Hooray! The start of new school year! For many kids and teens, this time of year is a chance to reconnect with friends who have been out of touch for the summer and to recap their adventures from the last 3 months. However, for those going to a new school - whether the transition is from elementary to middle school, middle to high school, or simply a new campus - it can be a time of panic and frustration, as they try to “find their place” amongst a new group of peers. As parents, it can feel like you’re helpless to sit on the sidelines, and watch your child struggle to fit in. It can also lead to wondering and worrying if you’ve made the best decision in choosing their new school. Before you start looking at other education options, consider a few tips:
Tips for Parents Supporting Their Tweens/Teens
Create time after school to talk with your tween/teen. Finding a time to check in with your child regularly that is free from distractions and audiences (siblings, other family members) gives your child a consistent safe space to share their concerns and fears about their new school. If your child seems “burned out” at the end of the day, give them time to recharge before you start asking questions. For a child who is feeling isolated at school, having a space to vent and connect at home is imperative!
Leave your preconceived notions at the door. What may seem like a big deal to you (i.e. sitting alone on the bus), may not be the main concern of your child. Understanding specifically why your tween/teen is happy or unhappy at their new school will give you a better understanding of how you can support them.
Don’t fix, reflect first. When your teen is upset, it’s easy for parents to want to offer advice to help them fix the problem. For transition issues, there are often a lot of factors in play because all of their surroundings are totally new. I have compiled a short list of “action steps” below, that teens can take to help get more adjusted to their new school, but before you start offering advice or comparing the old and new schools with your child, be sure you truly understand why they are upset. A simple reflection of feelings can save a lot of tension between you and your teen.
For example, if your tween/teen comes home upset about Math class. Instead of saying: “That’s terrible! I am going to fill out a class change for you. This teacher is awful for not helping you. You shouldn’t be so lost and upset in their class.”
Instead, try: “Math class was really frustrating. It sounds like you feel that the teacher moves at a faster pace than what you’re used to or comfortable with.”
What you may find out is that an element that you didn’t expect is to blame; perhaps a disruptive classmate is causing confusion, rather than the content or pace of the class. By reflecting, your child is given a mirror to understand the message they’re conveying. Tweens/Teens are still finding their voices, so reflecting on their feelings and checking for understanding not only helps parents address the correct issue, but it also gives your child the language they need to appropriately express their concerns!
Talk with your child’s favorite teacher, or their least-hated teacher, depending on how your student is feeling about the new school year. Teachers are in a unique position to help kids meet one another. Because teachers initiate peer interaction through natural class activities and give students automatic talking points, kids are able to meet each other in ways that feel less intimidating. They also know most of the kids in their classes by the end of September, so they can steer your child towards a group who shares similar interests.
Introduce your child to their school counselor. If you have a child experiencing anxiety or apprehension with school, you don’t want to wait until your child is in full “meltdown mode” to start talking with some of the support staff. Counselors often have friendship groups, mentor/mentee opportunities, and the ability to give students a safe space to vent if an interaction at school doesn’t go as planned. Proactively meeting their counselor allows your child to build a relationship with them before needing it!
Get involved! Join the PTSA, a booster club, or offer to volunteer at an extracurricular event. Your child will learn a lot of their social cues from you. By modeling the act of “putting yourself out there” to meet others you are demonstrating that even in intimidating circumstances meeting new people and making new friends is rewarding and important.
Reach out to a therapist or medical provider if your child is taking the transition especially hard. Sometimes having an outside adult to process the new surroundings allows your tween/teen to express their feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression, while learning how to cope with difficult situations and thrive in their new environment. Be sure to fill out a Release of Information, so that your child’s therapist can connect care and strategies with their school (you can decide what information to share between all parties on the form).
Tips for Tweens/Teens:
Stick to the basics. When you start at a new school, everything can feel overwhelming. During the first few weeks, give yourself permission not to know everything. In the first month, if you’re able to get to your classes, find the bathroom and cafeteria, and know your way home, then you’re doing great! Have compassion for yourself. It likely took years to know all the ins and outs of your old campus so don’t panic! You will get the hang of your new school layout, learn teachers’ names, join groups of kids, and figure out the overall “way of life” at your school, it just takes time.
Join a club. Feeling connected to your new community will help make your time at school more enjoyable! Most schools have LOTS of activities for their students to get to know one another. Gone are the days when sports and academic clubs were the only extracurricular options. Now, most campuses have robotics and technology based clubs, art, movies and creative clubs, and even some form of game clubs (Minecraft/D&D/etc) in addition to athletic options. If your campus doesn’t have a club that interests you, talk with a teacher about starting a new club. Also, try something that you maybe never thought you would like. Lots of professionals are in careers that they never expected, so this might be your start to a newfound passion or hobby! No time after school? No problem! Many schools are now offering clubs that meet in the mornings or over lunch.
Put down your phone and make eye contact with others! It sounds cheesy, but humans are less likely to approach someone new if they feel like they’re interrupting or imposing on someone else’s space. If you’re staring down at your phone, it’s hard for others to determine if you’re intentionally looking for peace and quiet or if you’re just passing time while also being open to meeting new people.
Talk to one new person, each day. It could be someone in your PE class that runs at the same pace as you. It could be your table-mate in Math class. Even if you don’t think you will have anything in common with the other person or the conversation only lasts 30 seconds, by simply smiling and saying hello you will be presenting yourself as someone who is friendly and approachable. By presenting yourself in this way, others will feel more comfortable and invited to talk with you.
Talk with your parents! Even if they don’t completely understand what you’re going through, telling them your concerns builds a stronger connection and allows them to step in and help when you feel overwhelmed.
Remember: You are not alone. Most tweens/teens report feeling uncomfortable when they switch campuses! And almost all of them are looking to make new friendships and connections, even if they don’t show it outright. Whether you’re moving to a higher grade level on a new campus or moving schools mid-year, keep in mind that friend groups are fluid and ever-changing. By being open and trying new activities, you will build a friend group that is unique and satisfying for you!