Do you remember lying awake for hours the night before the first day of school each Fall? I sure do. So many questions swirled around my brain. What did the year have in store for me? Would my teacher be nice? Would I make friends? Would I be bullied? Was my outfit okay? Could I handle the work? My anxiety was even higher in years when I was starting a brand new school.
Transitioning to a new school is often very scary and difficult for a child. Whether the change is because of a move or getting promoted to the next educational stage, they are leaving behind familiar faces and routines. While they might be excited to start their new adventure, they are likely sad to close the chapter on their old school and anxious for what is waiting for them.
I worked in early childhood education for many years and helped hundreds of children (and their nervous parents) get ready to transition to Kindergarten. I’m working on a different sort of transition plan now - my daughter is heading to middle school!
Here are some tips to help your child get ready for a new school, regardless of their age:
Allow them to say good bye to their old school. This is a loss to them and they need closure. Take photos of the school, their favorite objects or locations within the school, their teachers and other valued staff members. Help them put together a scrapbook or photo album with the pictures and other mementos, such as their preschool or elementary school graduation ‘diploma’.
Help them gather up the contact information for their friends, so they can stay in touch. Arrange a way for them to maintain contact through phone calls, texts, emails or Skype. If you are moving to a new school within your same area, set up playdates over the summer and the first weeks of the new school year. Knowing their friends from their old school are still out there will help them feel less lonely as they make new friends.
Talk about the new school often. Tell them stories about your school experiences. Make it a normal and natural part of your conversation. Visit the schools website together and read about the staff, activities offered, lunch menus and basic facts, such as arrival time and dress code.
Acknowledge that changing schools is hard. Tell your child how excited you are for their new school and that you think they’re going to have a great year, but don’t gloss over the difficulty of the situation. They may feel sad, angry, nervous and afraid. Let them know that it’s okay to feel that way.
Let them know what to expect. If they are entering a new phase, talk about what happens in Kindergarten, junior high or high school. Head to the local bookstore or library for books featuring characters in a similar phase. Read them together and talk about what the characters are experiencing.
Connect with other students. Track down families who attend the school already and chat with them about their experiences. Arrange for your child to meet other kids who attend the school, so they have some friendships in the works in advance.
Make the school familiar. Drive by the school often. Point it out to younger children, saying, “There’s your new school!” each time you pass by. Arrange for you and your child to visit the school, meet the principal and take a tour during the summer.
Learn about the bus system. If your child will be taking the bus, help them become familiar with the bus stops, route and rules before the first day. Try to find another child in your neighborhood so they have a ‘buddy’ during the first week.
Tips for the first day. Help your child get all of their supplies organized and ready to go the night before. Lay out their outfit and prepare a checklist of what they need to do and bring in the morning. Go over this list with them before they walk out the door.
If you drive your child to school on the first day, arrive early. My daughter is much less anxious if she arrives to a new location before the crowd. Watching people trickle in slowly is much less overwhelming than being thrown directly into the crowd.
Try to keep your own emotions under control. If your child sees you crying or worried, they will feel even
more anxious. Keep the good bye short, upbeat and encouraging.
Have a special treat (milk and cookies, anyone?) and a big hug waiting for them when you reunite. Give them time to decompress and process their day before grilling them for details. They may need several weeks to feel comfortable in their new school. Continue talking about the change and reassuring your child that it will get easier. Keep the hugs and high fives coming as they adjust. Treat yourself to a cookie too. Transitioning to a new school is hard, but your child will survive - and so will you!
Rachael is a mom, freelance writer and blogger. She’s confident she and her daughter will both survive middle school. Find her at www.rachaelmoshman.com.
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