Divorcing couples are required to take a parenting class in 16 states. Here's how it works — and why some question their effectiveness.

The classes are intended to prioritize kids, but offerings, and results, can greatly vary.

Getting divorced? Why these states require couple who have kids to take a parenting class first. (Image: Illustrated by Victoria Ellis for Yahoo)
Getting divorced? Why these states require couple who have kids to take a parenting class first. (Image: Illustrated by Victoria Ellis for Yahoo)

When Neile got divorced two years ago, she had no idea that she would have to take a parenting class, a requirement for all divorcing parents — including Reese Witherspoon and Jim Toth — in her home state of Tennessee. The judge assigned to her case provided a list of approved classes from which to pick. During that time, Neile worried about the effect the divorce would have on her daughter, and so the class seemed like a step in the right direction.

“Kids must be protected as much as possible during the conflict, and I think parenting class, therapy and any measure that advocates for and protects the kids in the divorce is probably a good thing," the mom, who asked to not share her last name, tells Yahoo Life. Two years on, she says she's grateful for the 12-hour online class that she took with Children in Between — the Center for Divorce Education's co-parenting programs — because it covered conflict resolution and other skills to help her co-parent with her ex.

Currently, 46 states mandate some form of parent education, and 16 states require all divorcing parents to participate in a court-approved class. However, despite the widespread adoption of these classes, there is great variety among the different options, and everything from the topics covered to the length of time to the effectiveness of the classes themselves is largely understudied and unknown.

Parent education classes have become widespread over the last 40 years, with mandated classes originating in neighboring counties in Kansas during the mid-1980s. During the late 1980s and 1990s, these courses spread across the country and private providers began developing programs to fulfill the need. However, despite almost four decades of implementation and parents being required to pay anywhere from $50 to hundreds of dollars to attend them, there is still little to no evidence proving that these classes work.

“There are a lot of programs out there, but they differ markedly in quality and whether or not they make a difference for parents and their children,” Sharlene Wolchik, a professor in the psychology department and director of the REACH Institute at Arizona State University, tells Yahoo Life. Her research partner, research professor Irwin Sandler, adds that the proliferation of these classes has occurred in family courts without evidence that they actually reduce interparental conflict or improve outcomes for children. In 2021, this led the state of Massachusetts to suspend parent education classes completely until evidence-based programs could be identified and implemented.

Wolchik founded the New Beginnings Program for divorcing parents and, along with Sandler, created its online counterpart, the eNew Beginnings Program (eNBP). Unlike many other programs, theirs is research-based, and it was found to be effective in a randomized, controlled trial. The entirely online program involves 10- to 30-minute classes once a week for six or 10 weeks, and parents who completed it reported less interparental conflict, increased quality of parenting and reduced behavior problems in children. Despite its proven results, the eNBP has not been widely adopted. It is mostly used in Arizona's Pima County, and Wolchik and Sandler are currently trying to collaborate with court systems nationwide to change this.

Between states, counties and even individual courtrooms, there is great variability in which programs fulfill the local requirements. For example, while Neile completed a 12-hour online course, Gina, another mom who got divorced in the same county, took a single four-hour class to meet the requirement. While Neile picked her class from a list of courses her judge approved, Gina, who also preferred to not share her last name, received a list from her lawyer.

Neither Neile nor Gina attended classes from the same providers as their exes. Neile wishes that both she and her ex had been required to attend the same type of class, so they had the same foundation for co-parenting.

“All programs are not created equal, and my ex’s was a lot less intensive and only four hours. It didn’t seem as beneficial,” Neile tells Yahoo Life.

Joshua E. Stern is the managing partner of the Illinois-based law firm Stern Perkoski Mendez, and he practices family law and regularly contributes to divorce discourse for a number of publications. He finds the courses to be well-meaning, but doesn’t believe they are regulated or overseen. His clients have also witnessed great variety at the county level.

“I can’t tell you why we’re doing it. Every now and then I have a client who says it is helpful, but the majority don’t say anything,” Stern tells Yahoo Life.

For many parents, it becomes a box to check, but Denise Baier, a licensed mental health counselor who writes content and teaches online parenting courses for Certevia, believes it can really benefit kids.

“Specifically, parental conflict becomes traumatic for kids, so the class offers parents not only information about the impact of conflict on children but also how they can learn to parent together,” Baier tells Yahoo Life. After more than 20 years of teaching classes like these, she believes courts should encourage parents to take the classes earlier in the process to offer the greatest benefit to kids.

Both Gina and Neile agree. Neile found her class to be helpful, but she thinks parents should be aware that programs are subjective and each one covers different topics, especially because they cost parents money and time. To get the best results, she believes it’s worth parents researching the programs that meet their county or judge’s requirements and putting forth effort during the class.

Gina, meanwhile, went into the process to get the certificate, but she also feels the class was useful and encourages other parents to go in with an open mind.

“Divorce is such a traumatic time that oftentimes we’re super-stressed and having someone remind us of even the little things we can do to put our kids first is really helpful,” she says.

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