Saturday 25 October 2014

Helping your child survive being the new kid at school

With rising numbers of families having to move to find work, the perils of being the new kid in class are clear.

Joe Donnelly

Published 12/05/2014 | 02:30

Making the switch: Father-of-two Keith Walsh with his 11-year-old daughter Anna. Pic Ronan Lang
Tired Boy Studying In Bedroom
Tired Boy Studying In Bedroom
smiling girl showing painted hands
smiling girl showing painted hands

THERE are certain kids you'll always remember from your primary school. There's the boy who may have had a fondness for picking his nose or maybe the girl who cried a lot. A 'new kid' will find it very hard to shake off the label of 'new kid'.

I still remember very well, names included, the new kids who came to my primary school at various stages. With more and more people having to move around for employment, the likelihood of children changing schools – often more than once – has increased.

Keith Walsh is a father of two and his eldest child, Anna (11), has changed schools several times. "She spent Junior and Senior Infants in Educate Together in Newbridge, but then we moved to Athlone where she spent first and second class," explains Keith.

He works in the radio industry and, having worked in Dublin for many years, took up an opportunity in 2008 to help launch and present the breakfast show on a new radio station in the midlands. "I tried commuting for a while, from Kildare to Westmeath, but it wasn't long before we realised it would be better for the family if a move to Athlone was made," he explains.

Going into first class is often regarded as a big change in a child's primary school life. The transition from 'babies' is noticeable. How did Keith and his wife broach the subject with Anna and prepare her for the new surroundings and classmates?

"Getting her a school was very straightforward," says Keith. "We found a really good school that was slightly outside the town, in Coosan, and I went in and spoke to them over the summer of 2009 and there was a place available for her for the following September.

"Moving house is definitely a stressful event, and on top of it you've to think about how your child will adjust to a new school. I would always feel that it's an experience, and it's something different. I believe it would benefit the child in the future in that dealing with a change and finding new friends prepares them for similar events later in life. I think it would mean she'd be less daunted by events like that, and less overwhelmed by them. You can explain to a child that, yes, this will be a big deal and this will be a change, but it's going to be okay. Once it's handled properly and you explain everything clearly and don't ignore any aspects, then it should be okay.

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"You can't go, 'Ah sure, you'll be grand' or 'You'll get used to it'. When we explained everything to Anna, the first time we moved, she responded really well and was happy to take on the new experience."

But what about the inevitable questions about potentially losing old friends and making new friends? "We told her she was very good at making new friends," explains Keith. "This gave her the confidence to feel good about the move and not worry about the friendship issue. We also reminded her that we'd be back and forth to Newbridge to visit her grandparents and her cousin, and possibly her old friends too."

In 2011, Keith and his family moved back to Newbridge. A new job opportunity in Dublin, at Phantom 105.2, meant another change in school for Anna. "We had initially hoped to get her back into her old school in Newbridge but places were limited," Keith says. "So we found a place for her in a school that was about a 15-minute drive from the town, in a small village. We felt it was very similar to her previous school in Athlone, and that could help her settle in more easily."

This time round Anna was going into 3rd class and, as Keith and his wife found out, it wasn't quite as simple as before. "There were cliques already established among the girls in the school," he explains.

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"There would have been problems with someone being friends with Anna.

For example, she made friends with one girl in particular, but that girl had been very friendly with another girl. So the third girl, as it were, was left feeling put out, and that had to be dealt with. We had to talk to Anna and explain that she'd have to be diplomatic about the situation.

"Changing schools definitely wasn't without its problems. There were days where Anna would have felt 'I've no friends', and whatnot, but we'd deal with and talk it out with her. I suppose we started the whole moving process by making sure we talked about it plenty, so we just continued doing that after the move was made.

"In some ways, Anna, being the new girl, was a novelty and that made other girls jealous. It's just part of growing up though," says Keith.

The commute and lengthy school run didn't work out, however, and when a place became available at Anna's previous Educate Together school, in Newbridge, the offer was taken up. "It was halfway through fourth class, this year in fact, but luckily a lot of her classmates knew her from Junior and Senior Infants so the transition was a lot easier."

Keith explains that Anna didn't experience any academic difficulties with all the changes, but admits there were worries. "Of course you worry about every aspect of a school change, but as a parent you can't really show those worries to the child and you have to make sure they're going to feel confident.

"I felt I was responsible for her having to change schools and I was worried that it wouldn't work out. But, on the other hand, I was always confident that whatever happened we would be able to deal with it."

 

Anna admits she was always excited but nervous about changing schools. "I was excited and nervous all the times I've moved schools, because I didn't know what to expect. I liked being the new girl because everyone wants to know your name and things about you. People were very nice about it.

"I was excited when we moved back to Newbridge because my grandparents live there. When I moved back to Educate Together we were learning very different things, but I preferred that. I don't think I'd like to move again, though. I'm happy staying where I am!

"If I was to give advice to a girl moving school I would say be your normal self, and if you're really quiet don't be too quiet because you won't get to make new friends. If you're not happy in your new school then talk to the teacher about it."

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Tips to help take the pain out of change

Sheila O'Malley runs the website practicalparenting.ie and she says a successful school change is about dialogue.

"An open and frank discussion is hugely important. Anxiety comes from not knowing what to expect and, no less than a child going to school for the very first day will experience anxiety, a young person who finds themselves moving to a new school will also be anxious. The child needs to know what's going to happen."

Sheila insists that a wider parenting issue is brought to the fore by the specific topic of changing schools. "Kids will always need somewhere to 'go to' with their feelings and emotional expression, and parents aren't always that good at managing it. We can't always say or hope that the child will 'get over it'; that kind of dismissive response will be absolutely no help at all. Talk it through patiently with the child; his or her feelings need to be met with the response that addresses the main concern."

So how do you give your child the confidence to deal with changing school? "Belief is everything," explains Sheila. "Tell them you trust that they have everything to deal with the change. Highlight what they're 'good at' in school, pay them compliments and remind them of their strengths. Accentuate the positive. Tell them how great they are at getting ready for school and doing homework and so on. They'll feel better about themselves and settling in won't seem so daunting."

According to Sheila, parents will have to be realistic about the issue of old and new friends. "Don't make promises that can't be kept. They can't frequently stay in touch with friends a hundred miles away, but of course it doesn't mean they'll never ever see them again." Parents should simply say that they'll have to play it by ear. For example, use the interests of the child to illustrate how they can make new friends. They could very easily meet new friends through sports or hobbies, like GAA or ballet or art.

If they're in their teens the situation really isn't a whole lot different. The same principles apply. If you're dealing with an older child, perhaps give them a new bit of independence as part of the 'deal'. Maybe you could throw a learner's driving test or an increase in pocket money in as an incentive.

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