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For many kids, moving to a new city or school ranks as a number-one bummer. That’s the situation Jacqui McGillivray and her husband faced when they moved with their boys from Toronto to Calgary two years ago. While nine-year-old Ben was happy to leave his old school behind, seven-year-old Ryan was sad about saying goodbye to his friends. The McGillivrays responded by building extra family time into their daily routine. “My husband was consulting from home, so he walked the kids to and from school and back every day, which helped put them at ease,” says McGillivray. “Plus, it was great for meeting other parents and kids.”
Where the anxiety comes from
“New kid” fears and anxiety from ages nine to 11 are typically based on what’s worried them in the past, says S. Gerald Hann, a Halifax psychologist, dad and assistant professor of psychology and psychiatry at Dalhousie University. Will they meet new pals in the area, for instance? Will the math be harder at the new school, given how tough it was at the old one? Talk to your child about their concerns and work on solutions, such as touring the school and meeting the teachers before the first day, or asking the teacher to assign a buddy to hang with your kid at recess. At Timothy Christian School in Barrie, Ont., for instance, principal Rod Berg (a father of three boys) appoints not one, but two mentors to every new kid. “That way, if one buddy forgets or doesn’t make a connection, there’s always a second.”
What to look for in a community
Choosing the right community also helps. When you’re house hunting, real estate agents can supply info about kid-friendly neighbourhoods with strong schools. Jacqui McGillivray’s company actually paid for a consultant from Educational Connections to scope out a community school that would best suit both her eldest, who has Asperger’s, and her extra-social younger son. “You need to interview the schools for fit, like a job; then the groundwork is laid and you’re able to focus,” she says.
Still, she keeps her kids in touch with old pals via Skype and reassures them when they have a down day. “In a neighbourhood school, kids have grown up together and relationships are pretty deep.”
How to integrate
Catharine Cameron, mom of Alexander, 9, and Jack, 5, had her sons start at their new Toronto school last fall, even though they did not move to their new neighbourhood until January. She also made sure they had opportunities to meet new friends before school started. “My nine-year-old was upset and apprehensive – he didn’t know why we had to move,” she says. But joining a local soccer league was helpful. “He met one boy who ended up in his class. You want to get playdates happening, too.”
If all the meet-and-greets and activity onslaught get to be too much, take it slow. Structure and routine are key. Keep a small, supportive radius, says Vanessa Lapointe, a registered psychologist and mother of two in Surrey, B.C. Focus on one new thing at a time, and hold off on other extracurriculars to keep stress to a minimum. “It takes about six to eight weeks for most kids to take a breath and feel that a new school is familiar to them,” she adds.
Being the new kid has some upsides, though. Newbies can enjoy special status in class, where fresh friendships are always welcome. It’s also a life lesson: “Sometimes it’s not a bad thing for a child to have a bit of angst, because it teaches them that it’s good to overcome things that are difficult,” says Hann. Remembering that it’s OK to feel nervous can be helpful for parents and kids alike.
A version of this article appeared in our May 2013 issue with the headline, "New kid on the block," page 68.