Helping Students Transition to a New School: Dealing with Change
This blog was originally published April 6, 2017. It was updated June 21, 2021.
Change isn’t easy. This is especially true for children, who may have known the same school, classroom, and friends their entire life so far. Whether it’s a small change in routine or adjusting to a new school, there are endless ways you can help as a teacher. We’re breaking down the details of helping students transition to a new school, school year, or classroom routine.
5 Tips for Helping Students Deal with Change
Your students will deal with change throughout their educational career and beyond. Helping them build the skills they need to thrive in new situations is key to their success throughout their life. Here are our five tips for helping students manage change.
1. Acknowledge their feelings.
Children have far less life experience, so even tiny changes can seem daunting to them. By recognizing that it’s a difficult and stressful time for them, you can build a relationship of trust and understanding. One of your best tools in helping students transition to a new school or situation is being able to empathize and level with them, especially if they aren’t happy about the change.
2. Slow down.
Just as you may need help managing your workload when stressed, consider what work is essential and what can wait until the child has adjusted. Staggering the introduction of big changes can also help children adapt more calmly, rather than having several big changes to adjust to at once.
3. Create routine and normalcy.
Routines help children know what to expect, reducing anxiety and improving their ability to prepare. Build as many simple routines during times of change (like the first week of school) to help students adjust more quickly.
4. Encourage healthy habits.
Sleep, good nutrition, and playtime are all key factors in childrens’ emotional and mental health. Emphasize the importance of these healthy habits to parents to ensure your students are being set up for success at home. Especially during a big change like adjusting to a new school, establishing and maintaining good habits like these can make a big difference in your students’ ability to adjust.
5. Answer questions and encourage communication.
Oftentimes, students going through change will shut down and allow their anxiety to bottle up. Encourage questions with an anonymous question box and remind students that there is no such thing as a stupid question. You can also roleplay scenarios where you are a new student and have students help you figure out where the bathroom is, how cleanup procedures work, etc. to review information and take the pressure off of your new students.
Adapting to New Classroom Routines
Building classroom routines can help your students know what to expect, keep them focused while switching tasks, and provide a sense of structure for the day. Maybe the class is now reading independently instead of in small groups. Perhaps part of the class is changing classrooms for a math lesson. Regardless of the change, some students may struggle to adapt, especially if too many things change at once.
When adding a new routine to your day, here are a few tips to help students adjust more quickly:
- Make it fun and exciting. Use a song, rhyme, or call-and-response to keep students engaged and energized. Just like when helping students transition to a new school, creating a distraction can keep students from dwelling on the change too much.
- Change one thing at a time. It’s impossible to overhaul your classroom management strategy overnight, so start with one routine and build from there. This will also help the changes stay manageable for you as a teacher.
- Explain why. Many students are unsettled by change because they worry something is wrong or that they are in trouble. Reassure students that there is nothing to be worried about, and explain as much as you can about why the new routine is starting.
Subject rotation and departmentalizing used to be reserved for high school but now many middle and elementary school students switch between classrooms during the day for their lessons. Whenever possible, have the teachers rotate rather than the students. But, if your grade chooses to mix classes for lessons, set your students up for success by making the transitions as smooth as possible for them.
Have them meet their other new teachers before the rotations begin so they know what to expect. Practice lining up and walking to the other classrooms to prevent traffic jams and wasted time. And create a routine to ensure your students have the supplies they need before they leave your classroom.
Building New Social Circles
Changes in friendships and social circles can also cause issues in the classroom. Whether your lunchtime schedule changes or you start to mix classes for certain lessons, your students will have to adapt to seeing new faces and making new friends.
Much like when helping students transition to a new school, it’s helpful to keep an eye on cliques as well as any introverted students who may need an extra nudge to make new friends. Considering the social landscape of your classroom when forming small groups for projects and activities can prevent the social circles of your classroom from becoming an issue.
Adjusting to a New School Year
The new school year is one of the biggest changes students face. Check out these tips to help your students adjust to the people and places each new year brings.
Meeting New Teachers
Just as you are eager to get to know your new class of students, they are excited to get to know you. Wear a name tag and have your name displayed at the front of the class for the first few weeks. If you have a long or tricky name, review how to say it, and consider giving students a “nickname” to use, like Mr. B or Mrs. M.
In addition to your name, your students will want to learn more about you. Consider starting off the year with a fun get-to-know-you activity like Truth or Lie or Read, Write, and Run. When helping students transition to a new school year or class, building their rapport and trust in you quickly is one of your best tools.
Exploring a New Classroom
A new classroom can also be a big adjustment for students. Schedule time during the first few days of school to take students on a tour or even plan a scavenger hunt to get them exploring on their own. Add signage to different areas of the classroom to separate them, help students know what each space is for, and communicate the behavior expected in each space.
You should also spend time getting your students set up with their desks. This will be their home base all year, and so helping them create an area that helps them feel good and do their best work will go a long way. Check that every student has the supplies they need for the year, and assist them with organizing their desk so they’ll know where everything is. While too many decorations can be a distraction, allowing students to decorate a name tag or desk number can also help them feel at home at their new desk.
Finding New Friendships
As classes change each school year, students who have been in the same class year after year will form close-knit groups. But you may also have students who know very few people in their class. For this reason, it’s important to take time for your students to acclimate to their new peers.
Here are a few ways to help your students build new friendships:
- Host a meet-and-greet or open house before school starts if your school allows it
- Start the year off with an icebreaker game to help students identify commonalities with their classmates
- Have students interview their “neighbors” and share something they learned with the class
- Consider pairing off, grouping, or seating students in ways that break up cliques and include students who may not have social circles in the class yet
Transitioning to a New School
One of the biggest changes children face is transitioning to a new school. Whether it’s the jump from elementary to middle school or a move across the country, it’s likely to cause anxiety among your students. Here are some of our favorite activities to welcome new students as well as tips on easing their worries and setting them up for success.
New School, Same District
Starting middle or high school is often very exciting for students, but it can also be a time of anxiety, especially for those who thrive on routine and familiarity. A bigger building, hundreds of new students, and dozens of new routines and classrooms can be a lot to adjust to. No matter the move, preparation is key in helping students transition to a new school.
Check out these ideas for making the move to middle or high school a little easier:
- Before the first day of school, hold a schoolwide open house for students and their parents to meet their teachers and explore their new school. Bonus points for planning an activity in your classroom that gets students talking and interacting.
- At the end of the school year, before your students make the change to their new school, have them write letters with questions to students in the grade above. Then work with a teacher in the grade above to pair your students with theirs and get answers to all their questions. Have the students include pictures so your students will know at least one friendly face on their first day.
- Complete the same letter-writing exercise but have students write anonymous letters to their new teacher with their worries and curiosities about their new school. If you’ve been following the #IWishMyTeacherKnew social media initiative, you know that students are ready and willing to share a lot about themselves when they are given the chance to do so in a safe environment.
- Host a panel discussion for your class. Work with a teacher in the new school to organize a discussion in person or over video where students can ask questions and have them answered by a selected group of older students. Having these students share their experiences, embarrassing stories, and tips can lessen students’ anxiety around their new school.
Moving to a New School District
Moving can be very scary for children. They’ll be faced with a new home, school, and social scene. And many of them may be upset to leave their old home behind. Helping students transition to a new school is a true team effort between parents and teachers. Here are our top tips on how to make a new student feel welcome:
- Pair your new student with a student mentor. Choose students in your class who have demonstrated kindness, responsibility, and empathy. These students can help their new classmates both socially and academically by introducing them to the class and helping them with the new routines of the school.
- Host a welcome lunch. Choose three or four students from your class to join you and the new student for lunch in the classroom. Select students with similar interests or others who have also moved schools and are now thriving in their new town. Having a small gathering like this can help students get a sense of the school and have any questions answered without having to disrupt the whole class. And, don’t be afraid to excuse yourself to your desk partway through so your students can get to know one another on their own as well.
- Pay attention to personality. Spend some time with your new student to get to know how he or she would like to be treated as a new arrival. While some may love to be the star of the show, many simply want to fly under the radar and adjust to their new school without everyone watching.