Dear Dr Justin,
I’ve been offered a promotion at work, which is great for the family – or at least it’s great for me and our income. Unfortunately it means a big move for my two boys (ages 7 and 10). They are both nervous about the move but especially about starting a new school. How can I help them settle in easily?
Moving is tough – even when it is for all the right reasons. Of course your kids will feel a bit unsettled. And outside of their home life, their entire lives revolve around school. Starting over at a new school can feel extra challenging.
New classmates, new teachers, new systems, new friends and an entirely new environment – all of these things can increase anxiety levels in our children. So, while it is normal for children (and their parents) to feel some anxiety in this situation – the great news is, there are ways we can help.
Prepare your child
It’s quite common for kids to change schools, but it is also normal for them to resist change and feel anxious about going to a new school. The best thing you can do to help is to prepare them for the change.
You can do this by involving your children in the process. Discuss the move and talk to your kids about the things that will change. If there are choices for schools, invite your child’s input. If your child is old enough, sit down together and go over the pros of cons of each. Giving your child some decision making power will help them feel more in control and less anxious.
Sometimes, as well meaning parents, we can actually be the biggest cause of anxiety in our kids! If we are nervous our children will notice and they are at risk of catching those jitters. It is important to be calm and positive about an upcoming move and the new experiences you are going to have. This will help your children feel calm and optimistic as well. But don’t disagree with them either. If they’re nervous, telling them “you’ll be fine” isn’t going to be reassuring. Instead we want to focus on what the positive possibilities are, and acknowledge the challenges if they arise.
And in the same way your children can catch your jitters, they can catch your excitement as well! You can help them feel enthusiastic by being enthusiastic yourself. Talk about the things you are looking forward to in your new city and your new home. Talk about the great park up the road, or the fantastic rugby team you can get tickets to, or the awesome museums. And, most importantly, talk about all the wonderful things their new school might offer.
Ask them what they are looking forward to at their new school, or what things they are excited about that the new school offers. Maybe it’s a fantastic robotics program, or a new after school activity not offered at their old school. Whatever it is, focusing on the future can help them feel hopeful rather than fearful.
Address their concerns
While being optimistic and excited is a great approach, our kids still need us to help them work through their anxieties. Now is the time to ask about the things that are worrying them.
Their primary concern will probably be related to making friends. Talk to them about how they made friends in their last school. Talk about how exciting it is to have a whole new set of friends. And make concrete plans about inviting their new friends to your house or having play dates in the new park that will be up the road.
Other concerns might be about who their new teacher will be, what class they’ll be in and whether they can find their way around the new school. Tackle each of these worries head on. For younger kids you might like to set up a meeting with your child’s new teacher so they can get to know him or her a little bit before they start their first day. Buy the uniform and books they’ll need. Take them to visit the classroom and the school grounds. Find out where the toilets are, the sports field, the tuck shop and other school facilities. Show them where you will be picking them up. Make the school feel familiar and safe.
Whatever the concerns, addressing them will help reduce anxiety in your kids before they start school. And when new school hiccups arise (and they probably will), problem-solve the issue together. Working on the solution with your child empowers them and raises their self-confidence.
There are also few other practical things you can do to ease the transition:
- Request a portfolio of your child’s work to take to his new teacher.
- Make a scrapbook of their friends, activities, teachers and other memories from their old school.
- Make a contact list of your children’s friends.
- Plan a farewell party!
A change of schools can cause very real anxiety and your kids may struggle a little bit at first. But children are very adaptable and most children assimilate quickly, happily and easily into a new school environment.
Focus on what you (and they!) can control. Emphasise the positives and the things that you can all look forward to. Pretty soon they will be settled and happy in their new schools.