“I don’t know if I’ll like this school,” my daughter said in a quiet voice as we approached the building. “I don’t know a single person here,” she murmured. Then she gripped my hand a little tighter.
Inwardly, I cringed, though on the outside I still wore my brave smile.
“Here we go,” I thought, “once again.”
From preschool to 2nd grade, my daughter attended 4 different schools. Almost a new one every year. Not just in different buildings—these schools were in North Carolina, California, and Spain. Like many military kids, she has to move every few years and adjust to a new classroom, teacher, set of friends, and curriculum every time. It’s my job to help her, and her younger siblings, through each transition.
But I did not grow up as a military child. I had the privilege of attending the same school from 1st-8th grade. So I have learned a lot each time we have moved.
How to help your child adjust to a new school:
Research before you move.
Begin researching schools as soon as you get orders. There are public schools on- and off-base and private schools off-base. Use sites like schoolgrades.org to research schools around your base, and help you choose where to live. If you sign a lease or get base housing before your move, you can contact the school and fill out an application online. If you don’t have a firm address, you will have to wait to enroll in public schools. Check the entry age requirements, since states have different rules for starting pre-school or kindergarten. Also, check the school calendar and starting dates. We once missed the first few weeks of school because we thought they didn’t go back until Labor Day. Turns out they started in mid-August. Oops.
Hand carry birth certificates and school paperwork.
All schools require an application. You must include a copy of the birth certificate, shot records, and family income statement (if you are applying for reduced lunch). Carry these documents with you during your move. Keep them in the PCS binder with other important paperwork. You don’t want to sit in an empty house with children who could be in school, just because your household goods haven’t arrived and the birth certificates are packed in a box somewhere!
Stay upbeat, but acknowledge your child’s emotions.
I knew this would be a challenging transition year for my child, so I tried to stay positive when talking about the new school. I mentioned new friends, new possibilities, and the short commute (she could walk from our house). At the same time, I knew that cheerfulness could cover up the challenge she faced. I didn’t want to deny the changes she was experiencing. I let her cry and talk to me, I listened to her worries, and I offered to always be there for her, whatever she wanted to say. I admitted I was nervous too, since I didn’t have any friends here, either. She gained strength from me, knowing that I was on her team.
Do a recon visit.
When you visit the school to drop off paperwork, make it a fun, exploring visit with your child. Ask the front desk if you can get a tour the campus, so your child can get familiar with where they will check in, where they will have lunch and recess, and how to walk to the pick-up point at the end of the day. Walking through these places together gave my child a lot of confidence and excitement for her new school.
Note: If your child has special needs, you may prefer to make the initial visit yourself, tour the grounds on your own, and work out which activities or locations might be challenging to your child. You can discuss concerns with the front desk, and even with a school counselor, before your child’s teacher is assigned.
Meet the teacher, and stay in email contact.
At the initial meeting with the teacher, prepare your questions in advance. Discuss expectations: How much time does the teacher expect for homework? What kind of weekly test or quizzes are there? What are the classroom goals for the end of the year? How can parents get involved at the school? It is helpful to have some samples of the child’s writing and math from last year, since not all school systems follow the same curriculum. Follow up by email a week later, and see how things are going. Your child will probably adjust quickly, but if they are struggling in one area, or having behavior problems, you can address that immediately. Don’t wait for the teacher to come to you.
If possible, walk to school.
If it is too far, then drive, but park and walk your child directly to the check-in area. Do the same thing at pick-up each afternoon, if possible. This isn’t just for your child, but for you. When you are there in person, you can make connections with the other parents standing around. Find out who else is in your child’s class. Ask them about the homework load, or about sports and after-school activities. Find out who lives near you, so you have someone to put on that contact form if you ever have an emergency. Other parents are a wealth of information, but you will miss that if they take the bus, or you drive through the drop-off line.
Establish homework routines.
First, set up a designated homework space. If you are unpacking, the house may seem too chaotic for homework. But children thrive on routine. So whether it is in their room or at the kitchen table, keep a homework space clean and stocked with supplies. Next, look at their homework with them so you see what they are studying. Ask them if they understand it.
Finally, if they are struggling, get a tutor. The website Tutor.com offers free services to military families, for children in grades K-12. They can connect to a tutor online for help with homework, test prep, or proofreading papers. Some bases offer the program Operation Hero, run by the Armed Services YMCA. This after school group is specific for military kids. They can get homework help, while discussing emotions and doing confidence-building exercises.
Starting at a new school is a challenge that last for months. Make it easier for your child by researching the options and being prepared. Make an extra effort to support them during the first few weeks, so they have help navigating the new classes and teachers. Let your children know that you are there for them, and that you believe in their strength. Military kids will surprise you with their strength and resiliency! My daughter has adjusted to every one of her schools, and we are both confident that she will continue to thrive wherever we move.
Lizann Lightfoot is the Seasoned Spouse, a military wife of 9 years who has been with her husband since before Boot Camp—15 years ago! Together they have been through 6 different deployments and 4 different duty stations (including 1 overseas in Spain). Lizann spends her days at home wrangling their 4 young children, cooking somewhat healthy meals, writing about military life, and wondering where the family will end up next. She is the author of the book ‘Welcome to Rota,’ and of the Seasoned Spouse blog. Follow her on Twitter. Find military encouragement on her Facebookpage. Find inspiration for care packages, deployments, and more on herPinterest page.