Adjusting to a New School
Helping Your Child Cope with Change
by Daniel Beauregard
Relocating to a new school can be one of the most traumaticparts of moving to a different city. Children are forced to leave behind their friends, routines and surroundings and start all over in a new setting. But whether your child is entering a new school just a few miles away or across the country, there are steps parents can take to ensure a smooth transition. And that process can begin long before the student sets foot in a new classroom.
The first thing a parent can do is to think about the right time to move. Adults who are relocating for job-related reasons don’t always have a choice in this area. But those who do should consider moving over the summer or a long break, which can be less stressful for the child than switching schools in the middle of a session. This can also place your child on a more even footing with other students.
“Schools take on new students at the beginning of the school year,” says Belinda McIntosh, a psychologist for the Student Health Services department at Emory University. “Therefore, your child is less likely to be the only new kid in the class.”
Parents can also ease the transition by looking at particular schools in the area to which they’re moving. “Try to choose a school that is somewhat similar to the one where they were,” McIntosh says. It’s also important, she notes, that the child have a chance to say goodbye to their friends before the move.
A New Environment
Once you’ve arrived at your new home, listen to your child and be attentive to what they’re going through. To help alleviate the pain of feeling alone, encourage and facilitate communication between the child and the friends who’ve been left behind. Teenagers are already likely to stay in touch via email, text and social media.
But younger children often need a little help.
“It can be very exciting for them to sit down with a parent and send a postcard or a letter with a picture of them in their new home,” McIntosh says.
Before your child’s first day at a new school, visit the campus with him or her. Speak with teachers and administrators and take a tour to give the student the lay of the land.
“You’d be surprised at how many kids are afraid to go to a new school because they don’t know where the bathroom is,” says Merridee Michelsen, assistant headmaster and director of academics for Brandon Hall School.
Keeping the lines of communication open is crucial during such a transition. At Brandon Hall, which has both day and boarding school students, that can mean having the school facilitate times for the student to call or have a video chat with parents.
Michelsen adds that there are things the school can do to make the process easier, as well. During the child’s introductory tour of the school, administrators and teachers should make themselves available to answer questions and discuss particular situations unique to the child’s academics, such as whether he or she requires more time on tests.
A teacher’s curriculum can even be a tool in helping to ease the transition. Michelsen recommends that the first few days of class be spent on activities like team-building exercises, which develop a spirit of cooperation among the students.
When possible, parents and administrators should work to tailor a child’s schedule to their specific needs, in some cases even discussing the best time of day to take a certain class.
“I’ll say, ‘Some people like to do math in the morning and some people feel that their brain works better after lunch. When would you like to have math?’” Michelsen says.
Although each student is different, some of the common feelings a child will have on his or her first day of school can range from anxiety about making new friends to feelings of sadness or shyness as the student encounters new groups of friends.
The transition into a new classroom is usually easier for younger children such as elementary and middle school students, McIntosh says, because they’re still very eager to please their teachers.
“The teacher really has a lot of power to be able to guide the integration of that new student into the class,” she says. “The teacher can introduce them and tell the class something about where the student is from to make that student feel special and that they’re bringing something unique to the class.”
In some cases, a child will have a more difficult time getting through the transition and may appear sad or withdrawn. One of the best ways to work through this is to encourage involvement in extracurricular activities and things outside of the classroom.
“We have buddies for the kids and we try to connect the families to other families that have been at our school for a while,” says Sandy Ferko, head counselor at the Atlanta International School. “We encourage the children to get involved in activities such as basketball, theatre production or the model United Nations.”
During those first months, “Parents need to be checking in with the child to see how they’re feeling and accept their concerns,” Michelsen says. “But also to talk about the new school and the positive things about it.”
As the student adjusts, however, it’s just as important that parents connect with the school as well, since they are also leaving family and friends behind. “We encourage them to get involved,” says Ferko. “We have a very active parent organization, and I think if the kids see their parents getting involved, it becomes easier for the kids.”
That communication sends a statement to the student, Michelsen says. “The child will think, ‘My parents communicate with the school and my parents trust the school, therefore I’m going to be okay.’”
WHAT ELSE CAN YOU DO
Pay Attention: Changes in behavior and body language can provide clues that your child is having problems adjusting, even if he or she says everything is fine.
Open Up Your Home: Be willing to host a party or sleepover to help your child develop new friendships.
Volunteer: Pitching in as a teacher’s aide or even a crossing guard tells your child that you’re invested in his or her school.
Stay Connected: Communicate with your child’s teacher. Join or start an online community for parents at the school, and seek out the advice of other parents.
Seek Help: If things don’t improve, don’t be afraid to see the school counselor or school psychologist with your child, or schedule an appointment with an outside therapist.