A change of schools is a major plot twist in any child’s life, as countless kids’ movies that tell the tale of the new kid (think: The Karate Kid or Twilight) will attest. It can be exhilarating, excruciating or both. Parents, of course, would like to see their children experience a Hollywood happy ending. But the question of how to make that happen — particularly when a child moves midyear — is a complicated one.
“The biggest challenge for a kid is peer relationships. They don’t want to leave their friends,” says Stuart Burman, a psychological associate in Baltimore who has been counseling kids and families for 40 years. “The second big challenge is the change of curriculum.”
Parents can help kids step up to these challenges by being a source of information and reassurance and by acknowledging the stress that inevitably surrounds a school change. Something always precipitates a midyear school change — job loss or relocation, divorce, change in custody or a school transfer due to academic or social concerns. The causes and circumstances of a change will affect every family differently.
New school, new rules
For Dan and Tammy O’Keefe’s family, it was Dan’s job relocation that caused the move, and a new curriculum that presented the most challenges. When the O’Keefes moved from Wisconsin to Arkansas in January, their daughters Megan, 9, and Courtney, 6, transferred from a Montessori school to a traditional elementary school.
The differences between educational philosophies had a big impact on the girls’ daily routines, Tammy O’Keefe explains. The rhythm of the day at a Montessori school, where kids work on projects in longer blocks of time, was completely different, as was the curriculum and the emphasis on individual pace of learning. The biggest adjustment, though, was that the girls, who previously worked in the same classroom, would not see each other all day.
“Parents should share what curriculum the old school was using with the new school. Chances are the new school will be aware of the curriculum and it will help them access where the child is academically,” says Amy Tuley, LMSW, a former school social worker who is currently the director of admissions and student services for the School of Social Work at Western Michigan University.
Even though O’Keefe did share this, there were bumps along the way, especially for first-grader Courtney, who — accustomed to working at her own pace — came into her new Arkansas classroom ahead. At first, she would come home each day and announce that she had learned nothing new. “I got in touch with the teacher right away with an email,” says O’Keefe. She also volunteered to help the teacher, which has further opened the lines of communication. Within a few weeks Courtney was enjoying her new school.
Communication before, during and after the switch is essential. Tuley lists several questions parents may want to ask teachers and administrators: What is the day-to-day schedule for the school? What are students currently learning in the classroom my child will be in? When is standardized testing, and how does the school handle it? What extracurricular activities are available?
Setting the stage for social success
Unlike academics, the details of the social landscape aren’t laid out in a well-defined curriculum. Nevertheless, there is still much a parent can do to ease the transition and help a child make friends.
Setting your child up with another child to help with the transitions can be helpful, but says Tuley, “You must be careful to make sure that the personalities of the students fit. You don’t want to send your child to school with a ‘transition’ friend who is nothing like them.”
In the O’Keefe girls’ case, neither girl was her class’s only new student on their first day. “My girls are pretty outgoing, but they do tend to get shy if they are singled out. It really helped that each had another new person in the class,” says their mother.
And while making friends with kids in their classes is important, there’s more to kids’ social lives than that. O’Keefe has signed her girls up for activities like soccer and church school, providing them the opportunity to also make friends outside of their classes.
Arranging a tour of the school or even a shadow day, in which kids attend a day of school before they are enrolled, can answer a lot of questions. Kids may notice differences from their old school, like the ethnic makeup of the school or the gender of the teacher. These are not necessarily problems, just differences, but be prepared to talk about them.
A tour is always part of the new school routine for Carrie Craft, who is an old hand at enrolling kids in school midyear. As a foster parent of 40 kids in the last decade, Craft, who is also About.com’s guide for adoption/foster care, has done it nine times!
“A day before, I like to tour the school [to] give the child an extra day to process all the changes they are experiencing. So when they actually start school, they already know a bit about the school, where they will be eating lunch, where are the restrooms, where is their room, et cetera. They will also get to meet key people — teacher and principal,” she says. After a school tour, Craft likes to take a child out to lunch. The relaxed atmosphere of a special treat makes a kid more likely to open up about his or her feelings.
When preparing a child for a new school, Craft says parents need to do their homework and ask questions: “Can parents eat lunch with their students? Volunteer? Then, once the child starts attending, I would take the opportunity to get in there and check things out for myself!”
O’Keefe too finds that volunteering is a great way to observe the dynamics of the school, the classroom and the kids. While volunteering is not practical for all parents, communicating with the teacher via email or phone is important. Set up a conference with the teacher before the move, and schedule one for a month or so afterward, so parents and teachers can discuss any issues that come up.
Parents need to follow up to be sure that accurate and complete school records are transferred. However, official school documents — e.g., grades, standardized tests, individualized education plans (IEPs) — are only one part of the picture. Burman, the counselor from Baltimore, recommends that parents ask the old teacher to communicate a short report to the new teacher via email or phone.
And parents themselves are one of the most important conduits of information. “Meet with the teacher and say something like, ‘As a parent, I know my child is good with multiplication, but not as good with writing.’ Be very specific,” says Burman.
And more than just being specific, parents need to be honest. “Parents [should] share all academic information with the new school. As a past school social worker I have seen parents withhold information from the new school, thinking it would give their son or daughter a ‘new start,'” says Tuley. “Teachers and school staff need to know students’ strengths and weaknesses in order to best build an educational program for a student.”
Checking in with kids
“Kids will resist things, so talk to them about any change. Acknowledge their concerns, though get the child to describe them first,” says Burman, cautioning that parents want to be careful not to create concerns where there are none.
However, getting kids to open up about what’s happening at school can be difficult. Even when things are going fine, kids often respond to direct questions about school with little more than a shrug. In addition to talking with their kids, parents will also need to make observations.
Bullying is one thing to be on the lookout for. Tuley warns parents “that their son or daughter may be at greater risk of being bullied due to the transition. It is helpful to know what the school does to combat a bullying atmosphere.”
Parents should be on the lookout for personality changes that last longer than two to three weeks, says Tuley. Changes in behavior might include spending more time alone, seeming sad more often, and being less talkative and active or more short-tempered and hyperactive. Parents should talk to the kids, when appropriate, about these changes in behavior, as well as with teachers and possibly the school counselor.
When easing a child through a transition like a new school, parents need to utilize all their resources. Talk to other people at the school and in the community about activities and services that can support kids in this time. But don’t overlook the people inside the family, too, says Burman.
“Siblings can be very powerful people. Use the resources you have in the family — a favorite relative or grandparent. That person can play a key role for your child.”