Adjusting to a New School
How to Make Your Child’s Transition Easier
By Michelle Bourg
As the old saying goes, “Nothing is constant except change.” All change requires some adjustment, from a new baby to a rescheduled dental appointment. This can be difficult for adults, let alone for children, who thrive on routine and have fewer coping skills.
From preschool to college, starting or changing schools is a dramatic—and a potentially traumatic—milestone for a youngster. School is the place where children establish an identity and relationships outside the family circle—changing schools requires them to establish them over again. Plus, we’re human: the unfamiliar is scary.
One of the most important things you can do to help your children—and yourself—negotiate any life change is to maintain a calm presence. Children pick up on your feelings, so it’s important to communicate a positive attitude. If you’re anxious, young children especially may interpret this to mean that school is not a good place. Don’t overhype it, but convey the feeling that this is an adventure and your enthusiasm will be infectious. Spend extra time with your child, even if it’s just watching TV together. Encourage, but don’t push, him to talk about any concerns he may have. When you can’t be physically present, check in with a call or text.
A good way to help your child feel positive about the situation is to give them a voice in decisions whenever appropriate. Whether it’s selecting a school or selecting an outfit for the day, asking her opinion on things that affect her directly lets her feel that she’s part of the process and not just a pawn in the game.
The transitions to junior high and then to high school are times when this presence is especially needed, but tricky to pull off unobtrusively. The situation is particularly fraught: bigger schools, new classmates, shifting social expectations, and dating dynamics can make both of you feel like it’s a whole new planet. There’s also growing pressure to excel academically, with students eventually making decisions about their futures and many contending with college admissions. With all of this going on, it’s no surprise that one in four high school freshmen reports feeling extreme stress.
Ironically, this is also the age at which your child is less likely to admit vulnerability or confide in you. It’s crucial to “hold on loosely” while watching for warning signs like changes in behavior, eating habits or grades before major problems develop. It’s a tough balancing act, but teens do appreciate knowing their parents are available and paying attention.
The key to making a change successfully is preparation. Especially if you’re changing school systems, the curriculum and culture are likely to be slightly different. Find out what’s been covered, and if there are areas that your child is unfamiliar with, arrange for extra study or tutoring so he won’t be behind. Be sure to read over the materials you receive from the school, such as parent and student handbooks, to familiarize yourself with policies and deadlines. The best source of inside information is someone who’s been there, so reach out to other parents: Whether you’re new in the neighborhood or your child is moving up within the system, they’ll have useful insights to share.
As the big day looms, go over the logistics. Have a dress rehearsal: Take your child to the bus stop or drive them to school. Attend an orientation or arrange a tour so you can both see where the classrooms, cafeteria, restrooms and other facilities are. Meet the teachers and encourage your child to ask questions. Will your child have a locker for the first time? Get a combination lock and let him practice so he’s not frantically twirling the dial during the homeroom bell. The day before, go over the supplies list twice and make sure you’ve got everything. Get outfits, backpacks, and other necessities ready so in the morning you’re not frazzled looking for shoes.
Preparation is especially critical for children with ADHD, ASD issues, anxiety or learning disabilities, who especially need routine and structure. You may want to do more than one “dry run” of a new routine. Many such children are visual learners and respond better to having information presented in picture form. Another tool is the Social Story™, a short description of an activity or situation that gives specific information about what to expect in that situation and why. Special education teachers can assist with creating these stories; resources are also available online.
A fun way to prepare your tyke for preschool or kindergarten is to read them books that take place in school and then play “school” together with them as the teacher. This helps establish school as a fun place and demystifies the teacher’s role in your child’s mind.
While your child is adjusting to changes at school, try to keep things on an even keel at home. When some areas of life in flux, a familiar routine is reassuring for everyone and shifts the focus to the things that need to be relearned. Maintaining a set bedtime is especially important; tired kids (and adults) deal less well with stress.
As in any period of adjustment, patience is essential. Just like adults, kids can get cranky or sad when stressed. Some moodiness is normal and developmental regression, such as a bed-wetting incident, may occur. If things don’t improve after a few weeks, consult with a teacher or counselor about your child’s classroom behavior and get advice on seeking professional help if necessary. And don’t neglect yourself; the tension can rub off on you. You’re experiencing a life change too, and you can weather it better — and help your child best — if you take care of yourself. So have that morning latte or take a walk.
It’s hard to predict how a child will respond to changes in their daily routine, and their reactions may differ on different occasions. Being flexible, prepared and staying attentive to your child will help both of you negotiate life and school transitions successfully.