Whether across town or across the country, changing schools can be surprisingly tough on kids.
Your new house is a dream come true. The job that lured your family to a new hometown is turning out to be a great career choice. Best of all, the new school is first-rate.
So why is your 8-year-old turning uncommunicative and moody? Or your 12-year-old acting up at home and in class? Or your 16-year-old talking about dropping out and joining the circus?
It could be because this latest school change was one too many. Doctors and educators are finding that switching schools is harder on kids than previously thought. And it's not just academic performance that is challenged by venue changes. "There's a clear association between changing schools and an increased risk for behavior problems," says Dr. Mona Mansour, a pediatrician at Cincinnati Children's Hospital who recently presented study results on this topic to the Pediatric Academic Societies. "Children who change schools frequently are more likely to have behavioral issues."
That's news to give parents pause, especially if your goal is to get your family to a better neighborhood, new schools and all. It's certainly no secret that few teenagers take kindly to being forced to re-fight the popularity wars in a new neighborhood and strange school.
"Kids want stability," says Russell W. Rumberger, PhD, a professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "It's very disruptive for them to change schools." As foreboding as all this sounds, don't push the panic button just yet if you have to move or have recently moved. A single school switch isn't likely to put an otherwise well-adjusted child at risk. "It's frequent school moves that can cause problems, not occasional ones," Rumberger says. Not counting the normal promotional changes, such as graduating from elementary school to middle school, kids in the U.S. usually change schools at least once. And that's not necessarily a concern.
Surprisingly, though, almost half of all school changes aren't accompanied by a residential move. These changes -- which are often done so that students can take part in a program that isn't available at their current school -- should be looked at especially long and hard, particularly during the tumultuous high school years.
If you must move, there are ways to ease the transition.
Originally published in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, October 2004.