How to Help Students Who Change Schools

The average American moves 11.4 times. And for children in school, the process is more complicated than packing up belongings and finding a new home. Adjusting to a new neighborhood means adjusting to different teachers, classmates and school rules. While many students are able to successfully navigate the process, some find this significant life change more disruptive than others.

Changing schools can result in losing as much as half a year’s worth of academic progress. Unsurprisingly, students who change schools frequently are more likely to fail a grade. Research shows that moving to a new school also correlates to an increased likelihood of depression, placement in special education services, and arrests as an adult

Elementary and middle school students who changed schools more than four times were disproportionately poor and African American, according to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Children in military families change schools six to nine times before high school graduation and more than one-third of children in foster care change schools more than five times. However, there are a variety of reasons why a student may have to move to a new school.

Why Do Students Change Schools?

Student or Family Initiated

Voluntary

  • School choice (open enrollment; transfer for credit)
  • Family move (job promotion)
  • Student initiated (magnet school; choose to live with another parent; leave bullying situation)

Involuntary

  • Family move (lost home; lost home; eviction; care for relative)
  • Student family situation changed (death; incarceration; foster care)

School Initiated

Voluntary

  • Accountability transfer (to higher performing school)
  • “Opportunity” transfer (to school more suited for student’s needs)

Involuntary

  • Overcrowding
  • Disciplinary action

Marsha Riggio, a professor in the online Master of Education in School Counseling program at the USC Rossier School of Education, has observed how changing schools affects students socially, mentally and academically.

Changing schools, she says, can take a toll on mental health and cause students to be withdrawn, sometimes affecting their school work. Riggio points to two emotional processes that prevent students from forming strong connections and bonds in new schools. Students may internalize their feelings about the change in schools, causing them to appear shy, or they may externalize their feelings, which may present as bullying or aggression.

“While both internalizing and externalizing are common coping mechanisms, there has to be someone in their life, like a school counselor, who can recognize that and process that with them,” Riggio said. “What we want them to do is to communicate and let them know they have resources that support them in processing the constant mobility.”

Creating consistency is key. In military families, Riggio has seen that strong collaboration between school systems and parents can help minimize change and uncertainty.

“The aim is to figure out what can be the constant and that usually helps children socially as they recognize that there are some things that aren’t changing,” she said.

Parents can help ensure students continue to spend time with old friends and keep them signed up for activities or other hobbies even if they take place in their new neighborhoods. However, there are uncontrollable academic factors that can make consistency more difficult, such as:

  • Course offerings. Classes may not be the same and may be in different sequences. Some students may be placed at inappropriate learning levels or may not be able to continue on a previous learning path. For example, if a child started Japanese classes at one high school, the new high school might not offer that language.
  • Extracurricular programs might differ. A student’s favorite school club or sport might not exist at the new location, impairing connections with students who share common interests and stifling outside-the-classroom learning and development.
  • Standardized tests are not standard. States have developed their own systems, which means content and measurements may differ and the purpose of the test results may vary by state. In some states, tests determine which students graduate or move to the next grade. Other states might use the tests to measure how well each district is performing. And some states don’t make tests scores available to families.

Mary Elizabeth Ray, daughter of Air Force Col. William Ray, joined her parents at the 2018 Military Child Education Coalition Training Conference to talk about difficulties transferring school credits at a critical time in high school.

“I’ve had a pretty good experience with moving through three different high schools and having my teachers be very accommodating. I think it’s more the administration: I need a lot more visibility and recognition from them,” said Ray, who worried she wouldn’t be able to graduate on time because of her drastically changing GPA.

“They kept telling us: ‘Oh, well, don’t worry, you will do great things because of all your experience.’ … But [in that moment] I need them to understand that I need them to help me right now.”

What to Prepare when Enrolling Your Child in a New School 

Gather Important Documents

Copies of records, report cards, birth certificate and immunization records can ensure the enrollment process runs smoothly.

Review the New School’s Curriculum

Evaluate the courses your child took and books they used at the previous school and compare those to what is required and available at the new school.

Collect Information of Previous School’s Contacts

Keep a personal directory of teachers and coaches who might be references.

List Your Child’s Interests

A list of extracurricular activities, such as sports and clubs, and even new interests will help your child better acclimate.

School counselors are an important source of support during the transition process.

“It's a great opportunity for school counselors to think about a program they could develop that will be embracing of student mobility, whether it's military or not, and come up with a small, easy curriculum that has some buy-in with the teachers,” Riggio said.

Sue Lopez, a school counselor and Military Student Transition Consultant (MSTC) in Louisiana’s Vernon Parish School District outside Fort Polk, works with hundreds of transitioning military-connected students each year.

“Relocation can create a bit of an identity crisis for adolescent students,” she said. “Newly transitioning students can miss opportunities like spring tryouts and summer camps during transitions.” 

Inconsistencies in state athletic policies can prevent students from participating or force them to sit out for a year, Lopez adds.  

“If a student identifies as a basketball player they would question, ‘If I’m not a basketball player this year, who am I? Where am I going to plug in? What am I going to do?’ “

She says students need encouragement from administrators, school counselors, teachers and coaches to think outside of the box and search for opportunities to connect in their new schools.

Lopez is an advocate for the Student 2 Student program sponsored by the Military Child Education Coalition and designed for peers to support highly mobile military students.

“When a new student comes, S2S peers greet them, give them a school tour and pair them with a lunch buddy so they’re not alone,” Lopez said.

In her role as counselor, she also encourages students to try something new and to intentionally seek ways be resilient.

Parents, students and schools face these challenges together. Riggio says it’s important for parents, school counselors and other adults in the school to help children feel empowered.

How to Support a Child During a School Transition

Be Honest

Speak to each child’s level of understanding, but don’t overload them with information.

Answer Questions

Realize they will have questions and that you may have to repeat explanations multiple times.

Provide Time

Create a time and place for each child to ask questions in their own way.

Be a Good Listener

Hear the children, answer their questions, and create a supportive environment before and during the move.

Citation for this content: USC Rossier's online master's in school counseling program.

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