Tuesday will be the first day in a new school for many kids, whether they’re starting out, changing to secondary, or moving from somewhere else. Our son has changed schools four times in seven years for various reasons, with another new school this year. His last change, to a Canadian school in 2013, didn’t go smoothly, unlike all the others that preceded it. I felt guilty; it was my work that took us to Canada. I asked colleagues what helps when students start in a new school, to try to help our son manage.
I only changed school once, in year ten, and not by choice. I spent the first week trying to find my way around on my own. It was hard to get to know new kids and to understand the teachers and rules. Some kids were mean, probably just because I was new, but I didn’t know that; I thought it was me. And then, one lunchtime in the second week, a girl named Leanne Earle said, “Come and sit with us.” We remained friends until she left school at the end of that year.
So what helps the new kids? What should teachers, parents, and the kids themselves do? Well, friendship – Leanne’s Earle’s reaching out – is certainly at the top of most lists. One teacher friend I asked said it’s absolutely essential to approach a “carefully selected” member of the class, or a group, who have interests in common with the new student, and ask them to provide company in the first week. She said this is especially important at recess times when it’s “heartbreaking for someone to have to stand by themselves in a new place.” Even if the students don’t end up friends, it provides crucial initial support. She also said that “any teacher who makes the new student stand up in front of the class and introduce themselves on the first day should be shot.” She flips this practice, giving the other students an opportunity to introduce themselves to the new student.
Another friend, a former school principal, asked her grandchildren, who’d spent time in a school abroad, what had worked for them. Friendship was high on their list too, having friends who “know the school and what to do.” Also, being nice “to the nice people.” But, they said, “You have to be yourself,” and “It’s up to you.”
A psychologist friend said change brings anxiety which “is all about certainty and predictability, or the lack thereof.” This reminded me of Mrs Brandon, my son’s first teacher, who had that rare ability to understand the world the way a child does. She brought the new prep children into class for a morning the year before they started. Many places do this, but Mrs Brandon gave them each a trained prep buddy, showed them the projects the students were working on, went through the timetable, and took them to the toilets and playground. On his first day of school, my son said, “I don’t think it’s going to be hard. I’ve already done it.” I looked quizzically at him. “Last year. I already went to school. Remember?” I was so grateful to Mrs Brandon right then.
In Canada, when my son was having trouble knowing what he was supposed to do and finding friends, the advice of a friend of mine who’d changed primary school every couple of years – her father was a serviceman – really helped. “The important thing for me was being able to come home and unburden to my mum.” I started listening more to what was happening for my son, not trying to fix it, just hearing how awful he was feeling. This was hard for me to do – he was so upset – but he said it helped.
Finally, a friend and mother of five’s advice not only assuaged my mother guilt. It also reminded me that as parents, our job is not to protect our children from everything. It’s to be there. “What can I say about kids moving and transitioning?” she said. “Somehow they do it, and astonishingly well. It’s part of the human condition when all’s said and done.” She’s right. All the same, thank you Leanne Earle, wherever you are. I owe you one.
Based on the column published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend on 25 January 2014. I write mainly about writing, education, birth, health and the thrill of parenting. You can Get in touch, tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter. Have a great day!