Ask the Expert: A parent’s guide to getting your child started in a new school

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The hot, lazy days of summer are quickly fading away and families across the country are shifting gears to prepare for another school year. For most kids, it’s a time to reunite with old friends, reclaim their schoolyard stomping grounds and refresh skills they learned in the past year.

But for the children of transient families, a new school year signals a whole host of unknowns.  Will my teacher be nice? Who will I sit with at lunch? How will I know where to go in my new school? Will I make new friends? Do the kids here have the same interests as me? Am I wearing the right clothes to fit in?

Lisa B

Lisa Breitsprecker

We asked Lisa Breitsprecker, the counselor at Galena Middle School in Galena, Ill., what parents need to know to get their kids off on the right foot at a new district this year.

What logistical things do families who are new to a district need to know about?

It’s important to do your research on area schools so you can make the right choice for your child’s education. Check the individual school websites, the state board of education’s webpage, and just Google it to see what comes up. You’ll be able to find lots of statistics on the individual school and how it compares to others (standardized test scores, rates of free/reduced lunch, special education population, etc.). Please remember that statistics do not paint the entire picture of a school; it is very important that you tour the school personally and meet with administration and faculty.
Once you have made a decision on where to enroll your student, touch base with the main office there. Secretaries are usually helpful and efficient. They will be able to help you access any necessary paperwork that may be needed for their school (health forms, contact info, demographic info, proof of residence, birth certificate, etc.) and will also have you sign a consent for release to have your child’s records transferred from your old district, if necessary.

Sitting down with the administrator and/or counselor is also an important step. They will be able to get to know your family, and this also provides an opportunity to talk about your student’s strengths and/or challenges (if your student has ever received gifted and talented, special education, 504, speech, etc. services), medical issues (make sure to include the school nurse if this is the case), and/or any other concerns you may have.

What can parents do to prepare their kids emotionally for entering a new district?

It’s important to be upfront and honest with your child about starting a new school. Normalize their feelings and let them know that it’s ok to feel sad, scared, excited or a combination of all of these. Encourage them that by being true and authentic, they will be able to identify peers who would be a good fit for their friend group. Let them know that it takes a while to settle in and learn the culture and system of a school so they should remember to have patience and lean on their support system (parents, school counselor, teachers, administrators) to help them navigate.

Do you recommend bringing students to the school prior to the start of regular classes to view the building?  

Absolutely! This is an important piece that will help students transition more smoothly. By physically entering the building, getting a feel for the atmosphere and getting a lay of the land, a lot of nervousness can be vented. Plus, students will get to meet staff members, so there will be a few familiar faces on the first day. Some schools also have new student buddies where a student with a similar schedule volunteers to show your student around during the first few days and make sure the new student has someone to sit with at lunch. Make sure to inquire about a similar program at your school.

The Moving Mom - Ask The Expert graphicCan parents request to meet their child’s teacher in advance or is there some other way to ensure that the teacher is aware of the child’s transitory lifestyle and any particular concerns?

Yes, yes, yes! Teachers are also readily available by email, which can be found on the school’s website, if this is an appropriate mode of communication or an appropriate way to start communication. Most schools usually have an open house at the beginning of the school year. Although this will not provide you a private opportunity to share your story, it is a good opportunity to meet the teacher(s) and set up a time to talk more in-depth. Please do not wait until parent-teacher conferences later in the fall to touch base with your child’s teacher – be proactive!

Are there any strategies that parents could offer kids for making friends in a new school?

Encourage them to get involved in activities, clubs or sports and try new things. If you move to a smaller community (especially in the Midwest) during the summer, the local pool is a great place to meet peers. Also summer classes and sports offered through your city’s Leisure Services can be another great way to meet new friends before school even starts.

How can parents find out if their child is academically up to speed with their peers? Is there any chance that their previous district didn’t cover as much as the new one or is that tightly regulated?

Here is another reason why it is important to sit down with someone at your new school and explain to them what you know about your student’s education and his/her previous school. Within the first few days and weeks of school, your child’s teacher will know if your student has been appropriately placed. Recommendations will be made for alternative placement if need be. Teachers will also use standardized test data from your child’s previous school and district assessments from your child’s current school to help make any recommendations. If learning gaps are found but an alternative placement is not needed, the teacher should be in communication with you regarding enrichment work and a differentiated learning plan that will be taking place in the classroom.

Common Core learning standards have been adopted by 43 states, but the implementation rates of those states are all varying. Although the educational world is trying to make learning more standardized (for example: second graders in California would have learned the same things as second graders in Maine), it is still an evolving project.

back to schoolHow present should parents be on the first day of school? When are they being helpful and when are they just hovering?

Students’ anxiety is typically escalated when parents are available. Depending on the age of your child, it is acceptable to drop them off or walk them into the building. Once they are delivered safely, wish them good luck, remind them of their after school plan, and make an exit (or at least watch unnoticed from afar).

Normally, students quickly settle into the start of their day, and if they don’t, you have left one of your most important people with a team of professionals who are experienced in handling situations like these and who care about your child very much. Sometimes transitioning to a new school can be just as hard on the parents, and that is ok and normal. Trust in your child’s educational team, leave quickly even if your child is struggling because if you stay, they will continue to struggle and no amount of bargaining or begging ever helps the situation. Then take some time to do some self-care off of school grounds – grab a coffee, drive a block away and park just to sit and breathe or drive home and sit in your driveway and cry if that makes you feel better.

What questions should parents ask their child during the first few weeks of school to gauge how their experience is going?

Make sure to ask open-ended questions, like “What was the best thing that happened today?” or “What was the funniest/worst/hardest/most surprising part of your day?” This is a much better way to get your child talking and sharing information than asking questions that can be answered with “yes,” “no,” or the dreaded shrug. Ask them to explain what they are learning in specific classes and ask to see their work so that you can have a better understanding and more meaningful conversation. Ask them to tell you about connections they may be making with others at school.

Are there any behaviors parents should watch for that could indicate things are not going well at school?

Use your common sense and intuition. If your student is acting out of the ordinary at all, sit down and talk with him or her. If you don’t seem to get anywhere and you still have the feeling that something is off, don’t be afraid to touch base with your child’s school.

Any additional advice that would be different for students who start at a new school mid-year?

The transition in these cases is a little bit faster because school is already up and running. Encourage students to still become involved, even if it is mid-season of a sport or if play auditions have already been held (perhaps they could still become part of the crew).

Additional Resources:

Lisa Breitsprecker is the counselor at Galena Middle School in Galena, Ill., where she has worked for 10 years.  She has a master’s degree in Counselor Education from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

-By Emily Shedek

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