Advice for Families Changing Schools

By William T. Mulcahy, LPC, NCC, CEAP, author of the Zach Rules series, and Melissa Mulcahy

Bill MulcahyFor whatever reason, you have found yourself at the doorstep of a new school. You now have the task of making this a positive transition for you and your family. Your kids will be looking for direction and support. Here are some ideas to help with this adjustment—and help you keep an optimistic outlook on your journey.

Anxiety may come from one or two sources (or both):

  1. being worried about the future
  2. holding onto the past—the love for the previous school, friends, or neighborhood (in this case, grief may also play a part along with the feelings of anxiety)

People typically move through four phases when going through a transition such as attending a new school. These phases tend to be more cyclical than linear. We like to use the acronym P/R.E.P.S.

P/R: Proactive vs. Reactive
Parents need to be proactive rather than reactive. This means prepare! How you prepare your kid is based on the kid you know. You are the expert. For instance, if your child is an introvert—or is shy or worries a lot—he may do better with a one-on-one meeting with a teacher or principal before school starts. Look into your own backyard. Connect with parents to help connect kids. This will build relationships before school starts. Many areas offer recreation clubs, camps, and parks. This is a great way to have fun and meet new people with little worry.

If your child is more of an extrovert—or is outgoing and confident—she most likely has already met the neighborhood! However, it is still a good idea to connect with parents and school personnel to build a relationship. This will come in handy for getting information about local happenings, school activities, and scheduling play dates to give parents needed breaks.

If your child has any special needs, he will most likely need more intensive preparation. Check out the school website to find pictures of staff and classrooms, listings of special activities, and daily schedules. You may need to schedule a tour (or tours) of the school to help your child become more familiar and at ease. We recommend taking pictures or recording your tour in order to “video model” your visit. School tourChatting on the computer or having a one-on-one meeting with your child’s teacher is another way to help reduce any issues of anxiety. As a reminder, schedule a meeting with staff before school starts to discuss the support your child needs, Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), and your child’s strengths and weaknesses.

E: Evaluate
Parents need to continue to evaluate how their kids are doing, even after school starts. Are they exhibiting out-of-the-ordinary behaviors? Is your talkative child not talking? Is your well-behaved child making trouble? Has your child regressed in any way? Try to remember that children often act out their problems rather than talk about them. You may need to help your child find the words to understand her feelings. Most teachers welcome parents to contact them if things just don’t seem right. Again, you are the expert! If more support is needed, contact the school counselor, social worker, or psychologist. 663px-Clipboard_Silhouette_wikimedia commons with preps addedMany schools provide groups that focus on making friends, changes in families, or social skills. If your child still seems to struggle, seek the support of a psychotherapist. Evaluating how your child is handling the transition will guide you in how you tweak your plan of direction and support.

P: Persevere
One of the most challenging phases is perseverance. Perseverance means to keep trying—and if one way doesn’t work, to make a new plan so you can finish what you started. Starting a new school offers the opportunity for children to persevere and learn resilience. These important life skills will be useful throughout their lives, in their careers, and with their families. It’s important for parents to encourage kids to persevere even though it may be difficult or not fun.

S: Stay Informed
Parents need to stay informed about their children’s school. Read the parent handbook. Check out the school calendar. Some schools communicate through emails, texting, or even social networking. Show up regularly at school. There is nothing worse than realizing there is no school, after you have dropped off your kid, or walking in at the end of a play that your child had the lead role in.

Remember, these phases are typically cyclical, and getting through a transition can take months. In the end, the goal is for you and your children to be prepared so that you can make it a positive transition and adapt properly when hiccups occur.

The Zach SeriesWilliam Mulcahy is a licensed professional counselor, psychotherapist, and supervisor of the Cooperative Parenting Center at Family Service in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Previously he has served as a counselor at Stillwaters Cancer Support Services in Wisconsin, specializing in grief and cancer-related issues, and worked with children with special needs. Bill’s short stories have appeared in several publications. The books in the Zach Rules series are his books for children, merging his passions for good storytelling and providing counseling-like tools to help children live healthier, happier lives. Bill lives in Summit, Wisconsin, with wife, Melissa, and his three sons, who played their own role in the creation of the Zach Rules series.

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