Starting at a New School: Advice from a Child Psychologist
Heading back to school can be nerve-racking. Heading to a brand new school -- yikes.
Brad Norford, PhD, a licensed psychologist and director of Bryn Mawr Psychological Associates, knows how hard starting a new school can be for some kids. Before they put on that backpack and head out the door to the unknown, check out this Q&A for some solid advice for both you and your student.
2020 Update: With most children starting the school year off virtually the advice here can surely be used to help make this transition for them. There are also a lot of children moving to a new school for in-person instruction, or moving to a cyber program. Transition can cause worry or anxiety and as parents we always want to help them navigate these emotions! Good luck to all for the 2020-2021 school year!
Q: What advice do you give to parents about transitioning to a new school environment?
A: Visiting the school in advance with the child is always helpful. Meeting the teacher, having the school map, hearing about what they will be doing, and knowing about their cubby/locker all reduce anxiety. If a child wants to repetitively engage in “I don’t want to go to school. Do I have to go?” debates, parents can reframe it in a manner that both validates their feelings and takes action such as “You do have to go to this school, but let’s talk about what’s hard for you about this and how we can make it easier.” Keeping a comfort item from home in their backpack might also ease transition.
Q: What are common fears or worries you hear among parents who are enrolling their child in school for the first time?
A: Parents concerned their child is going to be worried and unhappy while at school, and that they will not be there to help. Parents often feel guilt about their role in why their child changed schools. It is great if a teacher, nurse, or guidance counselor initiates communication with the parents the first few days to let them know how the child is adjusting. Feedback is especially important when it comes to special needs students. It is reassuring to parents when teachers “get it” — that they recognize the child’s special needs and are incorporating needed accommodations.
Safety is also a common worry. Schools should give assurances around safety, and make sure that both the parents and children are aware of the procedures in place. Additional safety details are needed for kids who walk to or from school.
Lastly, social acceptance for their child is always high on this list. Parents always wonder: Will they have friends? Are they alone at lunch and recess?
Q: What advice do you give to help with social acceptance?
A: Pairing the new student with some mentoring students is usually helpful. Those classmates can show the new student around, provide connection at lunch and recess, and provide general guidance. School staff should be careful the fit is good — for example not putting a student who dislikes sports with mentors who prize athletics. Parents can identify talents and special interests their child has so that they can be introduced to activities and clubs with peers who have similar likes.
Q: What are some questions parents should ask a guidance counselor, or administrator, before sending their kids to a new school?
A: Reading the school’s website and meeting with staff in advance is always an advantage. Whether it’s food allergies, ADHD, introversion, special talents, or reading difficulties — school staff and parents benefit from partnering in advance including discussing what has been helpful in previous school settings.
Q: Say a parent follows these tips, but the child still is having issues adjusting. When would a family benefit from contacting a psychologist or other mental health professional?
A: Students who struggle with anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem often benefit from counseling beyond what the school can provide. Family conflict and stress from divorce can lead to struggles for children at school—something with which family therapy can help. Parents benefit from outside counseling for building up their skill sets and navigating ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and learning differences. Medication consultation with a physician is also indicated when a child’s symptoms continue to interfere with their ability to do well at school.
Child and adolescent therapists are often contacted to work with schools and parents on “school avoidance” situations that have gotten to the point that the child refuses to leave the house or to get out of the car. Causes for school avoidance are quite varied, and it often takes a team effort to resolve.
Kids generally do not like talking about bullying situations to their parents or teachers, even when asked directly. New students are at more risk as they do not have an established friendship group. Parents should keep that conversation open and focus on listening to the child and validating the stress they are feeling. Successfully addressing bullying is multifaceted, but keeping it secret does not work. Helpful adults at school as well as outside professionals can provide good guidance on how to handle these distressing situations.