How to Make a Smooth Transition
By Michelle Bourg
As the old saying goes, “Nothing is constant except change.”All change requires some adjustment, and a move is right up at the top of the list. 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—potentially traumatic— milestone. School is where children establish an identity and relationships outside the family; changing schools means establishing them all over again. When you combine this with a move, the stress levels can increase exponentially. However, there are simple strategies you can follow to ease your family’s transition to both a new home and a new school.
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 change is bad. 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, take a moment to check in with a call or text.
A good way to help kids feel positive about the situation is to give them a voice in decisions whenever appropriate. Whether it’s about selecting a school or selecting the day’s outfit, asking their opinion on things that affect them directly lets them feel that they’re part of the process and not just pawns in the game.
School changes during junior high or high school are times when this presence is especially needed, but it’s tricky to pull off unobtrusively. The situation is particularly fraught: bigger schools, new classmates, shifting social expectations, and dating dynamics can all make kids and parents alike feel like they’re on a new planet. There’s also increased pressure to excel academically, with students getting ready to make decisions about their futures and contend with college admissions. With all this going on, it’s not surprising 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 to feeling vulnerable or to confide in you. It’s crucial to “hold on loosely” while watching for warning signs such as changes in behavior, eating habits or grades before major problems develop. It’s a tough balancing act, but teens do appreciate knowing that their parents are available and paying attention.
The key to making any change successfully is preparation. Particularly 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. 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: They’ll have useful insights to share, and talking about kids and schools is a surefire icebreaker when you’re new in the neighborhood.
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 together 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 first homeroom bell. The day before, go over the supplies list twice and make sure you have everything. Get outfits, backpacks, and other necessities put together so you’re not frazzled looking for shoes and ponytail holders in the morning.
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 multiple “dry runs” 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.
While your child is adjusting to changes at school, try to maintain a home routine as similar as possible to the one you’re used to. When other areas of life are in flux, a familiar routine is reassuring for everyone and shifts the focus to the things that often 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 in younger children, such as a bed-wetting incident, may occur. You may see a temporary decline in your child’s grades. Recognize that the adjustment will take time, but if things don’t improve after a few weeks, consult with a teacher or counselor about your child’s classroom behavior and if necessary, get advice about seeking professional help.
Lastly, 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 better help your child—if you take care of yourself. So go ahead and have that morning latte or take a relaxing walk.
It’s hard to predict how children will respond to changes in their routine, and their reactions may differ on different occasions. Being flexible, prepared and staying attentive to your child will help both of you adapt to a new school, and your new home, successfully.