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September 2009

Changes are A-Coming

Weathering the Transitions of a New School Year

By Deborah Wood, Ph.D.

There are changes a-coming for a large segment of the student population. After three years at a preschool co-op, Jazmine will go to “big school” for kindergarten. Bradley will board a school bus, ride past his familiar elementary school and enter the wild world of middle school. Kendal and Kyle are headed to high school for their freshman year.

Most children will sail smoothly from one grade level to the next, making new friends, adjusting to new schedules and new teachers and settling into a new academic year. But for some children, change will be more difficult.

Normal Jitters

For the typically developing child, going into a new school year should bring a mix of emotions. Will I have friends in class? Will I have nice teachers? During the days or even weeks before school starts, children may talk about being nervous or excited, or both.

Five-year-old Jazmine visited her new school at the Kindergarten Roundup last April. Since then, her parents have added the school playground to their weekly outings. Sometimes the conversation turns to, “When I go to big school,” and Jazmine hears reassurances that, “Yes, you will make pictures. You’ll sing songs, hear stories and have a snack,” just like in preschool. Padding Jazmine’s expectations with familiar experiences should help her feel on solid ground when faced with new experiences, such as longer days without a parent.

Over the summer, the family often arranged to meet friends at the school playground. Three of these friends are Jazmine’s classmates from preschool who will attend the same elementary school, and these outings are a comfortable bridge between Jazmine’s old school and her new one. As Jazmine plays comfortably with her familiar playmates, her parents remind her what a good friend she is, and that she will likely be good at making new friends, too.

When the big day comes, Jazmine is up bright and early. She puts on the outfit chosen three days ago, slings her backpack (packed long ago with the new box of crayons and other school supplies) over her shoulders and is almost out the front door before her father suggests she have some breakfast in the kitchen. Their conversation is one more chance to review what she is likely to see and do at school.

Even though Jazmine has a positive attitude about the day, her father arranges his schedule so that he is available from after school until bedtime. There is sure to be much to talk about.

Too Many Changes?

With working parents the norm, some children make changes all day long, from home to babysitter to carpool to school to after-care to home. Sociologists note that families move from home to home more often than ever before. Even if your family stays put, your child’s peer group may be an ever-changing cast of characters.

Moving to a new neighborhood means starting a new school. If the move is caused by a family change – divorce or remarriage, for example – there will be many adjustments. Spacing out the changes isn’t always an option, adding even more challenge to adjusting to new expectations at school. Offer children as much extra support as possible to orient them to new spaces, routines and relationships.
Each higher level in school is a higher level of academic rigor. Maria Selwood of Kensington found the difference in homework requirements between kindergarten and first grade to be “most surprising.” Both she and her daughter had to adjust their after-school time to keep up. Activities such as ballet, soccer and swimming had to take a back seat if there were addition facts to be practiced or if the first grader was just too tired after a demanding day at school.

Middle School

Middle school is an in-between time in childhood, with many changes of its own. Bradley is experiencing the fits and starts of adolescence typical for his age as he leaves elementary school behind. He and his friends are starting that awkward period of unpredictable growth spurts, which can leave embarrassing height gaps between long-time friends. For girls, friendships may be strained as hormones play havoc with moods and body shapes. Hormones are also responsible for romantic feelings, which change all the rules about social interaction. (“Are we still friends after I said I liked him, and you said you didn’t anymore but then got mad when he said he liked me, but he wasn’t sure if it was a good idea if you and I would still hang out if he and I were 'going out?'”) It gets a little confusing.

And then there’s school. Middle school may be the first time a student has to cope with a locker at one end of the building and classrooms all over. Middle schools also typically draw from several elementary schools, so students may feel awash in a sea of strangers during the first few days or weeks. Give your lost middle schooler the assignment to make at least one friend in each class and exchange phone numbers. This lifeline can prevent social or academic drowning.

Are We in the Right Place?

School readiness, and later, grade-level placement, come up as factors affecting a smooth transition from one year to the next. Early and late birthdays, height, verbal skills, social skills and physical coordination matter as much as academic potential in making a decision. Will he be more or less capable than his peers? Too tall or too short to fit in socially? We know that children vary in their maturational development-from late bloomers to child prodigies--and that early assessments do not necessarily predict later achievement.

Another consideration is the fit of student and family to the school. After a choice has been made, a long period of unhappiness might mean it’s not working. A change mid-year is sometimes the answer. Public schools take new students within their boundaries at any time. Private schools will take new students as space permits.


Personality factors play into attitudes toward life changes. Kyle has had difficulties with transitions all his life. He was fussy with new babysitters. He was clingy for the first several weeks of preschool, kindergarten and first grade. Elementary school had its frightening moments--especially oral book reports and stage performances. He has spent more time than his parents like to admit staying home from middle school for “mental health days” when his stress level got too high. Compared to his sister Kendal, who has joined the track team and the yearbook committee and will be auditioning for the school play, Kyle approaches the beginning of high school with dread. He dreads the extra-early bus ride. He dreads AP biology class. He dreads running into the girls who pestered him for his cell phone number when he went to orientation day.

Fortunately, Kyle and his family have had 14 years to learn how to cope with his reactions to change. For one thing, he does much better when elements of the change are dealt with one at a time, and so his first school experience was broken down into steps. While playground visits can help to make a younger child familiar with one aspect of school many months before it begins, an incoming middle- or high-school student can get familiar with a track or ball field the same way. Long before this summer, Kyle’s father often took the children to the track when they were learning to ride bicycles and later, just for a great place to walk and run for exercise. While Kendal discovered she really enjoyed running and was pretty good at it, Kyle just enjoyed the time with his father.

Families with a child like Kyle often look to private schools because of the smaller student body and more closely knit faculty. Ani Law, director of admissions for the Fourth Presbyterian School in Potomac, says she has welcomed families for just this reason. The new school year starts off with a family picnic and pool party, affording the parents a chance to network and develop carpools. Monthly school-wide events, such as a luau, pair older and younger students as buddies. These friendships can help children feel part of a continuous thread as they pass from grade to grade. And anxiety over a new teacher? Law says not likely. Students are already well-acquainted with the teachers they will have long before they move up.

Whether your child is entering kindergarten, middle school or high school, here's hoping that as summer slips into fall, all our children will weather their transitions well.

Deborah Wood is a consultant, trainer and counselor for child development issues and a frequent speaker for parents and child care providers in the greater Washington, D.C., area. She is the mother of two grown children and an adopted teenager, and is the founding executive director of Chesapeake Children's Museum in Annapolis.