New School Year, New School
Learning the Right Combination for Success
by Joan M. Kasura
Most of us remember the anticipation, the excitement, and sometimes the sheer dread that the first day of school would bring–an excitement compounded if we were entering a school for the first time. Questions swirled in our heads: Would we remember to take our lunch in the morning? Would we make the bus or remember the way to school? Would we find our classroom(s)? Would we like our teacher(s) or would we get the meanest teacher in school who would hate us forever? Would we get our locker open or would we be forced to carry our books around in our backpack for the whole school year? Would the mean bully from fifth grade lock us in our locker, and nobody find us until Halloween? Would we remember our bus number or would we get on the wrong bus and be left at the end of a dirt road far from anywhere much less home? And, most importantly, would we find a friend or would everyone hate us forever?
Sound far fetched? Not to Charlotte Lollis, Guidance Counselor at Bushy Park Elementary and Triadelphia Ridge Elementary in Western Howard County. Every year Lollis holds a meeting with her fifth graders to help them prepare for their transition to middle school and generate a list of questions to ask when they go to the middle school for their initial orientation session. And almost every year, one of the rumors she discusses is the one about the kid who got stuffed in a locker and was never heard from again.
As Lisa Boarman, M.S., L.C.P.C., a Resource Counselor for Howard County Public Schools, pointed out, what we as parents are worried about as our children begin or continue their academic careers at a new school usually is not what the children themselves are worried about. For instance, most children new to a school are convinced that they are the only new kid on the block. New middle schoolers not only are convinced they will never remember the combination to open their locker, but are certain they’ll be doomed to wander the hallways forever in search of their next class.
Fortunately, there is much that parents can do to allay those new school fears. Whether our children are entering a new school because we have moved to a new home or because they have graduated from elementary school and are heading to middle school–or middle to high school–what’s important is that we make them comfortable with the new school environment.
Setting the Stage for Success
Joann Altiero, Ph.D., a Child Clinical Psychologist in private practice in La Plata, Maryland, notes that “pointing out to children how they have been successful in a previous ‘new situation’ is usually a good start for worried children. Parents need to check their own anxiety level,” she continued, “and reassure themselves if it is too high that they have done a good job and can handle new situations, too!”
And while we certainly should be feeding information to our child about his or her new school, Dr. Altiero and Donna Saunders, a sixth grade guidance counselor at Glenwood Middle School in Howard County, both caution parents against either overloading or not providing enough information to their child.
“As always,” explained Dr. Altiero, “information that we give to children should be developmentally appropriate, and should take into consideration their age and their level of mental functioning.”
For example, for a third grader who is concerned about what her classroom will be like, the best remedy is to show her. Take her to the school, walk around, take a peek into the third grade classrooms, even sit at a desk, and let her get a feel for where things are–including the nearest bathroom.
For a sixth grader concerned about finding his way, the show and tell strategy is equally valid. But, you also can encourage independent problem solving skills with a preteen. For instance, you could get a map of the school and when your child’s schedule arrives, have her use highlighters to track her daily path from class to class. Then remind her to tuck the map into her assignment or agenda book for easy reference. Reassure her that you are there to help when things go awry by having extra copies of the school map on hand as back ups.
Those extra copies, along with the extra helping of parental reassurance, are important in passing along information to middle schoolers who, Ms. Saunders noted, need the repetition “because it emphasizes the importance of that particular piece of information. Sometimes the child is just overwhelmed by all the new information they are receiving and when something is said the first time, they may have felt that it didn’t apply to them,” Saunders says. “When you keep repeating the same information in different ways, sooner or later they realize the importance of the message.”
This applies most definitely to the area of homework. Most middle schoolers are convinced they have the homework routine all figured out. But homework in middle school is a totally different animal than homework in elementary school. In middle school your child has assignments from six different teachers, on six different subjects, with six different sets of expectations versus the one or two, or in rare instances, three teachers in elementary school. Constant reminders not only from the home front, but also usually incorporated throughout the classroom routines, eventually teach your middle schooler the only reliable way to ensure that homework is completed on time and in its entirety is with the daily use of an agenda book coupled with a calendar to track long term projects.
To help keep your child adequately informed, you need to inform yourself. If you are the parent of a child making that sometimes scary, but normal transition from elementary to middle school, make sure you and your child take advantage of as much of the orientation process as possible. If you don’t know what that process is, ask your elementary school counselor or your child’s teacher. If you are in transition because of a move, begin by contacting the new school or schools as early as possible.
Communicate with the School
When registering your child at the new school, Ms. Boar-man suggested that you “bring information from your child’s previous school which will help the new school place your child appropriately, as often school records sent from the previous school do not arrive before the student. You may even want to consider sending in a note to the new school introducing your child and outlining their strengths and needs.”
In addition, Boarman continued, “ask the school counselor or administrator about the activities they provide for new students. Many schools provide time for new students to meet one another or assign new students a ‘buddy’ to help acclimate them to their new surroundings.”
Charlotte Lollis confirmed that every year she holds a New Students Tea for her new students which she breaks down by grades and sometimes, depending on the numbers, by classes. If the need exists, she will “buddy-up” new students to help show them around for a week. And for children who are experiencing a difficult social transition, she will, at the request of a parent or many times the student, have an organized Friendship Group, where for a half an hour over four weeks the identified student and three classmates spend time talking about the multitude of issues surrounding friendship.
Once school begins, one of the best things parents can do is stay involved in their child’s life at school says Lisa Boarman. “This gives you an opportunity to meet other parents and students as well as become more comfortable with your child’s new surroundings.”
Give Your Child Space and Time
Donna Saunders noted that parents should not pull back just because their child is now in middle school. “Be a part of your child’s education,” she said. “Know who their friends are. Remember your child is now dealing with five or six different teachers, and that can be overwhelming both for your child and the teachers themselves because they neither know your child as well as you do, nor do they see him/her for more than the designated discrete periods of time.”
Remember, too, that transitioning to a new school is a process. “Expect your child to need the first month of school to get used to the new routines,” Ms. Boarman cautioned. “Don’t plan lots of activities after school, or stop at the gro-cery store on the way home from picking up your child. Most children are exhausted from the demands of adapting to their new surroundings, and they need the down time to relax and adjust to their new homework routine.”
Ms. Lollis pointed out that sometimes it takes a whole school year for a child to work through all his or her feelings of grief and change, especially for older children such as fourth and fifth graders. “For boys and girls who have a rough first year, the second year is much easier because now there’s that sense of familiarity,” she explained.
In the end, it’s familiarity that is the true comfort factor. “No matter what our age, it’s always traumatic when you have to make your way into the unknown,” acknowledged Ms. Saunders. “The best way to combat that fear and worry,” added Ms. Lollis, “is to talk about it, visit the school and give your child as concrete an image as possible about what lies ahead.”
Oh, and from one middle school parent who’s been there, write down that combination lock and put it somewhere near your phone at home or work. That way when they call you from school, you’ll be prepared, too.