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Transitioning to a New School

How Parents & Educators can help children transition to a new school

Going back to school should be an exciting, adventure-filled experience.However, many children will find themselves in a new school in the fall. How can parents and educators help children who are leaving behind the surroundings of their old school and are facing an entirely new school atmosphere?

Transitioning to new school

Transitioning to new school

Parents of these children will play a pivotal role in ensuring that the transition to a new school goes smoothly, as will the school counselors, teachers and other on site support staff.

New Beginnings

Mary Testa has been involved in child counseling since 1996 and owns and operates her own Rochester area private practice, Mary Testa Counseling. She says that listening to your child’s concerns and presenting the move with a positive vibe will go a long ways to allay their fears. “Be sensitive to the fact that a child’s world is a lot smaller than our world. They have comfort and security in familiar situations,” says Testa, who sees patients as young as 10 years old. “If the parents have a great attitude and are upbeat and put on a good face about the move, the child will feed off of that, reflect that positive attitude and will be excited for the new school.

Children can be worried about losing their old friends, but in this day, there are so many ways to keep in touch with old friends while still making new friends.”

One of the first steps that counselors such as Testa and Carol I. Reinhardt, a clinical psychologist for more than 35 years, recommend is having parents set up visits with the child’s new school before the school year commences. This will allow the child to roam and become familiar with the layout of the new school, while also allowing parents and child the chance to meet the principal and teacher(s) who are entrusted with educating the child in the fall. “Most schools will allow for tours and visits with the teachers and staff. It is important for both the parents and the children to learn as much about the new district as possible,” Reinhardt says. “Some school districts have meetings set up where the children can meet their new teacher prior to the start of the school year. Many schools have peer support groups, where new students are assigned to an incoming student, so they have a familiar face and a friend once the first day of school arrives. It is important to have someone who can show the new child the ropes around the school.”

Testa, Reinhardt and Catherine Liebel, a school counselor at Twelve Corners Middle School in Brighton, all recommend enrolling the child in fun activities, such as drama club or youth sports, to help them feel more comfortable in their new environment while potentially making new friends for the upcoming school year. “Students often express concern and sadness over leaving friends, teachers and former schools behind. This sadness can sometimes be a block to fully giving the new school a chance,” Liebel says. “The idea of making new friends probably causes the most anxiety for kids. Consider enrolling them in a local summer day camp, sports program, youth group or encourage them to join a school club. This will help them meet kids from their new community.” Lieb says that at her school, new students are matched up with a peer helper or two. The helpers assist the new student in navigating the building, sit with him or her during lunch and introduce them to other students.

All three counselors also recommend having an open and honest conversation with the child about the nature of the move and why he is changing school districts. Once the school year has started, if there is any sense of frustration with his new surroundings, these counselors say the best practice is to keep the lines of communication open and discuss any difficulties the child may be encountering in their new school.

Moving Up

When it comes to switching buildings within the same school district, many schools conduct moving up ceremonies, where, as a class, all of the students will get familiar with the classrooms, the teachers and the new building. Moving up from elementary to middle school, or from middle to high school can present some of the same anxiety as moving into a new district, says school psychologist/consultant Charlotte Harvey, who works with the lower school (nursery school through fourth grade) and middle school (fifth to eighth grade) students at the Harley School in Brighton.

During the annual moving up day ceremonies, which are for students transitioning from fourth to fifth grade and from eighth to ninth grade, teachers will stand up and address these sometimes anxious students. To make sure the incoming class feels more comfortable with the other students, these teachers will share something personal about each child going through a moving up process. That act, Harvey says, goes a long way toward making the classes feel a tight bond heading into the upcoming school year.

For students who transfer into the school, a photograph is taken of the new child and posted in a heavy foot traffic area, so members of the school community can get to know the newest additions. There is also a parent council that is in charge of communicating some of the upcoming social activities at the school. Before the year starts, members of the council will call the families of incoming students and arranges get-togethers where the new students can meet some of their classmates.

For select grade levels at the school, there are team building field trips during the first weeks of the school year. Eighth graders will spend four days in the Adirondacks learning about their classmates, and sharing in this community building experience helps foster a tight-knit, family atmosphere, says Hassan Jones, head of the middle school. “Building our community and welcoming new students to our school is the responsibility of everyone in the school,” Jones says. “Our school is really good at establishing relationships with the families of our students, and we also communicate very well. We will have lunches for all of the new students where we bring them together, and they realize they’re not the only new students here. We’ll have open forums and discussions to make sure that everything is going well in their transition.”

Additionally, once the school year starts, there is new student orientation and a fall orientation, where, on the day prior to the start of the school year, students are engaged in a school-wide scavenger hunt that both gets them interacting with their peers and helps them feel more at ease with their new surroundings. “When the entire class goes through the same transition together, it’s easier on everyone, because they’re all going through the same questions as their friends,” says Harvey. “The great thing about the Harley School is we have tradition, and our students have been going through a daily routine since the first day they started going here. Those routines and traditions are quite helpful as the students are going through these transitions because they’re moving up together.”

Terry Smith, head of the lower school at Harley, adds that there are two shadow days during the spring of each school year. During each of these shadow days, half of the fourth graders will follow their fifth grade peers around school, attending classes and homeroom and also participating in group bonding activities. On the other shadow day, the other half of the fourth graders will tag along with their fifth grade counterparts. “Our students don’t have to overcome that many obstacles when it comes to moving up,” Smith says. “We have strong cross-divisional connections that foster comfort and familiarity more so than in other schools, where, to move up, you have to leave your old school building and learn all about a physically different building.”

John Boccacino is monthly contributor to Rochester & Genesee Valley Parent Magazine. He reported on sports and local news for more than 6 1/2 years with the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper. He is currently the Director of Sports Information for Keuka College. Boccacino is a Brighton native who currently resides in Webster.

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