Moving to a new school is exciting, but it can also be a tough transition for kids — from navigating a new school building to finding their place in a new class to striving to make friends all over again. Your child may experience feelings of stress and anxiety; sometimes, switching schools can even be as stressful as going through another tumultuous kid life change such as loss or divorce. But although being the new kid in school isn't easy, it can be a fantastic opportunity to cultivate confidence and self-identity.
Here's how you can support your kids through that process according to child psych experts.
Don't let it be a surprise
Dr. Gail Saltz is an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, and she explains how a move can be stressful for children. “Any major transition, like a house move, can cause anxiety for children. Their home provides comfort; losing it can make a child feel very unsettled and uncertain about day-to-day life until they adjust,” she tells SheKnows.
Nobody likes to be blindsided with life-altering information, so as soon as you know a move is imminent, share this information with your child and answer any questions they may have about the process and exactly what will happen.
Tour the new school together
Mary Masellis, lead psychologist for the Queen Creek Unified School District in Arizona, has helped many new arrivals to get their bearings and feel part of their new school community. She advises parents to bring their child along to orientation to view their new school, check out the bus routine and ask for a school buddy or mentor to be assigned to their child. She also suggests families get involved in their new local community. “Play at the school playground and local park to encourage your child to meet new friends that already go to the new school. Get involved with the school, volunteer if you can, network with other parents and be patient. It may take about six weeks or 30 school days before children begin to settle,” she tells SheKnows.
Get kids involved with the details
Let children have some choices over how their new bedroom will be decorated, and if a process of decluttering will be taking place, give them control over which toys and possessions they are happy to pass on and which they want to bring to the new home. Kids can also become excited about the move if they can choose new clubs or after-school activities to join. Check out the new neighborhood together and get them interested in their new environment.
Explain the process of moving
As an adult, it’s easy to forget we have prior life experiences our children do not share. They may not understand the process of moving or where all those boxes are being sent. Children may worry that their pets won't be coming along, that their toys will be lost or that they may even be boxed up too! Carefully go over the schedule of moving day, explaining exactly what will happen to all your possessions, and then if possible, send children to their grandparents or a babysitter so you can focus on the move.
Make it special
It’s natural for kids to feel anxious about starting a new school, but parents can help their children feel more in control by making the first day of school feel exciting and special.
Saltz says, “Let them choose fun stuff to prepare, and go in with… special erasers or pencils, a fun binder and backpack.”
Give your child a pep talk
Confidence to handle new and challenging situations is a skill that can be strengthened with repetition. Masellis says that parents can help their children to adjust to a new school and overcome any nervousness they might feel by giving them a little pep talk and reminding them just how capable they really are.
“Remind your child of all the 'firsts' they have already accomplished and how those firsts were handled,” she says.
Keep home/school lines of communication open
It’s really important to keep the lines of communication open between home and school. You should keep your child's teacher abreast of any worries your child may have about being at a new school, and they can give you a clear picture of what's happening in the classroom and how your child is coping with all the changes.
Keep listening to your child
When starting at a new school, children may well have to keep their fears at bay all day long as they try their best to present a confident front. Dr. Katie Davis, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York State, reminds us that once they get home, our job as parents is to be that soft place to land.
“The most important thing to do is to validate your children's concerns and thank them for sharing their thoughts and worries. It is crucial to keep that conversation open and to make them feel heard, considered and safe. You may not have the answers to all of their questions, but you can always say, 'Thanks for letting me know. I'm not sure yet how to answer your question, but I can understand why that might upset you, and I'll start thinking about ways to help,'” she tells SheKnows.
Know when to seek help
Most children will adjust to a new school, house and even a new city or country relatively easily. Children are very resilient. Be patient with kids and expect to have some setbacks. They may love their new school one day and then the next complain they don't want to go. However, if their anxiety persists or they seem very unhappy, you may need to speak with the school about solutions, including the possibility of seeing a family therapist for advice and coping strategies.
Saltz has the following advice on spotting warning signs your child might not be coping with the change. “If a child regresses in already-accomplished milestones (potty training, sleeping in their own bed, going to other children’s homes), if they start socially isolating themselves, if they refuse to go to school, if their grades really drop or if they can’t sleep or lose their appetite, then these may be signs of high anxiety or depression.”
Moving schools can be hard on kids, but if you prepare them, keep talking about the process throughout, encourage them to try new activities and get involved with the new school community, you can help them to make new friends and feel secure and safe in their new home away from home.