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07 Feb, Tuesday
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Montreal Families

The challenges of changing schools mid-year

When I was young, my family moved around a lot because of job transfers. For the most part, living in yet another home in a new town seemed like a fun adventure: would I have a prettier bedroom, a neighbour my age to play with or be closer to the local park?

But the one thing I hated about moving was being the new kid in school. Nothing seemed more difficult than walking into an unfamiliar school where I would be greeted by blank stares from a classroom full of strangers.

In the end, I inevitably made friends and I’m sure learning how to cope early on has helped me as an adult in awkward social situations. Nonetheless, when our then 13-year-old decided she wanted to change schools mid-way through the academic year from a French private school to an English public school, I knew she was in for a tough time. Unfortunately, she didn’t.

Instead, she had a carefree attitude, believing “the grass-is-always-greener-on-the-other-side” motto. Even though we encouraged her to finish out the school year, our daughter convinced us she was ready to switch in January. She was anxious to be taught in her mother tongue since she was already proficient in French. I applauded her optimism at the pending change but inside I feared there would be some inevitable bumps in the road ahead.

On her last day before the Christmas break, she bid adieu to her old classmates. She was leaving a school where she had to wear a uniform for a place where she could wear the latest fashion trends. In January, wearing her coolest non-uniform clothes, she walked into her new school. Day one went okay, she said with a brave, but unsteady smile. So did day two, at least from all outward appearances.

It was at the end of day three, however, when the agony of the move was finally released in a torrent of anguish and tears. Our daughter was miserable. She told us she missed her old friends and didn’t know anyone at the new school. She also admitted that she did not think changing schools would be so difficult.

Friendships are very important

According to school administrators and counsellors, making this type of switch mid-year can be challenging – especially from a social standpoint when friendships have already been formed.

Lorne Ouellet, a high school counsellor with the Lester B. Pearson School Board, says it’s tough for kids to change schools at any age but it’s especially hard during the teen years. "Interpersonal relationships with their peers is like their life blood and when that gets severed (by changing schools), so does their lifeline.”

Also, most students have not yet developed strong coping skills to deal with such situations. Ouellet says that it is very difficult for young people when their world changes drastically and they enter into the unknown.

Ouellet speaks from first-hand experience. When he was 11 years old he was sent mid-way through the school year from Montreal to a boarding school in Maine.

“To this day I remember it,” he said. “It was traumatic… sleeping in a dorm with 50 other kids at night and trying to stifle tears because you’re homesick – having all these feelings was not easy.” He says it is why he has such empathy for the new kids in school.

Lisa Goodwyn is a social worker who counsels elementary and high school kids. She says new students often rely on technology such as text messaging with a cell phone to help them cope, which can be good and bad.

“It can be a comfort to stay connected to old school friends, but it can also hold them back from getting involved with new friends,” she says, adding that when it comes to helping kids integrate, it can take between three and four weeks for students to feel comfortable in a new environment. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of making one or two new friends so they don’t feel alone walking down the hall.”

Both Ouellet and Goodwyn say that if parents and school administrators work together, kids should eventually settle in well to life at a new school. However, it’s important to notify staff at the new school about any special circumstances, such as if a child has left an old school due to bullying for example, or behaviour problems, or if kids are under other emotional duress (like if their parents have recently divorced).

“With time, the fear decreases because the unknown becomes familiar,” Ouellet says.

In our case, this assessment was more than accurate. Our daughter began to feel more comfortable at her new school just a few weeks after the move. Over time, she formed a network of close friends, joined the student council where she made more acquaintances while helping plan social events, and twice qualified for the honour roll. At the same time, she maintained and still has regular contact with her close pals from her former school. At the end of the school year, our daughter said she was happier than she’d ever been and really could not remember why she was initially so upset.

Easing the transition

Lorne Ouellet, a high school counsellor with the Lester B. Pearson School Board and Lisa Goodwyn, a social worker who counsels elementary and high school kids, have offered the following tips for parents.

Be empathetic
Take your child’s feelings seriously. When children feel their parents don’t understand, they tend to remain unhappy.

Be realistic
Don’t give kids false promises by saying that things will smooth out in a day or two. Ask them to hang in there and let them know that things should get easier after a few weeks.

Let them cry
Don’t tell kids to be brave; sometimes just letting their feelings out can be helpful.

Be encouraging
After the initial dust from the change settles, persuade kids to get involved in school activities and sports programs. This way they will become emotionally invested in their new school and will more likely make friends with kids who share similar interests.

Talk to school officials
If a child is having a particularly hard time, call a school counsellor or principal so that they can come up with a plan. Parents should watch for a dramatic shift in a child’s sleeping or eating habits, manner of dress, make-up, or social preferences. These could be signs that your child may be hanging out with the wrong crowd in an effort to fit in.

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