Eight ways to ease your child’s transition to a new school

Katie walked sleepily down the stairs. This was not the bubbly, energetic morning person I had known for the past 10 years. She gave me a big hug and curled up next to me on the sofa. Tears welled up in her eyes. "Mom, I don’t want to go to school," she said. "Can I stay home and help you unpack boxes?" I gently returned her hug and reminded her that we were only going to visit the school today. She sighed and laid her head on my shoulder. I knew once we took a tour and met her teacher, she would be less anxious. It was just one of the steps we took to ease the transition. Whether you are moving miles away or minutes away, the following eight steps may help ensure an easier beginning to a new school life.

Step 1: Find a school that meets your expectations. Relocating requires an incredible amount of planning, including finding the right school. An inexpensive and helpful resource was our real estate agent who sent us a file containing everything we could possibly want to know about the local schools and communities.

Another resource is SchoolMatch, an educational consulting firm. With their full-search service ($68 to $97.50), you’ll answer a series of questions regarding preferences in schools and communities. After comparing your responses to their databases, they’ll report on the top 15 public school systems or private schools in the requested area, indicating whether they meet, exceed, or fall below your expectations in a number of categories. For more information, call 800/724-6651 or visit their Internet site at www.schoolmatch.com.

Also, check out Places Rated Almanac (Macmillan Travel, $24.95) for information on more than 350 metro areas.

Step 2: Move while school is in session. If possible, don’t wait until the school year ends. Moving during the school year will provide your child the opportunity to become involved in school activities and thus develop friendships before summer arrives. Also, most of the information regarding summer programs and camps is sent home from school with the children in the spring. If we had waited until summer, we would have missed the registration deadlines and programs would have been filled. Summer vacation can seem like forever to a child who is anticipating a different school.

Step 3: Register before you move. Locating required birth certificates, immunization records, and other information can be like looking for a needle in a haystack once the boxes are all packed. Registering ahead of time also provides the new teacher with the opportunity to prepare for your child’s arrival. If you think the relocation is going to be especially difficult, or if the circumstances of the move are negative (divorce or death, for example), talk to the counselor as well as the classroom teacher. Your child will have an easier transition if services such as counseling or special education classes are in place from the start.

Notify the current school of the impending move. This will give them adequate time to close out your child’s file and send the records to your next school. This also gives the current classroom teacher time to close out any lessons and, in some cases, plan a going away party.

Step 4: Scope it out. Before your child’s first day at the new school, make an appointment to meet the principal and tour the school with your child while it is in session. Meet the teachers your child will have, see the classrooms, the cafeteria, the library, the gym, and the playground. It will give your child a sense of security to know where everything is located.

If your child will ride the bus, find out the bus number as well as pick-up and drop-off points and times. If you drive your child to and from school, find out the procedure ahead of time. This ensures your child’s safety and reduces anxiety. If necessary, walk the route with your child for the first few days.

Step 5: Seek help from school counselors. In addition to providing individual attention, many school counselors have group programs for relocating students. For example, Jan Dukes, an elementary school counselor for the Keller Independent School District in Keller, Texas, oversees a Newcomers Club. "I gather all of the new children from the same grade. Within the group, each child has a buddy; somebody who is dealing with a lot of the same feelings. We discuss why they moved and how it is different here. We talk about interests and hobbies and how to make friends with similar interests."

Step 6: Communicate. For children, it can reduce those mountains to molehills. Licensed professional counselor and marriage and family therapist Tracie Morrison states, "Anytime children are facing a challenging situation, effective communication is essential. Prepare them, get their ideas, and listen to their feelings and fears. Talk about their new school and friends. Keep the conversation positive. Sometimes, younger children have a difficult time putting their feelings into words. Parents can help by making statements, such as "I know it might feel scary to start a new school" or "You might be wondering how to make friends." Help them remember how they got to know the friends they have now. Teach them to ask questions about their friends, such as "Do you have a cat?" or "Do you like to play baseball?"

The key is to focus on the positive and not let them fall into the trap of "Remember at my old school…?"

Step 7: Get active. Occasionally, be part of your child’s school day. The day will come soon enough when your child would rather eat worms than be seen with you at school, so take advantage of it while you can. Suzanne Pettit, principal of Florence Elementary in Southlake, Texas, promotes parent involvement. "Parents are encouraged to eat lunch with their child, stay for recess, and observe their child in the classroom setting at any time," says Pettit. "It is an excellent opportunity to see how their children are adjusting and to meet their classmates."

Step 8: Be consistent. Helping children establish a routine once you have moved is very important. The time to unpack and organize your home is while your children are in school. Time after school should be spent doing the same kinds of things they did before moving, including homework, chores ("What? We still have to make our beds?"), inviting friends over to play, and having fun.

You are your children’s most important teacher. Show them that relocating is an adventure. Make friends and discover places together. Instill in them the confidence and security to reach out and take hold of their new life.

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