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Help Your Child Transition to a New School (Ages & Stages)

Updated: Jan 23, 2022

Transitioning to a new school can be difficult for kids. Whether it is your child’s first day of elementary school, their first day of high school, or you’re moving to a new school district, starting a new school can affect a child’s academic performance, social development, and mental state.

There are things you can do before and during your child’s switching to a new school to help them feel comfortable and become comfortable in their unfamiliar environment. Ages 3 to 4: Settling In... For some young children, learning to cope with an unfamiliar environment, as well as separating from their parents, can be overwhelming, or it can go quite smoothly. How a preschooler reacts emotionally and socially may have more to do with her temperament, needs, interests, and experiences, such as previous school attendance, than her specific age. Showing Regressive Behaviors... Some threes and fours are not sure of their unfamiliar environment and vary in their adjustment times, do not be surprised if some seem to revert to the familiar, less-mature behaviors of younger children (baby talk, clinging). In this way, a child may be telling Mom or Dad to stay a little longer at drop-off time. Or she may be letting the teacher know she needs some one-on-one time, like cuddling on the couch in the library for a quiet story. By age three, most children who have had opportunities to make strong attachments to their parents have achieved the major emotional milestone of keeping Mom or Dad in their minds while they are separated for a few hours. However, a longer period may be difficult for some threes at first.

Finding Comfort... Familiarity is comforting and helps preschoolers make necessary transitions. Bringing a familiar, comforting item to school helps threes and fours to feel safe and secure at first. Then they begin to adapt as they substitute other things in the environment. Although 3-year-olds refer to other children as their friends, it is usually the materials in the environment that attract them initially. On the other hand, fours become excited about seeing their friends from last year or moving up with them from their 3-year-old class. What You Can Do to Encourage Comfort...

  • Photo fun. Take photos of the children and teachers to share on a class bulletin board. This helps everyone get to know each other. Ask parents to send in family photos to decorate their child's cubby for added comfort.

  • Books about school experiences. Share stories about school settings and how other children relate to their new surroundings. Read My First Day at Nursery School by Becky Edwards (Bloomsbury).

  • Early visits. Arrange for a parent and child to visit the new environment together before the child attends and talk about what to expect. Set up the preschooler's personal space in his cubby and try out activities in the various centers.

Ages 5 to 6: As you well know, kindergarten children react to their unfamiliar environment in a variety of ways. Some have never been to school before, while others have participated in a preschool or Day-Care program. Each brings her own preferences and interests. Even though many 5-year-olds have some experience with a "program," they are often hit with the reality of going off to kindergarten. It is a huge change!

Making Adjustments... By age five, many children have started to develop an interest in carrying on conversations with new children and adults. While some new kindergartners may still fear unfamiliar people, most have come to trust the school setting as a safe place to meet others. Often it can take just a few days of acclimation before even the quietest child starts to participate in short conversations. Finding Play Partners... The desire and ability to organize and interest others in play is an important part of being a 5- and 6-year-old. This inclination alone can help many children overcome fears of the new environment because they are so drawn to playing with others. Many children start kindergarten with this ability, but almost all develop it quickly through a good play-based program. Interestingly, this social interaction skill is often paired with the school-agers' desire to play with one or two children at a time. This makes the introduction of learning centers an important part of setting up the new environment.

Creating Familiarity... Feeling "grown-up" is important to most 5- and 6-year-olds. When they enter their new environment, they want to feel successful and knowledgeable right away. Therefore, it's important for children to find things that remind them of preschool. Then you can gradually add new challenges and responsibilities. It is also helpful to look at how children's different adjustment styles play out in the beginning of the school year. Making Individual Adjustments... It is important to be supportive and allow your child the opportunity to play the observer role as long as needed. At the same time, make it clear that she is invited and encouraged to participate. You probably have also experienced the child who is so excited to be at the new school that he flies from one activity to another without really touching down. While it's good that this child appears to separate from his parents easily, this type of behavior can signal a basic insecurity that is manifesting itself in the "flighty" activity. This child often needs just as much reassurance as the quiet, shy child.

Ages 7-11 Start the conversation early. Give your child as much time as you can to process the upcoming change. Ask your child what he's nervous/frightened about with this change. Offer support

  1. Keep a positive attitude. When your child sees you happy and relaxed about transition, she will then too.

  2. Give kids some control over the situation. Clothing and snack choices for ex

  3. Go for a sneak peek at the school together

  4. Create a new and fun morning routine together

  5. Get involved/Volunteer

  6. Talk to the Principal and Teacher about any concerns you may have.

  7. Quickly observe, then Schedule a playdate.

Tweens & Teens Although moving to a new city might feel like a disaster to a teen, starting a new school can be a positive experience. That does not mean your teen will not struggle to adjust, however. Switching peer groups, adjusting to a new academic schedule, and leaving behind old friends can be hard for adolescents. And it is not just about social expectations—a new school can also cause challenges in academic and extracurricular areas. While many teens will thrive with a fresh start, immediately jumping into activities and making friends, others will not succeed immediately. Some of them may feel lost for a bit, both academically and socially. If you are moving to a new school system, use these strategies to help your teen adjust to a new school.

Keep a Positive Attitude… The adjustment period begins before your teen ever steps foot into the new school. Your teen will have a dismal outlook from the start, so the responsibility rests on you to talk up the new town and school. Point out the new opportunities that will be available, whether it is a great theater program or the opportunity to take advanced-level science courses. If you are not thrilled about the move either, it’s OK to share that you have concerns. But make it clear that you are going to choose to look on the bright side and show your teen that you’re determined to make the best of the situation. If YOU have confidence that you can make it a new city or a new job, your teen will feel more confident about her ability to succeed in a new school.

Listen to Your Teen’s Concerns…

Acknowledging that change can be hard. You need to validate her feelings by saying you know it will be hard for him to leave his school and his friends. Avoid minimizing your teens distress by saying things like, "Oh, you'll make new friends right away so don't worry about it," or "It's not a big deal. I changed schools all the time." Instead, say things like, "I know you love being in the band here and being in the band in your next school won't be the same," or "I understand you're worried about being able to stay in touch with your friends." Your teen might not express his feelings with words, but you might see some changes in his behavior that indicate he's stressed out about the move. He may lash out in anger but, that could be a cover for how he is really feeling. Keep asking questions about his biggest concerns. Are they worried about new teachers? Does he doubt his ability to make the basketball team? It could even be something small like using a locker for the first time if his previous school did not have them. Offer a balanced outlook by acknowledging the challenges of moving, but also recognizing that a new school may offer exciting new opportunities.

Talk About Your Reasons for Moving… Be honest and upfront with your teen about why you're moving. If you're relocating for a better career opportunity, moving so you can be closer to family, or you need to find a new house because you can't afford to stay where you are, talk about it.2 Discuss the values that went into your decision. Make sure your teen knows that you aren't moving just to make his life miserable, and you aren't switching schools because you don't care about his feelings. Instead, explain that you do care about feelings, but ultimately, it's up to you to make the best choice for the family. And even if he isn't on board with the decision, you're going to have to move anyway. Show your teen that you have confidence that everyone in the family can adjust to your new circumstances and that with hard work and a good attitude, you can create a happy life in a new home or a new city.

Learn About the New School Together Quite often, anxiety stems from not knowing what to expect.3 If your teen can gain a clear understanding of what his new school is going to be like, he may have a more positive attitude about making the move. Conduct as much research as possible about the new school before your teen starts attending. Get your teen involved in finding out about the size of the school, the types of classes offered, and which extracurricular activities are offered. Most schools have websites that offer a wealth of information. Talking to a guidance counselor or coach ahead of time can also be helpful. Arrange for your teen to have a tour of the school too. If at all possible, help your teen meet some students from the new school before his first day. Seeing a familiar face or two when he’s the ‘new kid’ can go a long way to helping him settle in.

Encourage a Fresh Start If your teen attended the same elementary and middle school for his formative years, then his personality, activities and the like are pretty ingrained in the brains of his peers. After all, once you’ve been pegged as a cheerleader or the guy who is bad at math, it’s hard to break out of that rut when you're surrounded by the peers who watched you grow up. Remind your teen that, at his new school, no one has any preconceived notions about who he is. Therefore, if he wants to change up his activities, style, or any other facet of his being, he can do it now without any questions.4 Explain that a fresh start can help him become an even better version of himself. He can create positive change for his life and surround himself with the type of friends he wants to have now that he's entering into a new phase of his life.

Facilitate Making New Friends It can be hard to make new friends in high school, especially if you’re moving to the middle of the year. It can be especially difficult if your teen tends to be a bit shy. Help your teen create a plan for meeting new people and making friends. Joining a club or playing a sport can be a great way for your teen to socialize.5 Talk to your teen about what types of extra-curricular activities he’s interested in joining. Then, talk to the school about how to make that happen if the school year is already underway.

Encourage Maintaining Old Friendships The digital age makes it easier than ever for your teen to stay in touch with old friends. If you're moving across the country…Social Media will allow your teen to chat with his pals regularly. If your teen simply switched schools in the same area, encourage him to invite over both old and new friends and make your home a space he can entertain easily. Talk about introducing his friends to one another and make it clear that he doesn’t have to pick between friends at his old school and friends at his new school. Sometimes, teens feel disloyal if they make new friends or they worry that their old friends will forget about them if they don’t stay in constant contact. Talk openly about your teen’s concerns and discuss strategies for maintaining a healthy social life.

Watch out for Academic Problems High school can be academically challenging enough, but when your teen switches schools midway through his academic career, there are a lot of adjustments to be made. Perhaps Spanish II in this school is more like Spanish III in the previous school, and your teen can’t keep up with the teacher. Or maybe your teen never learned algebra the way the new school teaches it. Even differences in scheduling (such as block scheduling versus traditional) can pose difficulties. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your teen’s teachers to ask how he's doing in class and how you can help make the academic adjustment easier.

Don’t Let the Move Be an Excuse Your teen may be tempted to say the move has caused his plummeting marks or poor behavior. Don’t let the transition be an excuse. Life is full of transitions. Someday, your teen will likely need to adjust to a new job, a new home, a new boss, and living with a partner. So, changing schools can be a good practice for embracing change. As a parent, let go of the guilt you carry for uprooting your teenager. You wouldn’t have made the switch if it wasn’t in the best interest of your family, and harboring guilt just keeps the family from moving forward. Seek Help if Necessary If your teen is having a particularly tough time adjusting to a new high school ask for professional support . If your teen isn’t making friends or he starts struggling academically, he may be at a higher risk of mental health problems or substance abuse issues.

Talk to your Physician to request a referral to a therapist. Or speak to the school’s guidance counselor. The school may offer services that can help.

Marlowe Gelmon Behavioral Therapeutics FB/LinkedIn/Instagram/YouTube


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