Times have changed. Nowadays, children frequently change schools during their elementary school years for a variety of reasons. This change is a challenge for all children, and there are a variety of ways that parents can help their children with this experience.
Why is changing schools difficult?
Leaving a school involves a loss that every child will feel differently. One will particularly feel the separation from friends, another the inability to see former teachers. All experience the loss of familiar surroundings, routines and people.
A familiar structure provides emotional support when children encounter the daily emotional challenges of school academic and social life that may cause a bit of worry, self-doubt, embarrassment or other hard-to-bear emotion. So, it is natural for children to look ahead to a new school, with sadness over their loss and recognition that the old supports will not be there.
Children also worry about whether they will be successful in the new, unfamiliar environment. They worry: Will I be able to find my way around? Make friends? Manage the differences in the school routine or expectations?
Children must say goodbye to their old school and hello to their new school. They will need their parents’ help with both tasks.
Bidding an old school farewell
Children first must mourn their losses. The best way to turn a loss into growth is through talking and remembering. Parents can encourage their children to talk about their old school. They will not be in a strong position to reinvest in a new school with new people until they have given up what they had.
Children may resist remembering too much. After all, these memories come with the longing for what is no more. So parents should be as tactful as they would with anyone with whom they were broaching a sensitive topic, but parents should also be fearless. They can help their child think about memories of a teacher, a parental visit to the classroom, projects that the children did or stories they shared with their parents about their classroom.
Although it is also important to help children anticipate that there will be many wonderful opportunities in their new school, we recommend that parents be careful not to quickly turn their longings into "but" statements, such as, "but you will make new friends." There are other times that parents can provide this kind of encouragement. Children are much more likely to bring up their longings if they know that their parents will be there to give them a hug and recognize that some things are just lost.
Adjusting to a new school
Parents can also help their children adjust to a new beginning by providing information that helps them anticipate and plan. Children will feel like competent, empowered, active participants in their own lives when they have information and plans that make sense. A sense that they can be active in a constructive way is their most important tool for coping with anxiety about change.
Children can be helped in many ways to prepare. Perhaps they can visit the school grounds and explore public areas with their parents, or together peruse the school website together. If parents know a family whose children have attended the new school, they can be invited over for dinner and where parents can initiate a discussion about aspects of the school relevant to the children.
The familiarity that children can achieve through this preparation will be very useful. Equally important is preparing internally, or mentally, for the new environment. This is not the first time children will have had to cope with change and unfamiliarity, so parents could discuss with them individually that they were able to go to kindergarten, for example, even though they were a bit worried. Parents might ask, "Do you remember what you did to help yourself?" As they recall that they made friends, brought something that reminded them of home or found activities that were fun, they will remind themselves that they have the ability to actively find solutions and replace worry with comfort.
Learning to tolerate anxiety
Children are likely to walk into school somewhat worried even if their parents are able to help them beforehand. There is no way to completely eliminate their worry ahead of time. Parents can also acknowledge this fact of life, and show their admiration for their ability to be a little worried but still carry on with their days. We call this "the capacity to bear anxiety." This ability to manage anxiety by keeping it in its place, even if it remains as a nagging presence, is a valuable component of mental health.
Loving parents wish that their children didn't have any worries. However, worries are part of life, and with good help, children will be able to manage and overcome them, as well as bear the worries they cannot yet overcome. New schools pose a challenge, but, especially with parental assistance, one that holds much opportunity for continued emotional growth.
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