Using Outlook to Keep a Split Family Working Together

It’s hard enough for a typical family to keep track of everything between school holidays, career deadlines, soccer games and business trips.  How does a split family do it?

I’m divorced and I’ve found that sharing a calendar is the key to successful communication and coordination.  To be blunt, I really don’t like needing to talk to my ex. 🙂  Before we got our calendar together, I felt like I was talking to him more than when we lived together.  Sharing a calendar has solved that.

We split custody 50/50.  We both want to be involved.  I’m already keeping a calendar so why no share it with him?  I put all of the dates in the calendar like:

  • Kids at Dad’s
  • Kids at Mom’s
  • School Holidays
  • Parent Teacher Conferences
  • Track Meets
  • Stuff Like That

I’ve set up this calendar in  I use Outlook to see both my work calendar (with Office365) AND this calendar which I’ve named “Family Calendar”.  For the events I listed above, I “invite” my ex and those events are sent to his work calendar.  He only keeps one calendar, that work calendar, so this was the best way to get this stuff in there.  When we first got organized, the number of “invitations” was a lot.  But now that it’s set up, it’s easy.

Both of us are pretty busy with work so we try to be very flexible with each other in terms of scheduling.  By using Outlook, we can run changes by each other over the phone or even via text message and then I make the updates in Outlook.  When an update is made, the updated appointment is sent to him.  It may feel formal, but it’s a great way to confirm the conversation we had and make sure things are straight – BEFORE we hit a conflict or have a miscommunication.

I also share this calendar with my husband and babysitter.  We just use basic calendar sharing.  My husband accesses the calendar when he’s trying to plan things and wants to see if we have the kids or not.  My babysitter uses this calendar to manage each day.  I add additional items that I don’t invite my ex to like Guitar Lesson, Piano Lesson, Reading Tutors and things like that so the babysitter has that schedule.  But I don’t add my ex to those items so they won’t fill up his calendar over the top of his busy afternoons at work.

Each Sunday night, I email this calendar to my ex (along with my son’s Autism specialists who work with him in my home).  It serves as a reminder for all of us to look at the week ahead and update anything that was forgotten.  This is especially handy in terms of support work schedules.  As conferences and business trips come up, they can be managed ahead of time.

Even though we’re divorced, we both need to support each other in our careers – as we do this, we’re helping each other do the best we can for our kids.  And by having all of the kids school commitments in one place, we can also coordinate so that we can BOTH attend or make sure at least one of us is attending.  Again, it’s the right thing to do for the kids.

So if you’re pulling your hair out trying to coordinate your custody schedule with your ex, AND stay on the same page with your shared babysitter, give this a try.  You’ll be amazed by the amount of harmony it will bring.

Use the Calendar to Start New Routines

With a new school year starting, I had 2 things I wanted to somehow fit into the day for both me and my son:  Getting consistent exercise by walking the dog AND just getting some quality time with my son.  Because he has Autism, he doesn’t really talk much.  He mostly sends me text messages when he really needs to communicate something.  Over the summer, he was at an outdoor camp with OutdoorsForAll, getting tons of exercise AND because I needed to take him each morning, we had time in the car to spend together.  Though we don’t really talk during that time, somehow a connection is built and I’ve seen that slip away over the course of a school year when we don’t have time like this to spend with each other each day.

So we set up a new routine to address both time together AND exercise.  We’re on our second week and it all started by putting this in his Outlook calendar.  We agreed to walk the dogs every morning from 6:45 to 7:15am.  Because it’s in his calendar, he gets up and is ready to go by then.  He’s just wired this way and I’m convinced this will be the key to him being independent and holding a job as an adult.  While it’s hard to get up a little earlier each morning, I’m loving the time we get to spend together each day.  And it’s a great habit to teach him for his life now and well into his future.

Positive Parent-Teacher Partnerships

We’ve all heard the horror stories of parents at odds with the school and their child’s teacher, especially if an IEP is involved.  I’ve been lucky.  I’ve never been in this situation.  I’m part of a great school district with outstanding teachers but I think I play a role in the very positive relationships I’ve had with my son’s teachers over the years.  My son has Autism.  I’m going on 10 years of partnering with teachers.  2 years of head start before Kindergarten and now he’s entering the 7th grade.

I’ve got a few basic principles that I approach each year with.

1. “How Can I Help You?

As I meet my son’s new teacher, or in the case of middle school, teachers, I always ask them, “How can I help you?”  We know our kids better than anyone else.  Teachers know their classroom, their curriculum and the challenges they face working with a classroom full of kids more than anyone else.  When I first introduce myself to a teacher, I ask them to let me know right away if they have any issues or challenges related to my son and make sure they know that our home program is all about supporting the IEP.  If I understand what he’s learning at school, we can add supportive learning activities at home so that classroom time is as valuable as possible.

2. Help the kids in the classroom help my son.

Each year, I work with the special ed director to sit down with the class and explain my son’s situation to the kids he interacts with each day.  When kids understand what is going on, they have an incredible amount of empathy.  Over the years, I’ve seen kids go out of their way to say hello to my son knowing that he won’t say hello back, helping him get into line when he doesn’t understand that’s what the teacher has asked, picking him to be their partner on a class field trip, all kinds of support!  And when the kids are helping out, it helps the teacher AND helps my son have more opportunities to interact with other kids, not just the teacher.

There have also been a few years earlier on where I had opportunities to speak up at back to school night, introducing myself to parents, telling them about my son and encouraging them to call if their children came home with any questions about Autism.  I felt very well received by the parents who reached out to me.

3. Understand that the school has limited resources.

I know my rights.  I know what my child needs and what he’s entitled to.  I know how to be an advocate.  But I also know that the teachers involved are human beings with only so much time on any given day.  I know there are other students who also have needs to meet.  If there is a problem and the teacher say they can’t solve it in a way I’d like, I ask to sit down and brainstorm ideas on how to solve it.

An example – when my son was in the 5th grade, he was NOT liking his math class.  Each night, I ask him a basic set of questions like “What was your easiest class today?”, “What is your hardest class?”, “Did you eat lunch with anyone today?”.  You get the idea.  Math was consistently coming up negative so I emailed the teacher to see if she could help me figure out why.  I didn’t accuse her of anything.  I didn’t assume anything.  I approached her with questions.  It turned out that my son was coming back in from his pull out session in the special ed resource room towards the end of math in his regular classroom.  Any child walking into that would be lost.  And that raised 2 big problems: the time he was spending in math was wasted time AND it was making him feel bad.  We talked through the situation and came up with a solution.  My son was focused on reading in his pull out session.  But 2 minutes before he was to go back, the special ed teacher would pull up the MATH assignment that they had worked on earlier in the day on a netbook.  He was instructed to work on this assignment in the classroom after he returned.  About 15 minutes after returning to math in progress in his regular classroom, the lesson would be finished up and ALL students would begin working for about 15 minutes on their math homework.  My son was now doing what everyone else was doing – working on math homework.  And his teacher knew what he was working on so she could check up on him just like the rest of the students in her class.

Sure, the school should have been on top of this.  But after I facilitated communication across the special ed teacher and the classroom teacher, we had a plan and it worked.  That’s all that mattered.  Why focus on the problem?  I brought the problem to their attention and we found a solution together.

4. Look out for the teacher.  Watch for burnout.

In the same way that I watch out for the people who work for me at Microsoft, I’m looking out for the teachers that work with my kids.  If my employees are overloaded and get burned out, they can’t do their best work.  The same goes for teachers.  When we meet at that first parent teacher conference or school meeting, I ask questions to figure out if the teacher is doing TOO MUCH.  Yes, I don’t want the teachers doing too much for my son.  It’s a long school year.   I want to see the teacher be able to support my son for the whole year at a sustainable pace.

When my son was in the 2nd grade, at the first parent teacher conference, I asked how things were going with him.  The teacher was very proud of how much she was doing for him to keep him engaged.  But it was too much.  In the science part of her daily class, my son was acting out.  It was clear to me that the content was beyond his comprehension so his attention was wandering elsewhere and behavior problems were the results.  There was no option to pull him out during this time.  The teacher was working way too hard to keep him from distracting the rest of the class – which was bad for the ENTIRE class (and bad for integration efforts as a whole).  I could not get an aide for him.  So I got the school to agree to pulling together some worksheets that were related to things he WAS working on where he could work on them during science AND be accountable via his special ed curriculum.  We had to juggle resources around for a single week so that we could jump start this new program but once it was working, it worked VERY well.  My son was making better use of this time in the classroom.  The teacher wasn’t being over extended trying to teach science AND manage a distracted student who couldn’t follow along.  This part of the curriculum was NOT related to the IEP.  We found a solution and that allowed the teacher to have more energy for ALL of her students.

5. Support Efforts at School From Home.

By working with teachers at the beginning of the year, I get details on the curriculum so that I can reinforce this content at home, and make better use of the time spent in the classroom.  My favorite story on this was when my son was in the 4th grade and the class was learning about the states and capitals in the US.  My son can memorize.  At home, we got flashcards that help kids learn the states and capitals.  His afternoon babysitter worked with him every afternoon.  He learned this material so well that he was acing the tests at school and when they had contests in the classroom to drill on this content and teams were being picked, my son was picked first!  He was the ringer.  This was the first time that my son had a truly integrated experience with his peers in the classroom.  And it opened countless doors in the classroom related to group projects and even skit day in the classroom at the end of that year.

6. Be solution oriented.  And be part of the solution.

I use the IEP as a guide.  When I don’t feel that goals are being met or that I see a plan that will support them, I call a meeting.  I express my concerns and start a dialog about how to solve it.  I always offer ideas on what we can do from home via our home ABA program.  Often, the trick is getting more information from school coming home so that we can do more to help from home.  In my son’s first year of middle school, math was a black hole.  The teacher was not communicating despite all of my best efforts.  No homework was coming home.  When I looked at the IEP goals related to math, I had zero visibility into how we would meet them.

I could have simply complained about the teacher, demanded more home school communication, that sort of thing.  But I just didn’t think that would go very far.  When I had attended back to school night, I could see this teacher cared a lot about her students and had very good intentions.  I just couldn’t tell if it went any further than that.  When I approached our case worker from the perspective of wanting math homework to come home so that we could help focus our home program on the goals, it was an easy conversation.  After all, we were signing up to do additional work!  The math teacher changed her routine to include my son taking responsibility for bringing his math worksheets home.  Completed worksheet went back to school so she could see we were putting the time and effort in.  And the entire relationship changed for the better.

At the end of that first year, my son had the opportunity to join the middle school track team due to a fantastic PE teacher of his.  This math teacher ended up being a huge volunteer supporting the track team.  And this good relationship we had built extended onto that field.  My son’s confidence soared from his track experience.  And this math teacher was a key to making that a positive experience for him.

In summary, as our kids get settled into this new school year, think about how you’re really partnering with these amazing people who are teaching our kids.  Ask them, “How can I help you?” and see what happens.

Does Being A Parent Help You Become A Better Manager?

I spent over an hour this evening in the card aisle at my local drugstore looking for a Hallmark card.

A coworker that I mentor is leaving Microsoft.  I care a lot about the people that I mentor and the people that I manage.  The emotions I develop for them are a combination of a big sister and a mother.  I’ve been told I care too much but it’s the only way I feel I can do this part of my job well…by caring that much.

My friend that is leaving has been working through this decision for a while.  Deciding to leave a job is difficult.  Uncertainty of the unknown.  Fear.  Taking a risk and moving out of your comfort zone.  I wanted to find a way to get her to stay at Microsoft but I knew that a different environment was probably the best thing for her.  As you try to help others in decisions like this, it’s all about helping them through their own thought process.  You don’t have the answers, they do.

As she has wrangled with this decision over the last few weeks, I have found myself shedding quite a few tears on her behalf after I leave those discussions and come home.  As I looked for the right card, no words could capture my feelings and the sentiment I wanted to share with her.  Thank you?  Congratulations?  Words of encouragement?

I’m excited that she will experience something new.  She has only worked at Microsoft.  And it takes a unique set of skills to succeed in such a large organization.  She’s going to a small start up.  I know she will learn more than she could have ever imagined in an environment that Microsoft just can’t provide.  And her confidence is going to grow in ways that I could never help her with.

I wonder if this is how I may feel when I send my own daughter off to college?  I hope that I can find a way to keep in touch with her to see how she’s doing, how she’s growing.  The downside of becoming this invested in people is that it makes it harder to see them move onto their next opportunity.  But I think this is the right way to manage and the right way to mentor people.  You teach them all you can and hope that they can take those lessons with them, and use those skills without you by their side.

To all the people I’ve ever managed, I hope I’ve made a positive impact.  And I couldn’t do it without the mom and big sister within me.

Family Dinner: Turning A Chore Back Into A Hobby


What’s for dinner?

This question can add stress to the end of a very long day.  And if you don’t have a great answer to that question, it can leave you feeling even worse.

I happen to enjoy cooking.  So when did this become such a chore?!  When I have the right ingredients on hand, putting a fabulous, healthy meal in front of my family gives me a boost and makes me feel good.  So I decided to make this, along with  the meal planning that goes with it, part of my routine.  It’s something I need to spend time on anyway.  Why not do this chore in a way that’s much more fun and enjoyable?  And if this can make the week run smoother, even better!

Every weekend, typically on a lazy Saturday morning before the activities of the day take over, I spend time with the latest edition of Cooking Light Magazine and some favorite cookbooks to plan my meals for the week.  As I pick out my recipes, I do 2 things:

1. Add the name of the dinner I’ve chosen into my Outlook calendar.  Or you can just write it into the family calendar on your wall.  It may seem a bit silly to write it into the calendar but once the busy week gets underway, you’d be amazed at how quickly you forget the great plan you made the weekend prior.

2. Capture all of the ingredients in OneNote.  I’ve got a shopping list page in a OneNote notebook that I share with my husband (more on that later).  Over time, I’ve organized this list to match the order that I roll through the store in.  I keep a lot of the typical items in the list like milk, eggs and apples so I remember to restock that stuff but it allows me to also remember the unique things for the recipes I’ve chosen.

From there, the plan is set and the weekend agenda can take over like it usually does.  Often getting the actual grocery shopping done can be tough in between all of the kids activities and time spent with friends.  This is where having the list in OneNote is super handy.

At the grocery store, if the list is long, my husband and I can divide and conquer.  We can both look at the list at the same time and check things off.  Since the list is ordered based on how I usually move through the store, he can start at one end while I start on the other.  We literally end up meeting in the middle.  Since I don’t have the ordering of my list perfect (yet), we both check items off the list on our phones and nothing is forgotten.

If you’re just getting started, this may feel like advanced organization.  But if you start with one meal or even just a basic shopping list, you’ll be amazed how over time, it gets easier and easier.  I’ve had random weekends where the meal planning just didn’t get done – and what a stressful week it was!

So turn cooking and meal planning back into the hobby you used to enjoy.  And reap the rewards through the rest of the week.