Military Family’s Guide to Helping Your Child Adjust to a New School

happy soldier family reunited

Big life transitions are always an intimidating time, particularly for children. Moving to a new state can seem extremely daunting, especially when they feel unprepared. With that move comes a new social setting: new neighborhood, new friends and a new school. For children of active duty military, these transitions can occur quite frequently so parents should be prepared to help them through the process. Read on for a guide on how to help your child adjust to a new school after a move.

Military Families and DoDEA

There are nearly 1.3 million active duty members of the U.S. Armed Forces, many of whom have families with school-aged children. More than half of these children who live in the U.S. attend public schools, often moving between six and nine times before reaching adulthood. The Department of Defense Education Activity, an office under the Secretary of Defense, works to support and provide resources for military families and their children as they move between duty stations, particularly in the arena of educational challenges.

This includes everything from assistance in understanding differences in testing and achievement standards between states, to support during a parent’s deployment when a child’s educational performance can deteriorate. Reach out to your DoDEA representative ahead of each move to see what information they can provide about the schools in your area.

Talk to Your Child About Their Feelings

Throughout the transition, it is important to talk with your child about how they are feeling. Even if this is your third or fourth move, they may be experiencing anxiety, sadness or other fears regarding relocating to a new state and a new school. They may also have some hesitations about sharing these feelings with you outright, especially if they are older, since they may feel their feelings are silly or unfounded. They could also be having mixed feelings–some fears and some excitement–which they could have difficulty expressing.

Keeping the lines of communication open by letting them know you are there for them and interested in hearing how they are doing both before the move and afterward will help them through the transition into a new school environment.

Not all Children Are the Same

It is also important to keep in mind that if you have more than one child, they may not all take the news the same way. Some may be more apprehensive or uncertain than others, which could be due to a variety of factors, including age, experience with relocation, how much time prior to the move and where you’re moving to. Very young children may not need as much time to become accustomed to the idea since they may not have developed significant attachments to your current home, whereas your older children likely have closer friendships and activities they will miss. You and your spouse may want to consider sitting down with your children separately to discuss the move to properly address the transition, including things you all can do to get excited about your next duty station.

Do Your Research

back to school sign

As a military member or spouse, you know this is key. Researching the school itself is certainly important, especially if your child is younger or tends to be anxious in new environments. If you have time, physically go onsite before the school year begins to meet your child’s teachers and see where they’ll be spending their days. It could also help to bring them with you, so they feel comfortable on day one of the new school year.

Another great event for the entire family is back to school night, where you, your spouse and your kids can meet the teachers and staff, as well as other families, and get a sense of how the school works before the year begins. If being onsite isn’t an option, use the internet. Between email and social media, you should have no trouble reaching out to teachers and other parents to get a feel for the school.

There may also be other military families in the area who have been in your situation and can provide advice or support for you and your child. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask questions!

Enlist Outside Assistance

In some cases, it may feel more overwhelming, or you may not have the time to do all the research on your own. Remember that everyone else on the installation has been in your shoes recently, so there are usually more opportunities than you realize. The military knows that families sacrifice a lot, so they try to put in place resources to assist spouses and children both on and off installations throughout the country. Each military branch has School Liaison Officers (SLO) who support families with information, regardless of whether you elect to put your children in public school or educate them at home.

They also assist with other issues unique to military families, including frequent moves, differences in curriculum requirements and expectations between schools and emotional issues that can stem from the temporary or permanent loss of a parent. They can also assist with answering questions regarding transcripts, immunization records, physicals and other health records your child’s future school may require, all of which are particularly critical if you are moving mid-year or don’t have as much time to gather this information.

Encourage Extracurricular Activities

three boys build tent campfire

As a parent, one of the best things you can do for your child after a move is to encourage them to meet new people. Some people are naturally more adept at this than others. If you know you’ll be moving prior in the summer, do some research into summer or other types of day camps and sign your child up for one.

There are tons of options for all ages, including an activity your child may already be involved within your current town such as a sport, hobby or scouting camp which will be a smoother transition in a new city or town. It will also enable your child to continue doing something they enjoy while making new friends they can keep going into the new school year, which will ultimately make the move easier on everyone in the long run. If camp isn’t an option, get in touch with your local MWR regarding what types of activities they offer for current and incoming families.

During this period of transition, it is important to remember there will be a lot of ups and downs, no matter how resilient your child is. Being part of a military family inherently means rolling with the punches, even when it gets difficult. However, try to remember your child did not choose this life. If they are upset, it is important to talk to them about why and really listen, rather than just trying to solve the problem.

Each move will likely bring new challenges so remain patient if your child who handled the first three moves like a champ is suddenly feeling more withdrawn and sad during the fourth. They may just require a bit more time to adjust as they get older but once they do, they’ll thrive. Stay involved in their life and remember to take time to care for yourself. Your child will see you modeling that and mimic your approach to the relocation.

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