Moving to a new school: how can parents help?

By Cheryl Walker
June 16, 2006

Moving to a new school can be difficult for children, but parents can help ease the transition, according to Donna Henderson, professor of counseling at Wake Forest University and co-author of "The Handbook of School Counseling."

"The transition from one school to the next is a point at which children have more opportunities for trouble," said Henderson, whose family moved more than a dozen times before she graduated from high school. First, demystify it, she suggested.

"Let the child know what to expect," she said. "Go and walk around the building before the first day of school. Find the principal's office, the school nurse and other key places."

Feeling confident that they know where to go is an important first step for children in making an easier transition. As part of that process, it is helpful for parents to sit down together with a child to review any orientation materials for the new school.

Next, she suggests parents "remind (children) of times in the past when they have had to do something new and how they coped then." Helping them recall the skills they used and the successes they experienced in similar situations is a good way to prepare for the challenges they may face.

"Sometimes kids are grieving what they've lost," she said. "They have an attachment to what was." Often, it can be good for parents to help children maintain some contact with old friends at first. E-mail and instant messaging have made keeping in touch easier for kids.

In other cases, children may be worried about moving to a new school, but are also hoping the new school will be better than what they are leaving behind.

"For children who have been unhappy in some way in a previous school, the change is a chance to rewrite that, an opportunity to recreate their story," Henderson said. "Help them think about how they can take advantage of that."

Parents can help children focus on the opportunities for new teachers, new friends and new experiences.

School counselors often set up groups for students who enter a school after the start of the year to help them connect with others who are also new.

If a child has moved to a new school in a new town, often the best kids to try to connect with first are other kids who have moved a lot because they understand the difficulties, she said.

Henderson also explained what not to do.

"Don't tell them horror stories about your own experiences," she said. Sharing negative experiences at this point will only add to a child's anxiety.

"Don't just give them assurances that everything will be okay," she says. "It's hard to predict what might happen."

Henderson suggested it is better to focus on how a child might cope with various scenarios than to give false promises that all will be smooth sailing.

Overall, parents need to take time with children making this transition. They need to pay attention to how things are going, even though they might be struggling to adjust to a new neighborhood or a new job.

"Devoting time to listening will work miracles," she said. "Don't be afraid to sit in silence — no TV, no distractions — and see what happens."

Henderson, who spent 12 years as a teacher and school counselor, also encouraged parents to remind their children that it is okay to talk to a teacher or school counselor if they are struggling.

If children show a drastic change in behavior, parents need to do a careful assessment to see if the situation is too stressful for the child to cope. If so, parents should contact a school counselor or outside professional to get the additional help a child may need.