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October 2007

New Kids on the Block
Moving During the School Year

by Michele Bush Kimball, Ph.D.

Planning and communication are the keys to making a move during the school year a positive experience.

Cheryl Margoluis and her family move back and forth from Silver Spring to Costa Rica throughout the school year. Her son and daughter attend preschool in both locations.

"At first we were concerned about the effect the moves might have on the children," Margoluis says. Explaining the moves and the benefits the children would find in both homes helped alleviate some of the anxiety. Eventually they realized that the children were handling the moves well, and there was no reason to worry.

"The bottom line is that children are way more adaptable than their parents," says Margoluis. She spoke with the schools in both places about their transient lifestyle and made sure both schools were aware of what her family was doing. Margoluis experienced much more flexibility coming to and going from the school in Costa Rica than the one in Silver Spring. Because Margoluis explained her family's plans to her children's teachers, both schools have been able to help her children adjust to leaving and returning during the school year. It has been extremely important to her that her children experience school in both cultures. "I think it will serve them well," she says.

It has been important to her daughter, especially, to feel that she is maintaining her friendships in both places. So they make sure she has several photographs of her friends with her as she makes her transition from one home to another. She knows that her friendships don't end just because she is leaving. "We emphasize to our daughter that she is lucky to have friends all over the world," Margoluis says, "and that she takes her friends with her."

Like Margoluis, Mary Ann Gehrenbeck made a point to tell her son that his friendships would not end just because he was moving to a new area. Gehrenbeck, a teacher in Silver Spring, has moved twice recently with her 8-year-old son. They moved from Washington, D.C., to Silver Spring and then from Silver Spring to Kensington. One move took place during the summer and one toward the end of the school year. Gehrenbeck helped her son get used to his new home without forgetting his ties to his old area. "He realizes he can maintain his friendships in his old neighborhood," says Gehrenbeck. Ultimately, she attributes communicating with her son and his school to her successful moves. She began the moving process by deciding the best way to explain to her son why they were moving and where they would be going. "I really thought about exactly how I was going to tell him," she says. It was important to her that her son understand what was happening so he could better acclimate to his new school system and his new home.

She also spoke with her son's teacher about the move. A teacher herself, Gehrenbeck knows that communicating with a child's teacher can be one of the most important aspects of making a transition from one school to another during the school year. "I think sometimes parents don't realize what a difference it can make to tell the teacher what is going on," Gehrenbeck says.

Teachers can help parents watch for signs that the student is anxious or upset about the move. Teachers can also help develop a plan for making the move during the school year the least disruptive academically, Gehrenbeck says. For example, her son finished out his school year in his old school, even though he had already moved to the new school district. Her son's principal and teacher were instrumental in making his move from one school to another easier.

Using the similarities from one school system to another as a touchstone for a child in transition can help make the move more comfortable because, "School can be a very normalizing experience," says Gehrenbeck.

Many Make the Move

Diana Jarrett, the coordinator of student registration for Fairfax County Public Schools, says that she sees students moving throughout the school year. "This is a transient area, and of course there are things that make it more transient, such as military families."

Although moving during the school year is not ideal, it can be accomplished in a positive way. Jarrett encourages families to try to move during the summer to avoid disrupting the academic year, but she understands that it is not always possible.

The best way to prepare for a move during the academic year is to gather as much documentation as possible. For example, make sure that immunization records, birth certificates and school records are readily available. For students with special needs, this is even more important, Jarrett says. Parents should be sure to have all of the documentation on hand regarding any special accommodations their child will need in the new school system.

Jarrett also recommends that families gather as much information about the new school system as they can. Internet sites can help parents get a feel for the school's educational philosophies as well as more concrete information like registration rules. Parents can also help students learn about which activities and clubs will be available to them so they can connect with students with similar interests. Information gathering can be a benefit to both parents and students. "I see information as one way to combat anxiety," Jarrett says.

Combating parental anxiety can have a positive effect on the student's transition, notes Jarrett. She would advise all parents to begin the moving process the same way -- by trying to relax. "Moving is an anxious time for everyone in the family, and we know that children take their cues from their parents."

Schools Help Ease the Transition

According to Jarrett, teachers and administrators in the Fairfax County school system often pay special attention to students transferring during the school year. For example, some of the middle schools have newcomers clubs to help students get acclimated. School counselors might also check with transfer students to make sure they are comfortable in their new surroundings.

Resa Wynn, a compliance assistant for student residency for the District of Columbia public school system and a former high school registrar, explains that schools can be extremely supportive in easing the transition for new students. It is common at the high school level for a new student to be assigned a buddy to help him find his way around the school. Students who are shy about eating in the cafeteria with a room full of strangers can be invited to eat in the school's office. Teachers and administrators will often keep their eyes on new students for a month or two after the transition to make sure they are finding a place in their new schools. "I think that it's important, because you don't want the student to be alone or isolated. We want to make them feel welcome," says Wynn.

A Positive Move

There can be benefits to moving during the school year, according to Sandy Lynch, senior vice president of marketing and communications for the American Moving and Storage Association. She would recommend that more people move during the school year because movers are not as busy. That translates into more flexibility during the move and potentially better service from movers. Lynch says that it is essential for moving families to set aside valuables to take with them. For children that can mean things like favorite stuffed animals, books and blankets. "One of the most important things is to pull out what is most valuable and precious to the children," Lynch says.

The moving association recognizes how stressful a move can be on a child. It has developed backpacks filled with activities for children to take with them when they move as a way to help them feel positive about the change in their lives. Adults are usually more prepared for moves, whenever they happen, but preparing children as much as possible will help make the transition easier. Also, planning ahead to help parents and children acclimate to a new area will help alleviate what can be one of the most stressful experiences a family undergoes. "Moving is really a time for a fresh start," Lynch says.

Michele Bush Kimball is a freelance writer in Springfield. She is a stay-at-home mom to a 4-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl.

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