All children face big transitions during their school years growing up. Kids can change schools from preschool to kindergarten, elementary to middle school, and middle school to high school. It’s also common for kids to move into a new school system due to job transfers, to be closer to family or perhaps a better neighborhood.
But whatever the reason, school changes can be hard on kids and even impact their academics, social and emotional development.
“The unpredictability of this change in routine and familiar faces, and fear of getting lost or not fitting in, can bring about a lot of anxiety in kids,” said Alex Miksit, MD, a pediatrician at Akron Children’s Warren and Liberty primary care locations. “It’s perfectly natural for kids to feel unsettled the first few months of transitioning to a new school. The things that made them feel safe and secure—like a familiar school building and friends, or house and community, in some cases—are no longer a part of their lives.”
Fortunately, parents can play a major role in helping kids adjust more easily and get used to their new surroundings—whether it’s their first day of elementary school or high school. Follow Dr. Miksit’s 7 tips for a smoother transition to a new school. It may not be easy or quick, but it won’t be a disaster either.
Acknowledge your child’s feelings and ask questions
Be open and honest about why your child is transitioning to a new school, and ask questions to help your child express concerns. What is your child most nervous about? Is she excited? Once school starts, what was the best and worst part of her day? Your child’s answers can give you a sense on how she is handling the transition. You also may be able to pick up on problem areas, such as lunchtime, and help her find solutions.
Be sure to acknowledge your child’s feelings and that this is a stressful time, while encouraging her. Emphasizing that change is hard makes it easier to move beyond the stress and naming fears can help your child conquer them.
Get in touch with teachers and school resources
Communication with teachers is key. Teachers are kids’ biggest advocates and have supported many students and families in similar situations. If your child is struggling, together you can develop a plan to help ease the transition.
School counselors are another great resource to help kids process their feelings, while also helping them integrate into the new school and community, if necessary.
Tour the school ahead of time
A big part of your child’s anxiety might be getting lost in the new school. Touring the school ahead of time is a great opportunity to meet the teacher, walk the halls and see the classroom—and help your child feel more confident on the first day. It’s much easier to relax when your child can visualize what to expect.
Find extracurricular activities
Getting your child involved in after-school activities, such as clubs or sports, is a great way to help her make friends. It’s easier for kids to bond over shared interests and experiences, and can help your child develop a sense of community. For younger children, plan a play date with classmates.
“Parents also can put in the legwork by networking at the new school and setting up social gatherings to help their kids get to know others,” said Dr. Miksit. “Finding extracurricular activities outside of school is an important way to help your child build relationships and adapt to the new school.”
Set small goals together
Setting small goals together can help your child push through the discomfort and ease the transition to a new school. For instance, your child might set a goal to sit by a new student at lunch, say hi to a new person today or invite someone to play at recess. Your child will be proud to achieve her goals and may even make a new friend in the process.
Prioritize sleep and a consistent routine
Transitioning to a new school is a stressful time, so create healthy sleep habits now to help kids get a good night’s rest, especially once school starts. Things like setting a consistent sleep schedule and bedtime routine, limiting screen time before bed and creating a relaxing environment for sleep are important to help your child catch their Zzz’s. Sleep is vital to helping your child cope with stress and anxiety, process the new experience and tackle challenges head-on.
In addition, create a morning routine now that is consistent with what your child will experience once school starts. Routines are comforting and reduce stress because they help kids know what to expect daily.
Know when it’s time to seek help
If your child’s anxiety begins to interfere with day-to-day activities or academics, or is causing behavioral problems or physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomachaches, talk to a pediatrician. Your provider can help you develop a plan to help ease your child’s struggles or determine if there’s a secondary issue.
“Some families move schools because of stressors they can’t control, such as a job loss or divorce,” said Dr. Miksit. “These changes can affect kids more than they let on, and your child may be struggling with the underlying issue more than the actual school transition itself.”