Helping Children Cope with School Transitions

By Leah Davies, M.Ed.

Children report that moving, leaving friends, and changing grades, schools or classes can cause great anxiety. Transitions for some students result in academic difficulties, social/emotional problems, decline in self-concept, poor motivation, decreased attendance, and increased dropout rates. Since schools are charged with helping children become well-adjusted citizens, school personnel have an important role in assisting students' adaptation to change.

When children enter a school, they are confronted by standards of behavior, teacher expectations, and social pressure to fit in with their peers. Children who are different in any way often have difficulty adjusting to new environments. Hyperactive and special needs children may find conforming difficult and may require individual consideration. Children who do not speak the predominant language used at school have an additional challenge to overcome.

Transitional periods are also opportunities for growth if children have learned coping skills and are given an opportunity to understand and adapt to their new environment. Ideally, a transition team is composed of school counselors, teachers, administrators, parents and students. They collaborate, plan and support student transitions by acknowledging student concerns and by creating a sense of belonging in the new environment.

Some strategies for helping children cope with change are as follows:

  • Provide parents and students with a clearly written handbook in their language concerning school regulations, policies, procedures, parent involvement, classes, study skills, and other details.

  • Since many parents can access the Internet, furnish a school website with basic information. It could include a virtual tour of the school, procedures for enrolling, registration forms for new students, and other facts to help children transition more easily.

  • Greet visitors with a welcome sign and have student art work displayed throughout the building. Offer school tours for new students and their parents by individuals who are enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the school, classes and activities.

  • In the spring preceding a major school move, have the younger students write questions regarding the new setting. Then ask older students to participate in a panel discussion of the concerns. Or, have older students visit each lower classroom to share what the next year will be like and to answer questions. Various formats may be used, but the chosen plan needs to provide younger children with an opportunity to share their fears and to hear encouraging responses to them. Thus, they can build favorable expectations during the summer months.

  • Provide a new school orientation program or open house for children and parents. Include staff introductions, curriculum and scheduling information, school procedures, student expectations, disciplinary actions, and other pertinent policies. A Power Point or video presentation may be included along with a tour of the school and a question and answer session.

  • Often student orientation programs occur during an assembly at the beginning of the school year. Or they may be held for a day or more prior to school starting. Representatives from clubs and organizations are asked to describe their group in some unique way. In addition, an orientation program may incorporate activities that enhance students' social skills and promote a sense of community. Structure your school environment to build student cohesiveness through the use of team-teaching and small group cooperative learning experiences. Using this model, students cooperate by working together on academic tasks to help themselves and their peers learn.

  • Keep parents informed through newsletters, parent conferences and other means. Furnish information on ways they can assist in their child's adaptation to new school situations (see Parent Article Helping Your Child Cope with School Transitions).

  • Teach children positive coping skills to use when dealing with stressful situations. Have them act out difficult circumstances and problem-solve ways to help themselves through adversity. Offer programs, activities and curricula such as the Kelly Bear C.A.R.E.S. Program for five- to nine-year-old students.

  • Create a student monitoring, peer helper or buddy program consisting of children chosen from various groups who are taught to be role models for younger children. The training may consist of one or two days before school starts or at other times. The children participate in role plays, exercises, games, and discussions that increase team and empathy building. Their roles will vary, but they can include greeting younger children or new students, conducting school tours, answering questions, introducing new students to peers, providing social support throughout the year, and/or mediating peer problems. (See Finding Solutions Through Peer Mediation.)

  • Have school counselors meet with groups of new students to welcome them. A discussion may include where the students attended school last, how it felt to leave their school, what they miss about it, what they like about the new one, what the school rules are, how they differ from other school rules, etc. Depending on the age of the children and size of the school, counselors may take photos of new students or have them make an "about me" picture to hang under a welcome sign. A month later, the pictures may be returned, thus providing a opportunity to interact with the children and note how they are doing.

  • Monitor new student's adaptation and identify those who are struggling. Refer them for individual counseling or to groups that promote school adjustment. Besides the traditional methods for helping children learn coping skills, other ideas may include having them create a handbook for new students, or write and produce skits or a video designed to answers questions new students have.

Used by permission of the author, Leah Davies, and selected from the Kelly Bear website []. 10/03

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