Whether across town or across the country, changing schools can be surprisingly tough on kids.

boy with hands on cheeks

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.

  1. Be a commuter. If you move to a new home in the same city, or to one nearby, check to see whether your child's school district has a policy allowing him to remain in the same school. Chances are he won't be eligible for busing, which means an extra commute for you.
  2. Get to know a respectable landlord. If your child is a high school senior and is a responsible young adult, consider letting her finish out her last year in school, even if it means renting her a small apartment. Or perhaps there's another family member or friend she can board with.
  3. Time your move with the children in mind. It's best to move at the beginning of summer if you can. That gives your child plenty of time to settle in, get to know the neighborhood, and make some friends before walking through that scary school door. "Better for the child to navigate one transition at a time," Mansour points out.
  4. Get a buddy on board. One of the very best things you can do for your child who has transferred is to make sure he is assigned a buddy to show him the lay of the land. Many schools have programs in place to pair your child with a classmate to clue him in about where the restrooms are, the lunchroom, that kind of thing. If the school doesn't have such a program, strongly suggest that it begins one. Or find a buddy on your own by asking around the neighborhood.
  5. Go to school yourself. Visit the school on day one (or before). Meet with the teachers, the counselor, and the principal. Find out how the school day goes, what's expected of your child, and what they'll do to help a newcomer. It's important to establish patterns of contacts with teachers and staff at the school, and not just rely on flyers and notes sent home.
  6. Follow up for a progress report. Two or three weeks later, make an appointment with the teacher or counselor. How are things going? Any problems? Any suggestions? "You must monitor closely how your child is coming along with the psychological, social, and academic challenges," Rumberger says.
  7. Sign her up for after-school activities. Students who switch schools are less likely to get involved in extracurricular activities. At the high school level, that lack of involvement increases the dropout risk. At any level, it slows the adjustment process. So whether it's music, drama, chess, computers, sports, or another activity, get your child signed up for something, even if she fusses about it.
  8. Communicate with your child. Find a way to talk about what she is experiencing with the new school. It won't always be easy because younger children often aren't good at vocalizing problems, and adolescents often feel they should solve them on their own. Your awareness of the difficulty they're going through will help tremendously. A little bit of extra cuddling and conversation will multiply the odds that your child will make it through this trying time just fine.

Originally published in Better Homes & Gardens magazine, October 2004.


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