Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2016!
“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 a 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 of 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 for 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.
Starting at a new school is a challenge that lasts 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 Facebook page. Find inspiration for care packages, deployments, and more on herPinterest page.
3 Replies to “When Your Military Child Is the New Kid at School… Again”
[…] The overall themes of Spouse Calls are community, support, and positive encouragement. Barnes says it is “the story of the people we know and the life we live in the neighborhood of our American military life.” Barnes exemplifies the Seasoned Spouse, who has friends all over the world, is an expert at making a house a home, and has taught her children to adjust smoothly to life’s many changes. I enjoyed reading some of the articles by Barnes’ children, military “brats” who lived all over the world, and have now graduated high school and college. The story “Foreign,” written by Barnes’ son when he was in high school, shows at the same time the unique challenges and the special opportunities of being a military child. Yes, they are always the new kids at school. But they bring with them the strength and ability to make new friends over and over again. Military kids will always be interesting because of the fact that they have lived and experienced different places. Since my own military children have only started elementary school, it was reassuring to see the grace with which Barnes’ military kids have handled moving and changing schools so often. […]
[…] leaves that change colors. September is when the nights turn chilly, the corn is harvested, and the kids go back to school. Local farms set up Corn Mazes and Haunted Hay Rides. My parents had an apple farm, so Fall meant […]
My favorite sushi place in DC (well Arlington) is in a run-down mall next to my work. It makes no sense, but I seriously ca8;7n21#&t find any better sushi anywhere. Sounds like a fun night!
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