Surviving The Move: How To Help Kids Get Settled As School Begins
Rachel BurrisSeptember 09, 2019
Moving to a new neighborhood can be an exhilarating experience and a great time to get a fresh start; however, it can also be extremely nerve-wracking, especially for the younger generation. Change is hard on everyone, but kids often have more difficulty with it because they don’t possess the skills they need to alleviate the stress.
This issue is further exacerbated when children have to start school soon after arriving in a new town. With so many changes occurring at once, kids can feel like they’re spinning out of control. As a parent, you’re their anchor. The stability and structure that you provide for your kids are what will help them transition into their new setting.
Although there will always be some upsets when it comes to a big move, there are steps you can take to ease your children into their new environment. This article will provide you with advice from parents, teachers and mental health professionals to help you ensure that your children settle into their new home feeling prepared and in control.
Why Is It Important For Kids To Feel Settled Before Starting School?
Unfamiliar settings can be particularly distressing for children and adolescents. When you add the social and academic pressures of starting a new school, many kids feel so overwhelmed that they shut down. As you begin this new chapter of your life, it’s important that you understand how the shift will be experienced by your children.
“So, the first thing parents need to recognize is a move for a child is every bit as stressful for their children as it may be for them,” explains Rick Capaldi, Ph.D., a practicing family therapist and author of 21stCentury Parenting: A Guide to Raising Emotionally Resilient Children in an Unstable World. “The difference is it’s very possible the adult has coping mechanisms to help them deal with this move where the child doesn’t. A parent may be looking forward to the new opportunity, where the child only views this as a loss.”
Capaldi adds that “if it’s not handled correctly, you may see the child isolate, have a drop in academic performance, and not recognize the loneliness and anxiety your child is experiencing as a result of this move.”
In order to prevent your children from having to endure negative consequences as a result of being uprooted, you must guide them through the process of adapting to their new environment, social circles and school.
How To Help Kids Adjust Environmentally
Before children can settle into their new school, they first need to feel settled in their new home. After having moved with her family 11 times, Kristen Wilkinson, founder of Mom Managing Chaos, has had a lot of experience helping her children acclimate to new environments. “We have lived in 3 countries and 5 different states in the last 15 years, and the one really important factor that helps my children is to make them feel safe and allow them to feel some control over their out of control circumstances.”
Creating a safe environment for your kids and enabling them to take charge of their circumstances is crucial in helping them adjust. But, to do it properly, you must begin even before you leave your familiar surroundings.
Engage Them In An Open Dialogue
To help your kids ultimately adapt, you need to give them a rolein the transition and the decision-making that goes into it. By telling your kids about the move early on and explaining your reason for it, you can make your children feel like they’re part of the process.
“An important point to remember is young children need concrete information. Too much information overloads them,” Capaldi says.
He suggests you “keep things straight, simple and to the point which makes them feel comfortable and secure. With older children, the more information and obviously, the more conversation you have, the easier the move. Don’t be surprised at resistance, anger and resentment; they can’t see what you see. Older children are also “present based.” They can often only see what they’re losing; so, don’t oversell.”
But, informing your kids about the need to move is merely the beginning. Knowing how to respond to their anguish and fears is fundamental in mitigating them.
Listen To Their Concerns And Validate Their Feelings
When you know that you have to move, it can be a struggle to listen to your children’s protests. But, being dismissive isn’t helpful for anyone. Just like adults, kids want to feel heard. So, if your children tell you that they’re scared or complain that they don’t want to move, it’s critical that you acknowledge and validate their feelings instead of downplaying them.
“Minimizing the importance of the child’s social connection to ‘their home’ and their concern about their future could impact the way they feel about themselves and their willingness to risk new challenges and opportunities,” Capaldi says.
Getting settled in a new neighborhood requires kids to step out of their comfort zones and take risks. Therefore, it’s helpful to reiterate your children’s concerns during your conversation, so that your kids know that you understand where they’re coming from and will do everything in your power to make the transition easier for them.
Prep Them For The Move
If you can, it’s a great idea to take your kids to visit your new neighborhood before you move. A premove visit will help get your kids excited about their new home, and it will also give them a sneak peek into what their new life will be like. Kids tend to adjust better to change when they can anticipate how it will affect their lives.
“Before you move, print out a map of your neighborhood and mark the places your family is likely to go, such as the grocery store or school. You can let your child ‘drive’ through Google Maps to get to know the neighborhood before moving day,” suggests Ali Wenzke, mother of three and author of The Art of Happy Moving: How to Declutter, Pack, and Start Over While Maintaining Your Sanity and Finding Happiness. “Once you move into your new neighborhood, take a family outing to these places you marked on the map.”
By providing your kids with insight into the area, you are preparing them for the move. Remember, the unfamiliar feels a lot less scary when you already know what it looks like.
Give Them Opportunities To Explore
Once you arrive in your new neighborhood, you need to provide your children with chances to survey it. Take a break from the chaos of relocating and allow the kids to discover what’s different and exciting about their new surroundings.
“It's important to leave the boxes behind and do one fun thing in town each day,” Wenzke says. “It could be something as simple as going for a walk around the block or getting a library card, but make an effort to get to know your new area.”
Although your kids may first roll their eyes at the thought of traipsing around a town they don’t know, you can lighten the mood by turning it into a game.
“Getting to know a new neighborhood can be fun!” explains Adina Mahalli, a certified mental health consultant and family care specialist with Maple Holistics. “Go on a ‘mystery walk’ as a family, where at every corner someone else gets to choose which direction you walk in. It will become an adventure, not knowing where you’ll wind up, and the kids will enjoy sharing control with the parents.”
Turn Their Bedrooms Into Safe Havens
While adventures can be exciting, at the end of the day, children want stability. They want a place that they can escape to when they feel anxious and overwhelmed, which is why you should give significant consideration to kids’ bedroomswhen moving to a new neighborhood.
“Get the kids’ rooms settled first after you move,” Wenzke suggests.“That way, your child has a personal oasis where she can escape during the unpacking chaos.”
After moving last year, Amy Brotherman, a mother, educational blogger and former second-grade teacher,paid extra attention to setting up her three kids’ bedrooms, so that her kids would have a safe haven to retreat to in times of strife.
“Parents can turn their kids' bedrooms into safe havens by painting the walls and ceiling in soothing colors (that the child can help pick out), putting pictures on the walls of beloved people and things, well-read books on the bookshelf, and making the bed as cozy and inviting as possible with carefully chosen sheets, covers, and pillows,” Brotherman says. “I let my kids get as creative as they want to, with posters, fancy lamps, and twinkle lighting all over. They love being in their room!”
Make Their Surroundings Feel More Familiar
A large part of making kids content in a new town is making your new house feel like a home. Any steps you can take to bring old activities and routines into your new surroundings will make your new house and neighborhood feel more familiar for your kids. The more familiar their environment feels, the more comfortable they’ll be in it. Your aim is to calm your children’s nerves so that they can take on challenges outside of the home.
“If you have a home that turns into a place of rest and relaxation, your children will know that as soon as you turn into your new neighborhood, the home they long for is only a street away. The neighborhood becomes home too, with each familiar street lighting the way,” Brotherman says.
How To Help Kids Adjust Socially
Social interaction is even more crucial for kids than it is for adults. If you want your children to adapt to their new environment and feel prepared to start a new school, you have to focus on rebuilding their social lives. Put yourself in their shoes and think about what starting over will really mean for them.
“If you’re the new kid, entering a new school where children have been together for several years poses problems,” Capaldi explains. “Unless your child demonstrates strong social skills that allow them to risk reaching out and meeting new kids, getting accepted into that new group is difficult. Your child may be a good athlete, but in a new environment, they’re starting over, having to prove themselves again. In a move, it’s difficult to take your reputation with you where no one else knows who you are and doesn’t care.”
Breaking into new friend groups will undoubtedly be challenging for your kids, but there are many ways that you can help them.
Consider Their Personalities And Tendencies
No two children are the same, which means that each child will have different issues when it comes to adjusting. Before you decide how you will help your kids, you should think about how they approach social situations.
“First, parents need to pay attention to how their children are going to react to their new environment,” Capaldi says. “Some questions to ask are: ‘Is my child social?,’ ‘Do they make friends easily?,’ ‘Do they initiate connections in school?,’ ‘Do they welcome others and maintain friendships?,’ ‘Do they demonstrate the appropriate social skills that allow them to connect?’”
By assessing your children’s social tendencies and skills, as well as their abilities to adapt, you can ensure that you choose appropriate methods for introducing your children into their new social world. If your kids are more gregarious, you’ll want to let them take the lead. However, if your children tend to be more introverted, you’ll have to show them the way.
Model Positive Social Behaviors For Them
Kids learn through observation. They study those around them (usually their family members) and copy what they say and do. This learning happens naturally; however, it’s good practice to try to model the behavior you want your children to exhibit.
Regardless of how social your children may be, making friends is hard. As the parent, it’s up to you to show your children how they can engage people and create lasting relationships. Wenzke recommends that parents provide their kids with the tools they need in unfamiliar social situations by modeling and actively teaching them how to open up to peers through welcoming body language and small talk.
“Show your child how you act friendly with the cashier at the grocery store or an unfamiliar face in the neighborhood,” she says. “Make an effort to make new friends yourself, so your child can learn from you. Also, if a situation doesn't work out the way you hope, share that setback with your child. If you ask a neighbor for coffee and she says she can't make it next week, talk about it at dinner that night. You can tell your family, ‘I asked Susan out for coffee, but she said she's busy right now. I'm a little disappointed, but I'll ask her again another time.’ Your child will learn from your experiences and know she is not alone in trying to make new friends.”
Wenzke adds that “the more you practice open body language at home, the easier it will be to replicate this behavior when you are in a new social situation. Teach your child some small talk skills as well. Practice saying ‘hi’ and using ice breakers such as compliments. For example, your child can tell another kid in the neighborhood, ‘Hi! I like your chalk drawing. How did you make that?’ or ‘Hi! Cool bike. Do you ride a lot? Where are some fun places to ride in the neighborhood?’ Again, practicing first at home will help make it feel more natural when he meets someone.”
Always keep in mind that kids rely on their parents to be their role models. If you want your kids to be more sociable and integrate into their new world, the learning has to start at home.
Introduce Them To The Neighbors
Once you’ve rehearsed using open body language and small talk with your kids, it’s time to put their training to the test. When you first move, your children may feel isolated. Fight against seclusion by journeying outside as a family regularly. Doing so will allow you and your children to become acquainted with the other families in your neighborhood.
“Say hello and introduce yourself to anyone you come across, but especially your new neighbors in close proximity,” suggestsCharissa West, a mother, teacher and parenting blogger. “If it's been a few days and the neighbors haven't welcomed you, go from door to door and say hello. This isn't ‘weird’ or ‘too forward’ when you're new to the neighborhood – but if you wait until months have passed, it's more awkward for everyone.”
If you’re having trouble getting your kids to socialize or you just can’t seem to stumble across other children for them to socialize with, visit the various recreational facilities in your area. “I have found that it's easier for my kids to meet other kids within the context of play,” says Kelly Rupiper, mother of two and content director for Upparent.com. “Swimming at the local pool, playing at the playground, and even on neighborhood walks with the scooter, kids are more likely to reach out to one another for fun in situations where play is the object of the interaction.”
As often as possible, try to put your kids in situations where they can make friends naturally. These situations will help your children gain confidence in their social skills and make them feel more accepted in your new neighborhood.
Sign Them Up For Local Clubs And Teams
Having your children feel that they are in control of creating their own social world is invaluable. But most kids won’t seek out these opportunities themselves. You must find programs and organizations for your kids that will enable them to make their own connections. To determine which clubs or teams you should sign your kids up for, think about their talents.
“Enrolling your child in local sports, arts or extracurricular activities will help to transition them into the local social scene and lead them to feel a little bit more at home in their new neighborhood,” says Lauren Schwalb, a special education teacher for the New York City Department of Education. “By doing this, you are increasing the chance that your child will be met with a friendly face in their classroom, which will allow your student to focus more on the content of their class and worry less about who they are going to sit with at lunch.”
It’s no secret that social anxieties impinge upon children’s abilities to learn. Helping your kids excel in their new school means creating a social safety net for them. We all remember the grueling experience of walking into the school cafeteria, not knowing where to sit. Eliminate this issue for your kids by enabling them to make friends ahead of time in the context of something they’re good at. It will give them the courage they need to forge new relationships.
Not sure how to find programming and activities for your kids? “Consider using social media as an ally by looking up groups affiliated with your new neighborhood. Some towns have different ‘mom’ groups, which are helpful in facilitating social gatherings,” suggests Schwalb.
Make Sure They’re Fully Present
Signing kids up for local clubs and teams is only going to help them make friends if they’re present in the moment. If your kids’ attention is diverted from those around them, they’re signaling to those children that they aren’t interested in their friendship.
“These days, children use their cell phones as a security blanket,” says Jessica Krantz, a school counselor and executive function coach. “When they feel nervous about making new friends, their phones present them with a distraction and the opportunity to connect with the friends they left behind. Settling into a new neighborhood will be nearly impossible if your children always have their phones in their hands and are constantly looking at them. Monitor your children’s screen time and have them keep their phones in their backpacks throughout the day.”
The friends that your children made in your old neighborhood are an important part of their lives. Your kids should certainly keep in touch with them. However, doing so shouldn’t get in the way of making new friends. As their parent, you can control their screen time and phone usage to ensure that your kids aren’t using technology to distract from feelings of isolation.
How To Help Kids Adjust Academically
After getting your children habituated to their new environment and introduced to their new peers, it may seem like they’re ready to go. However, you also need to guide them through the process of starting a new school.
“Transitioning from grade to grade within the same school district can be overwhelming in itself,” says Schwalb. “Adding a change of scenery by moving to a new neighborhood can be a recipe for disaster for a developing adolescent. Helping your child to become acclimated to a new school system is necessary for them to be successful in the classroom because students need to feel calm, confident and comfortable in order to perform their best academically.”
Before you leave your kids to fend for themselves inside the school walls, make sure they are familiar with their new academic environment.
Encourage Them To Get To Know The School Before It Starts
The majority of schools offer new student orientation nights or open houses where families can go to learn more about the school. Going to these events will allow your children to become acquainted with the building and learn about their classes while having you safely by their side.
“Children are most successful with a familiar structure, so when moving neighborhoods, the best thing you can do for your child is to familiarize them with their new setting,” Schwalb explains. “Visiting their new school ahead of time will help to ease the transition and reduce any anxiety your child might be having regarding such a big change. Schools often give tours to new families to help them learn more about the structure of the day and exciting activities the school has to offer. This will help ease their nerves and create excitement around their new experience.”
Even if you physically can’t make it to the school before their first day, you can still help prepare your children virtually by browsing the school’s website. According to Wenzke, “The more information your child has about her new school, the more prepared she will feel. It is the unknown that scares us, so try to take away whatever unknowns you can. Something as simple as seeing what the school nurse looks like or knowing that the school serves pizza every Thursday will help your child get a better idea of what's to come.”
Let your children take the reins and explore what interests them – even if it’s just the lunch menu.
Arrange For Them To Meet The Teachers And Administrators
Learning about the school is a wonderful step in easing your kids into the school year, but if you really want to prepare them for the upcoming year, set up a time for them to get to know the teachers and administrators.
Melanie Musson, a mother and writer for Exercise.com, found that her daughter thrived in her new school after being introduced to the faculty. “The principal gave us the tour, and my daughter got to meet all the teachers for her grade, so no matter who ended up as her teacher, they were a familiar face,” she explains.
Sometimes all it takes to help a child feel settled in a new school is knowing the individuals within it. When children can put a face to a name before walking into the classroom, they feel more prepared to confront the challenges of the day.
When you schedule an appointment for your kids to meet the teachers and administrators, make sure you leave some time to speak with them as well. Krantz explains that it’s crucial for parents to bring new schools up to date on their children’s academic history. “It’s important to have your child’s previous school records with you before and on the first day of school,” she says. “Bring your child’s transcript, Individualized Education Plan (IEP) (if applicable) and be prepared to explain the previous school’s grading policy. You want to make sure your child is placed in the appropriate class and receives any accommodations he or she needs to be successful academically.”
Have Them Do A Trial Run
Your goal before that first day of school is to shed light on all of the unknowns. If your children know what’s coming, they won’t be as anxious and will ultimately have an easier and faster time adapting to the new environment.
Wenzke recommends that parents and children do a trial run of their commute to school before that first day. “A practice run to school can help kids feel more in control of their new surroundings because they will know what to expect. There's a lot to think about on the first day of school,” she explains. “It's the small, logistical details that may worry your child, so take away whatever stress you can by showing your child how it's done before the big day.”
Don’t Forget To Check In With Your Kids
Although some kids are open and accustomed to sharing their experiences – good or bad – with their parents, others may need a little push. If your children are having a rough time of it, you need to know as soon as possible so you can help them. Children who are more introverted have a tendency to keep things to themselves, especially if they’re not doing so well. This tendency is natural but can cause smaller issues to escalate quickly.
“Be sure to always take the pulse of your child’s day,” Schwalb advises. “Check in with them and their teachers. Be sure to explain to your child that it’s okay to be nervous about the change. Eventually, they will feel right at home.”
Do your best to engage your kids in a conversation about school every day. Even if they shrug or tell you everything’s fine, push them to go deeper. Family dinners are a great time to tell stories about the day and discuss feelings about the new environment. The more open your dialogue, the more seamless your family’s transition will be. So, if you find that you’re struggling with elements of the move, share your concerns with your kids. They’ll feel far better knowing that they’re not alone.