Preparing for School Transitions


Time flies; it is almost Memorial Day. It is hard to believe that since the weather has been so strange this year. It does not feel like summer is about to start, but it is. Summer means the school year is ending and the long, carefree days of summer are starting. For some, that is wonderful. For others, that can be nerve-racking.   

For those of us who have children transitioning from elementary to middle school, or middle school to high school, we will be celebrating with promotion ceremonies, saying good-bye to teachers and schools, and looking forward to bigger and better things. At the same time, these transitions can be overwhelming. 

Middle school and high school bring added pressure, more difficult classes, increased social demands, concerns about the future, and increased responsibilities. These changes can be scary for anyone, but even more so for a child with special needs – a child with mental illness such as ADHD, depression, or anxiety, or a developmental or learning disorder like autism.  

I have one of these students: Bryce. Bryce struggles in school, and even with supports, school does not come easily for him. As a parent, I want my children to be happy and feel confident. Bryce attends The Frost School, a non-public therapeutic day school that is part of Sheppard Pratt Health System. He has been at Frost since fourth grade. He started high school last year. Staying at the same physical school somewhat eased his transition to high school, but there are still larger classes, new teachers, increased expectations, and unknown variables that increased Bryce’s anxiety and made him nervous and scared to start the high school program. 

Knowing that starting high school would cause added stress or anxiety in his life allowed me the opportunity to prepare Bryce for the challenges he would face. It may not be possible to anticipate everything, but there are things you, too, can do to ease your child’s fears and guide them during this transition.

Here are some tips that I  found useful: 

  • Acknowledge your child’s concerns: Let your child know that it is normal and okay to be nervous, scared, or anxious when starting a new school. It is especially common to feel this way if school has already been challenging. Assure them you are by their side and are available to help if they need you. Have resources available for your child if they want them, such as a tutor, counselor, or a list of coping skills that has helped them in the past. Update the list of coping skills as needed, as well. You will find that as your child gets older, coping skills that worked in the past may not work as well as your child gets older.
  • Schedule a meeting and visit the school: Plan a day or two where you and your child can tour the school alone and stake out the cafeteria, library,  classrooms, gym, bathrooms, lockers, etc.  Although there is most likely an official orientation day for the new students, you will want to set aside time when the school is empty and quiet when you can really scout it out. You will want to schedule this with the administration so you can introduce your child to the principal, counselor, and any other people that are there so they will have friendly faces on the first day. Most administrators work 12 months out of the year and are available during the summer to meet with you. This can help lessen some anxieties regarding the unknown, answer any questions they may have about their schedule or teachers, and help relax them about what to expect. You can also discuss with the administrators any concerns you have about support they need and will receive. If your child has a 504 plan or IEP, make sure to share that with the school, go over any concerns you have, and make sure that the school is able to accommodate your child's needs. 
  • Gather information: Talk to friends, family members, neighbors, teachers¾anyone you can¾about the school. The more information you have, the fewer unknowns there will be. Asking questions from those that have already been to high school can help calm fears about what the new school is like. Gather information about classes, teachers, extracurricular activities – anything you or your child want to know. 
  • Practice and prepare: Having everything ready in advance will make the days leading up to school less stressful. Especially for middle school students who may be changing classrooms and keeping track of school supplies for the first time, create an organization system with your child for handling their materials. Buy school supplies that will help keep them organized, such as a binder that closes and has pockets for each class. Prior to the first day, pick out what to wear, pack lunch ahead of time, etc. In addition to organizing the logistics, you can also practice for scenarios that can happen to build confidence and lessen anxieties your child may have about school. You can role play situations with your child, such as answering questions in class, approaching new friends, bullying, or dating. 
  • Be supportive: Remind your child how amazing they are and how far they have come. Make a list of their strengths, how much they have already accomplished, and what they hope to achieve in the new school. When they are struggling, come back to this list and review it with them. Remember to encourage them throughout the year for their behavior and their resilience. Reward and praise their effort and courage.
  • Plan for the future: This one is especially important for high school. There may be added anxiety for high school because it is the beginning of the end of school – after high school, there is an expectation of college or a job. Discuss options with your child, and what they want and see for their future. It does not have to be decided all at once or set in stone, but begin to plan and set goals. It may be helpful to discuss this with the guidance counselor or with a professional. Again, be supportive, realistic, and encouraging. 

Hopefully these tips make the transition to a new school easier for you and your child. Share your tips for successful transitions in the comments below. 

Tracy Greenberg has become a strong part of the Sheppard Pratt community. She is mother to Bryce, who attends The Frost School, part of the Sheppard Pratt Health System. Follow along with Tracy through her blog.