Whether across town or across the county, starting a new school can be a challenging experience. Yes, change is a part of life, but that doesn't make it any easier when it is your child who is making the transition to a new building filled with unknown teachers, rules and expectations.
Change can bring on many different feelings, both positive and negative, so you can expect to see a wide range of responses. Your child may feel worried, excited, sad, hopeful, stressed or eager about beginning a new school. They may be worried about making new friends, meeting new teachers and learning new rules. The main thing to remember is that all of these feelings are normal. Just think about the last time you started a new job or moved to a new location, you probably experienced the same feelings.
Checking out the school can go a long way to ease feelings of anxiety. Most schools will have a spring or summer orientation program where students can get to know their way around before the first day of school. They can find key locations such as homeroom, cafeteria, library, office and restrooms, as well as become familiar with bell schedules and school rules and programs.
Students can also do a virtual tour online. Go to your school district website and see what your new school has to offer. Your district website can be a wealth of information. School menus, cycle schedules, activities, school calendars, sports schedules and school forms can all be accessed with the click of a mouse. Most schools also have a portal where parents and students can access grades, homework, attendance and discipline throughout the school year. Keeping up with what is going on and being prepared is a definite help in making a smooth transition to a new school.
Even if you have butterflies about sending your child off to a new school, don't express your concerns to the child. Children can sense your emotions and can react to your worries. Instead, be positive and upbeat about the new experience. Talk with them about the fact that they will probably know other students as well as have the opportunity to make new friends. Emphasize that many things will still be the same as at their old school. Present the transition as an adventure and let your child know that you are excited about this new opportunity and confident in their ability to succeed.
On the practical side, make sure that you start easing your child into a routine before school starts. Being tired or unorganized only adds to a child's anxiety. After months of late nights and late mornings, it is quite an adjustment to that 6 a.m. wakeup call. Establishing bedtime and mealtime routines can be comforting. Also, figure out what type of organization works for your child - book bag, binders, folders, notebooks or assignment books. Not knowing where your important papers are, what you have for homework or where your lunch money is can cause last minute panic.
Tips for adjusting:
- Attend orientation at the school to become familiar with key locations.
- Take a virtual tour online. The district website can be a wealth of information for new students.
- Don't express your concerns to your child. Children can sense your emotions and react to your worries.
- Ease into a school routine before classes start. Being tired or unorganized adds to a child's anxiety.
- Maintain open communication with your child. Ask specific questions about how things are going.
If you and your child go on a shopping adventure, just buy the minimum supplies. Many teachers will have specific requests that students will learn about on the first day. Save money and avoid stress by waiting and getting what the child actually needs for school supplies. Avoid a clothing disaster by checking out the school dress code. Nothing is more embarrassing than being called to bring in a change of clothing for your child who is wearing something inappropriate.
Once school starts, encourage your child to get involved in school activities. This is a great way to make new friends, experience new things and develop self confidence. Schools have something for everyone; varsity and intramural sports, musical organizations, service clubs, student government and special interest activities. Participation in activities gives students a sense of belonging and a vested interest in the school. Becoming involved can do a lot to help with transitioning to a new school.
Making new friends is often a worry as students begin the school year. If your child is shy, talk with them about making friends. How can you introduce yourself and start a conversation with someone? How do you find someone to sit with at lunch or play with on the playground?
Your child may be worried about being rejected when they approach someone. If the person doesn't respond, many children will immediately think that they did something wrong or that the person doesn't like them. Encourage them to reframe their thinking that it may just be bad timing, maybe the person was distracted or in a bad mood or maybe they misread their body language. Let your child know that they don't have to change to fit in; they just need to find their niche.
Finally, keep the lines of communication open with your child during those first weeks of school and make sure you plan for some one-on-one time. Ask specific question about how things are going. Actively listen and tune in to how your child is feeling. Let them know that you care and that their feelings, both good and bad, are normal. It is a fine balance, don't overreact, but don't minimize what they are feeling and experiencing. Most students will adjust to their new environment within a week or two. However, if your child continues to seem sad or stressed, is having problems eating or sleeping, is experiencing headaches or stomachaches, or doesn't want to come to school, contact your child's teacher or school counselor to work together to solve the problem.
Yes, there are frightening rumors out there about the schools - upperclassmen will shove students in a locker, the school is so big students will get lost, there is not enough time to each lunch, the administration and teachers are really scary. They are just that - rumors. However, don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it. No question is too stupid to ask. Personally, I have had students go halfway through the school year not using their locker because they did not know how to work the combination lock. When made aware, the problem was solved with a few individual lessons in Locker 101. Faculty, staff and administration are all here to create a good environment for learning, but when your child needs help, let the school know.
Remember that everyone else is in the same boat as your child and it is usually only a short time until they will feel at home in their new school!
Suzanne Firth is a school counselor at Mifflin County Junior High School.