by Charles Fliss
Preschool, kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, high school: the classic sequence of our education. Yet moving from one step to another can be a difficult and disorienting experience for students. Helping your children adapt to their new educational surroundings can be important in ensuring their academic success.
Here are some ways, collected from experts on child parenting, child health, and education from across North America, to make these moves much less traumatic.
The first school experience
Often the hardest of all transitions to make is a child’s very first day of school. This can be difficult for kids and parents alike. Whether it is preschool or kindergarten, the basic experience is the same, but there are some simple steps that can make this day much easier for everyone.
● Get your child used to being away from you ahead of time. Separation is often the biggest problem on the first day of school. Start by occasionally leaving your child, with visits to family members. Gradually lengthen the time you are away. Then schedule play dates with other children to adjust your child to being away with those outside your family.
● Ease your child into a schedule. Set a bedtime for school nights and begin enforcing it a few weeks before school begins. Set an alarm to get your child ready for waking up at a set time each day. Establish a routine with your child of laying out an outfit for the next day and packing up his or her backpack.
● Attend any orientations or building tours offered by the school. Make sure your child is comfortable in finding her way around the new surroundings, especially to critical locations such as the bathroom. Check with the school in advance to find out when these tours are offered.
Many schools provide thorough orientation programs to help their youngest students. For instance, at Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School in St. Louis, Missouri, teachers make a visit to each of their new students’ homes, so that the child’s very first experience with the teacher is in her own normal, comfortable surroundings. Furthermore, before the first actual day of school, there is a “Welcome Day” where the children come and can “hunt around the classroom” seeing such things as their name and picture up in the room, making it more of their territory.
● Be positive about school. Try to relax and understand that school will be good for your child. If you are at ease with the transition, your child will be more so too. Be sure to talk about school in a positive way and make it out to be a good thing to your child.
To make the first day of school easy for everyone, says Michael Ebeling, head of school at Summit School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, it is important for the parents to be prepared. “Children sense parents,” Ebeling says. If their parents are excited about school, chances are that children will be.
The move into middle school or junior high is a major change in the way your child’s education is handled.
Where previously there was a single teacher, covering all subjects, now each subject has its own specialized teacher and class. The day is more structured. As a student, your child now has to deal with more personalities and teaching styles.
Also there are major social changes that take place during middle school, with locker and hallway socializing becoming prevalent.
● Take a tour of the building with your child. Getting lost in a new and big building is a common fear among incoming middle-schoolers. Make sure that your child knows where his locker is and classes are. Make a map of the school with your child if necessary.
● Encourage a positive identity. This becomes especially tricky in middle school, as finding their place in the social networks is one of the most nerve-wracking experiences for middle school students.
In his article “Middle School Transition: It’s Harder Than You Think,” written for the National Association of Elementary School Principals, psychologist Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D., suggests that with the new complex social circles of middle school, acceptance can become more important to students than academic success. He notes that “it is not uncommon to see students ‘play dumb,’ trading off success in the classroom for peer approval.”
Support your children in doing their best academically, even if they are labeled as a “nerd,” “geek,” or other derogatory titles. No matter what your children’s academic skills are, make sure that they are proud of what they can do, and support them in whatever they enjoy in school.
● Help your child through conflicts with teachers. In middle school your child will be faced with many more personalities then ever before. Encourage tolerance of others and their differences.
Sometimes dealing with unreasonable teachers is great preparation for dealing with unreasonable bosses. This can be a turbulent understanding for your child, however. So support him in the position of, “Yes, your teacher is wrong, but they hold the power, and you have to work around it.”
High school brings more changes, especially as your child has gone from the top of middle school as an eighth grader to the bottom of the food chain as a freshman. High school bears a strong resemblance to middle school in the academic style of multiple teachers. However, extracurricular activities, especially sports, become more available.
● Attend the orientation for the school. As before, knowing the lay of the land, the teachers, and administrators can help both you and your child relax. Try to get your child to talk to other kids at the orientation, so that she can walk in on the first day already knowing some people. For many kids, not knowing anyone is their greatest fear.
Some schools even offer extensive pre-freshman summer programs. Attending even just a few weeks of such a program can help your child establish a friend or two before her first day of school.
● Continue to encourage a positive and independent identity. Continue to encourage tolerance and openness to new people. This will open your child up to more possibilities and friendships.
Once again, the primary concern of many kids in high school is their social place. A few practical tactics may help. In her article “Tips to Calm Your Child’s First Day Jitters,” clinical psychologist Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D., the long-time writer of MSNBC’s Today show’s Parenting column, suggests that you “hold off on some school clothing purchases. After seeing what the other kids are wearing the first week or two, it’s nice to be able to pick up a few new outfits after school begins.” This should help your child relax in fitting in with the new social group.
● Try to get your child to join a study group. Then invite the group over to your house. This will foster friendships and may even help your child academically.
● Ask questions. Find out about how your child’s day really was. Open up a comfortable dialogue each night with your child. You may have to listen to some rants, but it will be worth it to find out which teachers, students, and other things are causing your child problems. Especially early, it will be good to nip these problems in the bud.
Any transition in a person’s life is difficult. School changes can be especially hard. But by continuously supporting your children and being active in their school, you can help make these transitions much easier for them and help them to be happy and academically successful.
Charles Fliss is a Monroe Scholar majoring in History and American Studies at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and a recent veteran of all the transitions described in this article.