  In fact, some programs do offer additional content (for example, programs may offer 6, 8, or 10 hour versions), but parents generally complete what they are required to take to fulfill court mandates.  Thus, implications for the future of coparenting education include, but are not limited to:

  • policy makers to consider extending the amount of time parents are required to spend in these classes,
  • researchers, court personnel, and program administrators to work together to ensure the content that is being covered within the 4 hour (or required time frame) is comprehensive, provides opportunities for skill-building, and gets at parents needs beyond child-focused content, and
  • program administrators need to “beef up” their content and design techniques, providing text, videos, or other materials that are not too simplistic and opportunities for parents to interact.  If parents are engaged with the material, they will be more likely to continue exploring through the site and or enticed to come back for more.