• Starting at a New School

    Sept. 2008, Vol.7. Issue 1 NYU Child Study Center


    In September, many children will be making transitions that involve forming new friendships and learning new routines. Preparing, supporting and guiding children as they make transitions are critical in the first few weeks of school when teachers and students are still new to each other.

    Starting a New School: Learning the Ropes and Forming Friendships

    Developmental Expectations

    Forming Friendships

    Leaving old friends and classmates and making new ones is an experience often accompanied by sadness, anxiety, fear, and excitement for many new students. Assuring your child that he or she will make friends and helping your child hold on to former friendships is important. Friendships take different forms and change in their function as a child grows and transitions throughout the school years. The meaning of a “friend” differs whether it is a young elementary student or an adolescent. Knowing this will enhance your understanding of what your child may experience as he or she attempts to form new friendships and bonds.

    2nd and 3rd grade

    Second and third graders are learning to navigate peer relationships and to find their place in social groups. Friendships at this stage are primarily based on common interests and activities. They are also “gender-rooted,” and often consist of girl only and boy-only cliques. As a parent, know your child’s interests, whether it is playing sports, watching movies, or learning the newest video game, and help your child approach peers who seem to share their passions.

    4th and 5th grade

    In the fourth and fifth grades, children establish a sense of identity and realize that friends are more than just playmates that share similar interests, they are people they can rely on and trust. Your child may enter a stage of crushes, but is not yet savvy regarding these interactions. Although same sex friendships continue, they differ in their meaning from prior years. Friends at this stage become a vital emotional part of children’s lives.

    Middle school

    By middle school, concerns about body image, anxiety about attractiveness, and interest in closer relationships are emerging. These young teens are showing increased interest in hanging out in mixed-gender groups, spending time at one another’s homes, and going out with sets of friends. Going to the movies, having sleepovers, and spending time at the mall are more frequent requests. Parents are less sought after for advice during this time of greater independence, but they continue to play a crucial role. It is important that your child knows that he or she can lean on you when feeling distressed and alone. Pep talks and selfdisclosure about your own struggles when you were at that age and how you managed are also good ways to help your middle schooler feel that he or she can relate to you and rely on you for advice.

    Making Transitions: Helping a child enter a new school

    Lay the groundwork before the first day. Take a trial run before the start of school to make sure you and your child know where to go and what to do on the first day of school. Prepare the night before to avoid the morning rush. Lay out clothes, make a lunch and assemble any supplies your child may need. Even if your child will be riding the bus or walking to school regularly, you may want to take your child on the first day, particularly if he or she seems nervous. Children are often shy with a new teacher. Go into the classroom and introduce your child to the teacher. Let the teacher know about any special interests that your child has. If your child has any challenges, be sure to alert the school and teacher ahead of time, not during the first introduction to the teacher.

    The Do’s of successful transitions

    • Do build excitement about the changes.
    • Do help children put skills in place.
    • Do inform school personnel about concerns so that your child has an ally at school and the teacher can help your child to forge relationships.
    • Do have your child carry something special from his old classroom to his new class.
    • Do honor the pace of the child – don’t rush.

    Helping your child adjust

    Talk to your child about recess and lunchtime: Many children agree that one of the scariest places at school is the lunchroom! Figuring out where to sit — and more importantly, with whom — can be intimidating. Role play situations, such as “Is this seat taken?” “Would you like to share a pencil or crayon?”. Remind your child that, believe it or not, he or she is not the only new student! When talking to the teacher about helping your child make new friends: Ask the teacher if there is a special student your daughter seems to like and if it is possible for them to exchange phone numbers to set a play-date after school. This may encourage an outside-of school friendship. Ask the teacher about how she might encourage your son to become friends with some of his classmates at recess. You may ask her to partner him with a peer who has similar interests and personalities while they are at recess and during group projects in the classroom.

    When to worry 

    Seek professional help if your child is not making a good adjustment within three months of the new school year. Warning signs include feedback from teachers indicating that your child is not socializing or participating in class, frequent physical complaints, and anxiety characterized by, but not limited to, restless sleep, significant worry about performance or peer interactions, and school refusal. Parents can also help their child work through their anxiety by communicating openly with them. Some helpful “icebreakers” include, sharing about times when you didn’t feel like going to school, letting them know that other children feel the same way, even though they might appear as if they do not, and listing the positive aspects of your child’s day and the fun things that they experience.

    Written by: Daniela Montalto, Ph.D., Developmental Psychologist and Pediatric Neuropsychologist, Susan J. Schwartz, M.A. Ed., Clinical Director of the Institute for Learning and Academic Achievement

    References: The First Six Weeks of School by Paula Denton and Roxann Kriete, Yardsticks by Chip Wood

    Books for children in grades PreK-3: For saying goodbye: Last Day Blues, The Bernstein Bears Go to School, The Day the Teacher Went Bananas, Arthur’s Teacher Trouble, First Day Jitters, Hey, New Kid!

    Books for Middle schoolers: Help! I’m in Middle School... , How Will I Survive?, New Girl (How I Survived Middle School), The Middle School Survival Guide: How to Survive from the Day Elementary School Ends until the Second High School Begins