How to Help Your Child Transition to a New School

parent walking student to school

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Like most other transitions, moving can be tough on kids—especially if they are moving to a new community. Meeting new people, switching schools, and making new friends can be stressful. It can even cause anxiety and depressive symptoms if kids are not supported throughout the process.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to help ease the transition from your child's old school to their new school. Whether you are preparing to move soon or getting settled in your new community now, we share what you need to know about this transition process below. You will learn how your child may be impacted and how long the transition will take as well as tips on how to make the process a smooth one.

How Does Changing Schools Affect a Child?

Most kids who are supported throughout a move usually do pretty well when transitioning to a new school. But for those who move a lot or who are particularly introverted, they may be more prone to challenges.

In fact, research has found that kids who move frequently are at an increased risk of poor academic achievement, behavior problems, grade retention, and even high school drop-out. They also are at risk for social problems and psychological difficulties including less social competence and low self-esteem.

Angie Frencho, MEd

Just as change can be difficult for adults, children experience similar emotions—anxiety, fear, and stress.

— Angie Frencho, MEd

"Just as change can be difficult for adults, children experience similar emotions—anxiety, fear, and stress," says Angie Frencho, MEd, a teacher and gifted intervention specialist. "Keep open communication. Talk about and validate feelings. Try to encourage new friendships in the neighborhood, through extracurriculars, or [in worship communities]."

Because children thrive on predictability and routine, a move can make them feel disoriented and disconnected. The things that made them feel safe and secure—like a familiar bedroom and play space, as well as a familiar school building and friends—are no longer part of their surroundings. Getting used to these changes and adjusting to their new home, community, and school will take time.

"They have to start over in the sense of finding new friends and identifying teachers and staff they deem as approachable or safe," says Sandra Calzadilla, LMHC, a licensed mental health counselor who specializes in child development and parenting. As a parent, Calzadilla also has recent personal experience transitioning her own children to new schools. "They also can feel anxious, or fearful. Children tend to feel safer when they know what to expect and the unknown can be quite anxiety-provoking—some children may develop somatic symptoms like nausea or insomnia."

As kids adjust to their new school and new surroundings, it is also not uncommon to see them retreating or even acting out. Changing schools also can disrupt their learning experience, says Frencho. Not only are they confronted with different curricula and different expectations in new schools, but schools also can differ in their climate and instructional environments.

"With academics, changing schools can be tricky," says Frencho. "Because there is no set statewide or nationwide calendar for when standards are taught throughout the school year, changing schools could potentially create holes in your child’s academic background. Additionally, if you change from public to private or vice versa or from one state to another, there could potentially be an entirely different adopted curriculum, which could create more significant gaps in their learning journey. Be aware and ready to help support those learning gaps."

How Long Will the Adjustment Take?

While every child is different, some kids can feel comfortable in a new school within a few weeks while others may take several months to adjust. The adjustment period will depend largely on your child's personality and temperament as well as the support that they receive.

"You should see improvement usually within a month for elementary school children and it may take one to two months for adolescents, as they can be more self-conscious or fearful of rejection," says Calzadilla.

If your child is struggling to adjust, talk to them and see what may be hindering them. Ask what they like and do not like about their new school, suggests Calzadilla. Then, see if you can help them focus on the positive or brainstorm ways to address the negative.

It is also important to acknowledge and validate their feelings—including their feelings of missing their old school and old friends. Help them do a reality check on fears like "no one likes me" and acknowledge how difficult it can be to make new friends, Calzadilla says.

"Talk to the teachers and guidance counselors to determine if any additional supports can be put in place to assist your child," she adds. "Maintain previous friendships whenever possible that way the child does not feel completely disconnected from friends."

Tips for Helping Your Kid Transition

It is important to be patient and understanding when helping your child adjust. Change is tough no matter the age, and it takes time. Some kids may appear to adjust quickly and develop friendships, while others will take longer. Support your child as best you can and look for ways to make the transition easier. Here are some tips for helping your child transition to a new school.

Explain Why You Are Moving

When making a move, it is important to explain to your child why it is happening. Whether you are moving because you changed jobs, divorced, or want to be in a different school district, your kids need to know the real reason for the switch.

"Be honest," says Frencho. "Children deserve honesty." 

Even if they do not fully understand the reasons, it is important to give them an age-appropriate explanation. Also, try to be as positive as possible about the move. Kids have an uncanny ability to pick up on the perceptions of the adults in their lives, so focus on the positive while acknowledging how challenging it can be to move.

"If the move created change in your life as well, be honest and share how you are dealing with the changes too," suggests Frencho. "Children love to know that adults often experience the same fears and concerns that they do."

Give Them Closure

Saying goodbye is hard, but it is even harder to leave without saying goodbye to all the things you know and love. Plan a time when your child can say goodbye to their school, their friends, and their teachers. Just because they will be in a new school doesn't mean that the old one will matter less.

"Give them time to say their goodbyes and gain closure," suggests Frencho.

You also may want to give them space to talk about their feelings about leaving and any concerns they have about moving forward. And, if possible, make plans to stay in touch with their classmates. For instance, arrange a reunion playdate, or if you are far away, plan to video call to catch up.

Knowing they will see their friends again in some way can help your child feel more settled as they move on. While it won't alleviate their fears or concerns, allowing them to maintain connection and experience closure can help signal the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new one.

Support Their Learning

Changing schools can create some gaps in your child's learning. Before the move, be sure to discuss what your child is expected to know and what they will be learning. And if necessary, consider hiring a tutor or other academic assistance.

Sandra Calzadilla, LMHC

Meeting their new teacher ahead of time can also help provide them some reassurance on their first days and weeks in a new school.

— Sandra Calzadilla, LMHC

"Meeting their new teacher ahead of time can also help provide them some reassurance on their first days and weeks in a new school," says Calzadilla.

It also can help to get a sneak peek at the new school. Ask the guidance counselor or principal if they can give you and your child a tour. Knowing the lay of the land—like where the cafeteria is or where to find the bathrooms—can help alleviate some of their concerns before the first day.

"Taking a tour of the school prior to starting the new school helps kids feel less disoriented," says Calzadilla. "Show them where the office is and who they can ask for if they need assistance. [It also helps to] let them know exactly what they can expect when it is drop-off and pick-up time."

Keep in mind that your child also may be more inhibited when they start a new school and can be more quiet or shy, Calzadilla adds. Be patient, understanding, and supportive. Frequently check in with them. Allow them to work through their feelings and emotions and do what you can to alleviate their stress and anxiety.

"Changing schools can impact their learning especially if they are feeling anxious," Calzadilla says. "This can make it harder to pay attention and they may miss directions or seem distracted because their emotions are negatively engaged at the moment."

Set Small Goals Together

Once they are settled in their new school, set goals together, says Frencho. Help them brainstorm what their ideal scenario might look like and then break that down into small, manageable—and achievable—goals. For instance, they might want to set a goal to say hi to at least one new person a day or invite someone over to play or study.

They also might want to try something new or ask more questions in class. The key is to not remain stagnant in their new environment but instead push themselves a little each day to give the new school and the new people a chance.

"Setting small goals together with them [helps them] trudge through the discomfort, make friends, and ask questions," Frencho adds. "Lead with kindness and encourage your child to do the same."

Get Involved in the Community

Look for community events and opportunities to help your child make new friends and connections. Enroll them in classes, sports, or other activities they are interested in that will help them meet people with similar interests.

"Connecting with kids in their neighborhood is great," says Calzadilla. "This way friends are not just limited to school and this can help them feel more connected to their new community. Structured events outside of school can also give children the opportunity to make additional friends and connections that are not limited to school and can be based on mutual interests."

A Word From Verywell

Whether your child is starting a new school now or will be starting soon, it is never too early or too late to help them make the transition. Change is hard whether you are an adult or a child, so work through the challenges together. Be supportive, patient, and understanding and eventually you both will be acclimated to your new community and school.

If you find that your child is not adjusting well or seems to be experiencing more challenges than you expected, reach out for support. Talk to your child's pediatrician, the school counselor, or mental health professional. They can help you come up with a plan that helps your child manage their stress and anxiety while adapting to their new environment.

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