Transitioning to a New School

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Everyone can remember their first day at a new school; the nerves that undoubtedly built as you entered a strange building, stared at a sea of unfamiliar faces, and struggled to establish new friendships. Your child will surely face these same fears as she enters her new school, but fortunately there are things you can do to ease her stress and facilitate a smooth transition.

There are many reasons for a change in schools. Some parents are unhappy with their child's placement and seek a new experience more in sync with his needs. Some simply graduate and move on to the next school in their district. With job losses still climbing in the U.S., some families are relocating to a new city for job opportunities and a fresh start.

While it's best to transfer schools at the start of a new academic year, when everyone else is learning the new routines as well, some moves cannot be avoided and must take place mid-year. If the change is scheduled for the fall, you can still start preparing your child now. These tips will help you whenever the move is scheduled.

  • Be clear about why your child is changing schools. Ensure her that she did nothing wrong and that the move is meant to bring her more positive experiences. Give her warning about when the change will take place. Marking it on the calendar gives a clear visual for the timeline of the transition.
  • Fill out all necessary paperwork in a timely fashion. Being called down to the office is an embarrassing moment for a child and keeping these distractions to a minimum will help him focus on his work. Completing health forms are especially important because many schools mandate all medical forms be complete in order to participate in any physical activity. Your child could be isolated and unable to participate in gym class, causing more stress.
  • Contact the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA). Become an active member and use this opportunity to network with other parents. This gives you a chance to get to know the families you will be spending time with and will lessen your apprehension when your child asks for a playdate at a new friend's house. It also shows you are excited to join the school's community.
  • Visit the school while it is in session and also at least once in the summer. Your child will have the chance to meet teachers, students, and other staff when they are present. Visiting in the summer gives your child time to "wander" around and learn her way without the stress of a crowd.
  • Write a story together. Make your child the main character and have him generate ideas for the plot. Pose the question: "What type of things do you think might happen on the first day at your new school?" You can discuss situations that may cause anxiety and the appropriate way to handle them. This type of role-playing prepares your child for new interactions and gives him a script to fall back on. Always end the story on a positive note, for example, "James was so happy to meet children who like basketball, just like him!"
  • Make sure your child has closure at her old school. Have a going-away party with her friends to celebrate the big move. Give her an address book so she can write down her friends' contact information and have the option of keeping in touch once the move has happened.

Also, check with the school social worker and see if they have a "buddy" system for new students. Having a buddy show them around the first few days helps your child feel comfortable and she won't have to worry about having someone to sit with at lunch.

If you see your child is still having a hard time adjusting four to six weeks into the new school experience, touch base with the school guidance counselor. Establishing a connection with an adult in school gives your child a place to share his anxieties or concerns during the day. The guidance counselor may be able to facilitate some productive interactions between peers in your child's class, as well as work with the staff in the school to support your child

Stay positive! Show your child that you are making an effort to adjust to the new school routine as well and help her see this is an exciting journey for the whole family!

Jennifer Cerbasi teaches at a public school for children on the autism spectrum in New Jersey. As a coordinator of Applied Behavioral Analysis programs in the home, she works with parents to create and implement behavioral plans for their children in an environment that fosters both academic and social growth. In addition to her work both in the classroom and at home, she is also a member of the National Association of Special Education Teachers and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.