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School ins't just school, but friends, teachers, classrooms, rules, academics, culture... and adjusting to a whole new school is a really big change. How can you help your child transition and ultimately thrive?

Not only do elementary-aged kids tend to spend six to seven hours at school for about 180 days a year [1], once you add homework and time spent socializing with school peers, it becomes quite clear that much of childhood is spent orbiting the school's gravitational pull. It's no surprise, then, that changing schools is a major life event for a child. 

How can you help your child make the transition to a brand new school in a way that helps them thrive — whether it is because you just moved internationally or domestically, or because the old school really wasn't working out?

Just How Much Does Switching Schools Impact A Child's Life?

A lot. Moving schools doesn't just involve one change, but many, after all. A new school comes with totally new peers — potential friends, but also potential foes — as well as a new teacher or teachers, a new geographical area, a new school layout, perhaps a different academic approach, new school rules, and maybe a whole new culture or sub-culture. On top of that, many kids change schools because they've also got other changes going on, whether it's moving house, academic struggles or successes, parental divorce, or developmental milestones. Changing schools and the other adjustments associated with this event can, in short, turn a child's whole life upside down. It's not that surprising that research has shown that moving schools often exacerbates stress and isolation and even increases their risk of developing psychosis. [2]

Your child's social life will probably be their primary concern — and it should be important to you, too. Having quality friendships in childhood provides psychological wellbeing, decreases feelings of isolation (which children who just started a new school may be especially prone to), and decreases anxiety. Friendships also lessen the impact of bullying, should it occur. [3] Unfortunately, studies show that children begin developing their social networks early on, and will already start to form cliques as well as identify outcasts — potential targets of bullying — in early elementary school [4]. Being a newcomer could certainly single your child out as "other", especially if their previous environment was radically different to the one they're entering.

It can also, however, provide a fresh start. Having found myself in this position more than once as a child, I know it's possible to go from black sheep to cool kid in a seeming instant after a change of schools, as well as that a different teacher can make all the difference.

Externally-imposed life changes are natural part of childhood, but so are the kinds of changes that come with self-discovery and identity formation. A new school can be really rough, but it may just as easily offer the chance to start over, without being confined to the ways in which teachers and peers came to perceive the child in question. 

What Can You Do To Help Your Child Adjust To A New School? 

Plenty!

  • As research demonstrates that moods — both good and bad — are contagious [5], it's important to maintain a positive attitude yourself, and to try to get your child excited, rather than worried, about their new school. 
  • Support your child's ability to develop deeper friendships by being open to sleepovers and playdates, and help your child bond with peers over shared interests by exploring extracurricular activities [6].
  • Help your child have a sense of control over the new school by asking them to co-research possible schools together with you wherever possible. Then familiarize them with the teacher(s) and school itself by meeting the school staff and touring the premises before your child actually starts attending the school. 
  • Consider schools that will also have plenty of other new students. Especially if you're moving from a different area or country and/or belong to a minority ethnic group, look at schools with a diverse student population.
  • Major changes can be intimidating. If your child is going to be attending a different school because you've also moved house, make sure to provide some "grounding" by keeping at least some things the same. Depending on your abilities and your child's wishes, this may include things like painting and decorating your child's room in the same way as before, continuing to have family movie night on the same day, or continuing the same sport. 
Though moving schools represents a very large change, and change is unsettling, children are also ultimately very resilient. Parents can further develop their kids' resilience and help them cope with change by encouraging empathy, teaching that change is an integral part of life, nurturing a positive life outlook, and modeling a path of helping others. Asking your child to set some personal goals and to have patience as they set out to achieve them can also build resilience. [7]

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