Your child walks into the crowded cafeteria and scans the room looking for an open table. Suddenly all eyes are on him. The huge room goes quiet. His peers have stopped mid-sentence, mid-bite, to stare at the new kid.
Your child’s face is flushed and his cheeks are turning bright red. It appears he may have forgotten how to breathe. No, this is not a nightmare. It’s your child’s first day at a new school.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 2 million families with children between the ages of 6 and 17 move around the U.S. every year. With those statistics, chances are your child is not the only new kid at school.
But being the new kid doesn’t have to be quite so scary and anxiety-inducing. With a few simple steps, you can help your child be the new kid they want to be.
Get the Lay of the Land
Before your child’s first day, visit the new school (preferably when class is out or when the school is relatively empty) or get a tour. Find out where their class or classes are, as well as their locker, the library, the gym, the cafeteria, the restrooms, etc. Becoming familiar with the layout and knowing what to expect can ease overall anxiety, including those first day jitters.
Jill Kandell, an Ohio mother of three, advises, “Tour the school and meet the teacher ahead of the actual orientation time, when other kids aren’t there.”
Walk them through their schedule. Help them envision a typical day at their new school. Courtney Carlisle Bolton, M.A., Child, Family and School Psychology, University of Denver, says, “The more your child can anticipate, the less anxious she may be on the first day. Help alleviate any fears she may have
by preparing her in advance of what the daily schedule and routine will be at school.”
Meet the Players
Meet the principal, the office staff, the classroom teachers and as many members of the faculty as possible who will be interacting with your child.
Principal Paul Chase at Beachwood Middle School says, “It is very important for schools to have multiple tiers of communication with new students and families.
“Two of the most important tiers include the initial student scheduling meeting with parents and a well-defined student orientation program,” he continues. “The scheduling meeting should be an opportunity for parents and the child to meet the counselor and principal, as well as create an appropriate academic schedule. The student orientation program should include opportunities to make friendships, peer mentoring when possible, and provide the new student with general information to begin the school year.”
See if the principal can suggest a student to be your child’s “buddy” for the first day or two of school. This buddy can show your child the ropes and introduce them to other students. Dr. John Duffy, clinical psychologist and author of “The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens,” says, “This helps your child become acclimated to the building, the culture and, to an extent, the social climate of the school.”
Find out if the school offers programs your child might find exciting (theater, music, sports, etc.). Kandell suggests, “Join a sport, activity or club right away based on the child’s interests.”
“Being the new kid in school is a terrific opportunity to re-invent and try things you may never have dared in your past school,” Head of Old Trail School Sarah Liotta Johnston says. “Kids grow and develop at such a fast pace, so having the chance to make a change and move to a new school allows them to shed old barriers and try out new activities and interests. When you are new at a school, get involved and engage in all that is new and exciting. Change can be a liberating experience for kids.”
Parents can get involved by contacting the PTO/PTA president and asking if they have any information about the school or students that could make your child’s transition easier. Also ask if they can direct you to your child’s classroom roster. Contact the other parents to arrange a playdate at a nearby park. This is a great way to introduce your child to their future classmates. Having a friend on the first day of school can give your child the confidence they need.
As a parent, join the PTO/PTA, volunteer in the classroom and get involved any way you can. “Meeting other parents, kids and staff is the best way to help your child and your family transition and thrive in a new school,” says Amy Hilbrich Davis, founder and CEO of Inspiring Moms and Balance MAP.
The key to making friends is to find a common interest. Help your child be open to finding that common ground.
Talk to your child about a time when you were making new friends. Think back to what worked for you. Share any experiences that you think will be helpful for your child.
Each child is going to have a different approach. Some are going to be fine walking right up to a peer or a group of kids and introducing themselves. For others, this may be completely out of character.
Jill Kristal, Ph.d. president of Transitional Learning Curves, speaking about her 10-year-old son, says, “In order to be accepted by the other kids, he had to wait it out, sit on the sidelines and give people a chance to get used to him. He figured out a good way to navigate the social minefield of being the newbie.”
Mitch White, the new head of Lake Ridge Academy, says, “As the ‘new kid’ myself, I can tell you how I am approaching school this year. First, I am interested in learning what my new school is like, so I am trying to meet as many people as possible. Second, as I adjust to a new environment, I am careful to always be myself.”
Talk About Feelings
Be patient. As with any transition, there is a period of adjustment.
Jenny Rogers, a kindergarten teacher and mother of two, says, “After you and your child have taken that school tour, talk about things that surprised them or ways that this school is like their old school. This often starts a good dialogue about worries, concerns, and helps the child picture themselves in this new school. As all great parents do, spin the ‘worries’ into positives!”
Listen to your child. Validate their concerns. Offer up your own experiences and empathize. In some way or another, we’ve all been there.
“Your attitude as a parent is powerful. Be positive, Acknowledge that new can mean scary and create anxiety, yet it also means exciting, more friends, and an improved life. If you believe this, then so will your kids. Live the life you want your kids to live and jump in!” Davis says.
Frank Jefferis, retired Lakewood High School teacher, advises, “Be yourself, be proud.”
“Returning to school at the beginning of the year is an exciting time, but can also be a little scary,” Hudson City Schools Superintendent Phil Herman says. “School is just like many other worthy endeavors in life — what we get out of it is dependent upon what we put into it. Dive in! Meet new friends, connect with old friends, get involved in school activities, and look for other students who may need your help to feel comfortable, too. If school still seems a little scary, share your worries with a teacher, principal, guidance counselor, or other staff member. They are here to help you succeed.”
Cassi Denari is a freelance writer and a professional “new kid” who, from kindergarten to senior year, went to 13 schools. By the time she hit high school she had the “new kid” process down to a science. She is the mother of two wild boys and in her spare time she writes children’s stories.