Moving to a new school is nerve-wracking for most kids. It’s not just about new lessons and new peers — everything is brand new and unfamiliar. This can be overwhelming for some kids, especially those who are shy or take a while to make friends.
“Even the most well-rounded of kids can struggle with changing schools because it requires a great deal of adapting to a new environment,” says licensed mental health counselor GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC.
A new school has a new set of expectations that will differ from the previous one, meaning your child must adapt to new lesson styles, new rules, and perhaps most daunting: new social constructs
But it doesn’t have to be a disaster. Here’s how you can help your little one deal with those new school jitters (and hopefully settle your own nerves at the same time).
Preparation Is Key
If you’re helping a younger child transition to a new school, the more prep you do, the better. Guarino says focusing on the things that will stay the same can be particularly helpful, especially if your kid is moving to a school where they know some of their peers. If you give them the message that there will be changes but also things that will stay the same, this can help them feel more confident about the move.
At the same time, it’s important to talk about the things that may be different, like a different start and end to the school day, different classroom or lunchroom rules, or different expectations for performance and behavior. These can all be overwhelming for a young child, so helping them prepare ahead of time can help them feel less afraid and abandoned during the first few days, Guarino says.
Licensed psychologist Jessica Myszak, Ph.D., agrees that many kids benefit from knowing what to expect from a new school. “Looking at pictures, driving by the school, and sharing emails and website information about the new school can all be helpful and ease anxiety,” she says. It can also be helpful to talk about what will happen after school. Knowing that a familiar grown-up will pick them up at a certain time and place can provide much-needed reassurance.
In the run-up to the first day at a new school, don’t forget about the basics. A nutritious, balanced diet, lots of water, and good sleep habits can make a big difference. The Moshi app offers mindfulness meditations and audio-only bedtime stories, created with kids in mind, that can help improve sleep and reduce stress.
A Little Reassurance Goes a Long Way
Older kids can be just as anxious about moving to a new school as little ones. Again, spend time preparing them for what changes to expect. Guarino also recommends allowing them to hold on to some of the important people and things they had at their previous school, whether that’s joining a sports team or keeping in touch with friends from their old school. “Allowing your child to have some control over how the important parts of their lives will stay the same (as well as change) can be a good way to help them transition,” Guarino explains.
Stay Positive and Excited
Myszak believes it’s incredibly important for grown-ups to show excitement and happiness about the move to a new school.
“Kids tend to use social referencing to decide how worried to be about particular things,” she says. “This means that if they’re unsure about something new, they look to parents or other familiar adults to see how they are reacting.” If kids know that their parents are nervous or afraid for them, they often become nervous and afraid themselves.
So even if you’ve got your own anxieties about the transition, try to keep a positive attitude and a smile on your face.
Think About Sticking to Old Routines
There can be value in sticking to tried-and-tested school rituals, says Myszak. Little things like having school bags in the same place and emphasizing particular information on the way to school (like “Mommy will pick you up at this time”) can help kids understand expectations and reduce stress on the whole family.
“With young kids, having a familiar routine prior to school can help them get into the ‘school mindset’ and reduce anxiety,” Myszak explains. “And for older kids, it can be empowering for them to be able to discuss what worked well at their old school and share what they would like to keep and/or change with a new school.”
Remember, You Don’t Have to Do It Alone
Your kid’s teacher, classroom assistants, and school counselors want your kid’s transition to go as smoothly as you do. So call on them if you need advice or information about how things work at the new school. If you know you’re all on the same page, you’ll feel more confident in your child’s future at the school, Guarino says.
Ask the Right Kind of Questions
“How was school?” It’s a question that rolls off the tongue of many parents at pick-up time, but Myszak warns against asking too many questions. If kids don’t respond, or parents ask questions that are too difficult to answer, it can lead to frustration on both sides, she explains.
Instead, a good strategy is to ask some open-ended questions, such as “What was the best part of the day?” or “What sorts of activities did you do?”
Even better is to practice reflective listening. “If a child shares something, repeat parts of what they are saying so they know you are listening,” Myszak says. “When this happens, children tend to share much more.”