Kids’ backpacks don’t only contain their lunches and homework. If their lives aren’t stable, their cares and emotions are stuffed right in there with the books and pencils. Worries about their family and what’s going on while they are at school are a constant distraction. Anxieties about fitting in take priority over doing well. However much they may want to pay attention in class, their attention is elsewhere.
Randy, entering third grade, is typical. His parents have been bickering for years. He knew his mother was unhappy. He knew his father worked a lot and often came home late. To him, this was just business as usual, his “normal” family life. He was therefore totally unprepared when his mother quietly and sadly told him that his dad was moving out to be with his girlfriend.
Although she reassured him that both parents love him and expressed confidence that they would all adjust, he’s not so sure. He’s worried about his mom. He’s mad at his dad. He’s angry that he’s going to have to move to an apartment with his mom and only see his dad on weekends. He is trying to be very, very good so he won’t add to his mother’s distress.
It would not be surprising if he is distracted and unable to focus on lessons at school.
After much discussion with the family, Alice’s dad accepted a big promotion in his company, a promotion that requires a move from a small town to a much larger and more urban community. Alice, age 12, and her brother Jake, age 16, were in on the conversations and understand that the disruption in family life is for the benefit of everyone. They are proud of their dad and even somewhat excited about the move.
But while Dad is focused on the challenges of the job ahead, Mom and both kids also are grieving the loss of community, home and all that is familiar. As they sort belongings and pack boxes, the move seems less and less like a good idea — even though it is now inevitable. Jake is not at all happy to be leaving his high school where he has a solid group of friends and some standing as a track star and good student. He wants to be mature about it but he’s anxious.
Alice is nervous about entering middle school in a place where she knows no one. Their mother is concerned. What should she do to alert the new schools that her kids might need some extra support at first? How can she do that without making the kids feel that she doesn’t have confidence in them?
Randy, Alice, and Jake are all great kids. Nonetheless, they are now vulnerable. While they adjust to their new realities, it’s likely that they will flounder in some way. In the wake of parental divorce, a move, or any other significant change, kids are likely to feel less in control of themselves, to miss more school, to have trouble with social relationships, and to struggle with making good grades. That’s only to be expected during the transition.
Most kids do figure it out and do adjust. But whether normal adjustment struggles become an alarming set of problems depends to a large extent on what support their parents provide.
Steps for a Smooth School Transition
As the old saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” By taking steps now, parents can help ease entry into the new school year and prevent stress from showing up in poor school performance or behavior problems.
1. Make the school aware of important family transitions.
The school guidance people can be parents’ best friends in providing support. Let the school know if there has been a major change in the family (divorce, remarriage, a death, a move, a change in family economic circumstances) over the summer. The guidance counselor can alert the teachers and can provide in-school support if things start to go wrong.
If your child or teen is entering a new community and school, provide the school with good school records and information about your student. This will guide decisions about appropriate classes and identify potential sports and activities where your child will fit in. If possible, arrange for the kids to tour the school and meet their teachers before the school year starts.
2. Don’t assume that the kids are all right.
Kids like Randy, Alice and Jake don’t want to worry their folks. Randy has some idea that he can’t upset his mom so he may keep his feelings to himself. Like Jake, older teens especially often try to manage on their own in the belief that they should be able to handle a change, even if they don’t like it. The transition to middle school is hard enough for a kid like Alice without being the new kid in town.
One serious discussion or pep talk won’t do it. It’s important to make room for regular discussions about how difficult the transition may be and what can be done to ease it. Letting kids know that it is normal and expected to be upset and uncertain at times makes it possible for them to open up. When kids feel they will be supported, not judged, they are more likely to look to their parents for some practical help.
3. Stay alert.
Sleep disturbance, emotional ups and downs, questionable “sick days,” unstable peer relationships, and struggles with homework and time management are all normal during a transition. Encouragement and a little more reminding and practical help may be all that is necessary to get the kids back on track. But if things haven’t settled down by the end of October, it’s time to take more serious steps. Schedule a conference with the school counselor. Consider whether some family therapy might be in order to learn new ways to support each other and to cope with the challenges of change. Intervention early can prevent problems from getting worse and can save your kids’ school year, both academically and socially.
4. Provide a safety net.
Some kids need reassurance that it’s okay to send out an SOS if they are upset during school hours during the first month of school. Arrange with the school counselor for your child to take a timeout by going to the counselor’s or nurse’s office if they are having trouble handling things. Often, just knowing they have the option to leave helps a child stay in class. But sometimes they really do need time out to gather themselves. It’s far better for them to take a half hour out voluntarily than to end up in detention for being inappropriate. A lunchtime call home can also be an important source of reassurance and comfort for a child, and even for a teen, who is trying to cope with change.
5. Kids aren’t little adults.
During difficult transitions, adults often have the skill to compartmentalize. Once at work, they’re at work. Home problems or anxieties about the new situation get pushed aside, sometimes gratefully, while they focus on the job at hand. But kids’ brains don’t work that way. Anxieties during transitions can affect both school performance and behavior. Lacking the internal coping skills for managing change, they need the external structure and support that parents and school personnel can provide.