As a military child who moved roughly every two years, I am no stranger to changing schools. Before attending New York University this fall, I attended nine different schools ranging in type from public to gifted, to overseas Department of Defense, and private-international.
The summer before I started high school, my family moved to Singapore, meaning another school was about to be added to my list. Our time there was uncharacteristic for us in the sense that we spent three years there, longer than I had ever lived in any place before. Because of this, it felt more permanent as I had a longer time to situate myself and form deeper roots. The school became a place where I not only knew a majority of my classmates but also knew the hidden secrets that Singapore American School (SAS) had to offer like where to get the good food or find the best study spots and how to access services I needed. With that knowledge came an overwhelming sense of ownership and belonging toward my school. My advisory class, the same 20 students I had been with since day one, became my family, and when our sports teams decided to "take back the plaque" and come home with gold medals from competition, it felt like a win for all of us.
After my junior year, our time in Singapore came to an end, and my family focused on the future, one that would include us moving to Washington D.C. I knew this move was coming, but it somehow felt harder than in the past. I was actually excited to be a senior at SAS—but I knew that was never going to happen.
My parents took my brother and my school wish lists into account when enrolling us at Walter Johnson High School (WJ) in Bethesda, Maryland. The school had diversity both in enrollment and mindset as well as competitive sports that we could participate in. Most importantly, WJ would allow me to graduate on time without an absurd number of tests or required classes. But still, I struggled throughout the year: I felt isolated among classmates who knew each other since kindergarten. I was resistant to school pride when it came to dances or spirit events. I felt like the school wasn't mine. WJ was great, really, but resiliency only takes you so far when trying to integrate into a new place senior year. I kept longing for what I had been "promised" as a senior at SAS.
Having now graduated, I can acknowledge that my senior year was hard but also reflect on the many things that my parents did to try to make it better. Here's how you can help your child through a similar transition.
Find a school that caters to your child's interests.
Not all schools offer the same sports, clubs, or even AP classes. For example, it can be a shock for your child who loves math to be on an accelerated math track, then have to repeat Calculus I at her new school because that is all they offer. Having a passion to transfer into right away can give a student a sense of security at a new school. It can give them something to look forward to and help them develop friendships. While everything else is changing, this ensures that their passions don't have to.
Encourage your student to get involved.
By joining a sport, a club, or a student organization, teens can become part of a group. This can give them the chance to meet others with similar interests who may become friends. It can also be a way to distract themselves from the stress of moving to a new place. If they were on the lacrosse team at their old school and can try out for the team when they change schools, it can help them make friends and feel a part of the school community early. By getting involved, students will also have a positive outlet for their creativity and energy that they might not have in a house full of boxes.
Try to connect with resources before moving to an area.
Before coming to a new place, reach out to students, teachers, and coaches. By connecting with students, you can gain a firsthand account of student life, where kids hang out and what sorts of activities are popular outside of class. By connecting early with teachers, you can see where a student may fit best, or you can gain some information about specific disciplines that a student would gravitate toward. By connecting with coaches, you can learn the skills needed for tryouts, the stats of a team, or connect with other athletes to hear about practices and game times. By making these connections before moving, a new student can feel more comfortable because they'll know where they will fit in to feel at home.
Be flexible through the transition.
Be flexible with family rules and give your child the security and support to say "yes" to new opportunities. It may not seem like a lot, but that extra hour of hangout time or skipping that one family dinner can genuinely be the difference between having friends and not when your teen is new at school. Most new students are given one big first invitation to socialize. By saying "no," a new student can seem uninterested or unwilling to participate, which can easily deter possible friends or future invitations.
The transition won't be easy for your teen, but with your support, they will get through it and come out after graduation with more skills to persevere in whatever transitions come next.
Ryan Walker is an 18-year-old military child. She is currently in her first year at New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study where she is concentrating in photography and social justice.
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