9 Ways to Help Your Child Adjust to a New School

Family Matters on 08.22.11
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All photos: Frugal Mama

In a few days, my daughters will walk through the doors of their fourth elementary school. We are no strangers to moving and new schools. 

While I'm glad we have finally settled down (house and mortgage to boot), I'm comforted to know that all this moving around might not be so bad. According to one of our many beloved teachers, "It builds resilience." And being able to keep your chin up as you face the unknown is not such a bad skill.

Here are some ways that have worked for us to help our girls make the transition as smooth as it can be.

1.  One Smiling Face

First day of school jitters

Use your networking skills to find other families that go to the school. Set up a playdate at a pool, playground, or your house. Even if the other kids are not in your child's class, one familiar face on the first day of school will feel like sunshine on a stormy day.

If you don't know a soul in the neighborhood, call up the PTA president. Just say you're new in town and you'd like to make the transition as smooth as possible for your kids. What are the quickest ways to get to know the school community?

2.  Lay it On the Table

Help Your Child Adjust to a New School

Since children won't usually tell you they're nervous about starting a new school, you'll need to bring it up. 

When my daughters were treating their little brother like a target, I knew something else was going on. Sofia finally confessed she was stressed by the messy house full of boxes, and Virginia let a tear fall about being nervous about going to a new school. 

Getting it out opened a line of discussion that we could bring up again and again.

3.  Focus on Someone Else Who's Nervous: Your Teacher

Ways to help your teacher on the first day of school

If your child likes drawing or writing, redirect some of that nervous energy into creating something for his new teacher. Even though you don't know much about her yet, he could say what he hopes to learn, or what he likes about teachers and school.

Or ask your child to help you gather a gift basket for your teacher, suggests Karen Bantuveris of VolunteerSpot, comprising coupons, flavored teas, or chocolates.

4.  First the Names, Then the Faces

Class list

"My children are adults now, but a month before my very shy daughter daughter started a new middle school," says Nancy Fey, a teacher in Milan, Italy, "I did something she still says was helpful. I got a list of her future classmates' names."

"She posted it on her bedroom bulletin board, read and re-read it, memorized it, tried to imagine what these children would look like, act like, and wondered who would become special friends," says Nancy.

"When school finally started, her new classmates no longer seemed like complete strangers and she was eager to meet them."

5.  Emotions Trickle Down

Back to school emotions

As parents, our feelings about the new school experience are more influential than we may think. 

The most difficult moves for my children were the ones I personally struggled with. So my advice would be: even if you are feeling off-kilter yourself, find an activity at the school you are excited about joining. 

Grown-ups need companionship too. I think the PTA, a smaller group of involved parents, is the best way to make friends. If your child sees you being pro-active about finding friends and embracing the new school, she'll take the cue.

6.  To Know is to Love

Writing a letter to your teacher

My daughter's last third grade teacher told me how much she loved the letter I wrote before school started about my daughter and our family. "I just love knowing about my students," she gushed.

The letter was actually a first bit of parent homework, but not everyone does it. Be one of the ones who do: allying with your child's teacher from the very beginning sets the tone for a great partnership.

7.  Go for a Practice Run

Walking to school

Several days before school starts, psychologist Jeff Gardere recommends that parents go through the motions of taking their children to school. "Practice the traveling route, scout out safe havens," says Gardere.

Check out the bus stop, figure out the best walking itinerary, or decide how your child will get out of the car and into the school on the first day. It's often these seemingly mundane details that cause the most anxiety.

8.  Say Yes and Be Bold

Back to school PTA meeting

Clear off your calendar so you can make it to the new parent orientation or back-to-school picnic. Each and every contact with the school will help you and your child feel comfortable with the new environment. 

If there is no organized way to meet people, force yourself to say hi to a few other families. It's hard if you're shy, but most people respond really well to friendliness. Who knows? You might even meet someone in your child's class (like I did last night).

9.  Be the Squeaky Wheel

Adjusting to a new school

Introduce yourselves to the principal. Even if you can't request a certain teacher, most schools will allow you to state preferences. For example, I have always written or spoken to the principal before school started and asked for a nurturing teacher. So far, our wishes have been granted. 

Think of it this way: schools are just as interested in your child being successful as you are.

So if you and your child are about to embark on a new school adventure, I know how you feel. We've got fingernail-biters and hair twirlers, but we also have kids who can figure out where the drinking fountain is. Over and over. Which is not a bad way to prepare them for the real world.

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