August 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 4 // Ideas at Work // 4IAW1

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

Adjusting to Family Change

When changes occur in families due to divorce, death, or relocation, children often feel frightened, insecure, and confused. The "Adjusting to Family Change" program provides 4th and 5th grade children the skills needed to cope with these changes through better self-esteem and communication. Teacher response indicates that student behavior improves as children begin to express their fears and concerns. Through this program, children find out their feelings are normal and find solutions through improved communication skills.

Beverly J. Keil
Extension Agent
Family and Consumer Science
Belmont/Guernsey County, Ohio
Internet address:

Beverly M. Kelbaugh
Extension Agent
Belmont County, Ohio

Carolyn S. Wilson
Extension Agent
Guernsey County, Ohio

An increasing number of children are struggling to cope with family changes caused by divorce, death, and re-location. National trends predict 60-94% of children under age 18 will spend some time as part of a one-parent family. Few programs are available to help elementary age youth deal with the effects of divorce. "Adjusting to Family Change" was developed in Guernsey County, Ohio, for fourth and fifth graders to help youth understand and cope with life events that cause change. The program has been requested annually by personnel in all ten school districts in Guernsey and Belmont counties.

To date, over 4,500 children have participated. Family Change enables youth to identify the effects of change, discover alternative ways to resolve conflict, and learn simple coping strategies through a variety of methods including puppetry, role play, discussion, games, activities, and video. The program is conducted in the classroom by Extension professionals trained in family life issues. Volunteers enhance the program with puppet shows, panels, and sharing of real life experiences.

The fourth grade program emphasizes self-esteem through a series of four classroom sessions. Children learn to appreciate and verbalize the positive attributes of themselves and others and how outside forces affect self-esteem. They also learn to identify their role in how friends and family interact. A puppet show introduces the topic of divorce and feelings associated with family changes. Activities reinforce the identification and acceptance of mixed feelings and offer coping strategies. Students learn basic communication skills and the importance of two way communication. One of the most basic strategies is helping students identify people in their world who can offer support and advice.

The fifth grade program is done in three sessions. It continues discussions and reinforces concepts from the fourth grade program while focusing more on coping strategies. Either a video or puppet show introduces the topic of family change. Other activities help students identify how those changes increase the demands on their time and to understand and identify feelings in time of crisis. Students are encouraged to break problems into smaller parts with which they can deal and to discover alternative ways to resolve conflict. "I messages" are one example of coping strategies that students can use to improve communication.

Small group support sessions can be offered after school for children directly affected by family change. A variety of activities including drawing, role playing, and brainstorming allow children to express feelings more freely. This provides a circle of friends to whom it is safe to talk and allows them to practice their coping strategies.

The program has been adapted to meet the needs of various school systems. It offers great flexibility in terms of time and meeting school needs. Each grade series can be done alone or in conjunction with the after school programs. There is a benefit to having the continuity and progression of skills allowed by doing the program over two years. Fifth grade students adopt concepts and strategies faster the second time they are introduced, and they also exhibit more comfort in discussing concepts.

Written evaluations have been collected from both teachers and students. Direct observation by Extension personnel and school officials have also contributed to the evaluation. Student evaluations indicate that they have learned to identify feelings, that divorce is not caused by children, and that it is important to talk to someone about problems. Teachers and school officials reported changes in some students' behaviors and attitudes such as openly discussing problems and feelings, giving more compliments, and treating everyone equally. One school superintendent summed up the "Adjusting to Family Change" Program very well when he said, "Your program gives the kids a clear picture of divorce and death. Before this training, they kept everything inside where it boiled away. Now that they understand their situation and have been given the opportunity to talk about it, they will begin to adjust."