How to Ensure a Smooth Transition to a New School
Switching schools inevitably comes with some bumps, especially if your child has ADHD or learning disabilities. Learn how to plan ahead to make the change as easy as possible for your child.
If you’re contemplating a school move, it’s likely because there’s a problem with your child’s current learning environment. Whether the issue is academic, social, or philosophical, you hope a new environment will help to solve — or at least improve — it.
Any move to a new environment inevitably comes with a few snags, though, especially when you have a child with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) or a learning disability (LD). Even if your child’s current school is plagued with problems, it is familiar. Moving thrusts kids into an entirely new experience, with a whole new set of classmates.
Once you’ve made the decision that change is positive and inevitable, here are a few things you can do to ensure that your child’s transition goes as smoothly as possible.
Pave the Road to a New School
Sometimes it’s hard for children to understand why they need a change, even if it’s the best course of action from an educational or social standpoint. Explain your reasons for the decision in an age-appropriate way.
For example, you might say, “We’re thinking of moving you to a new school, because you’ve said that you’re bored where you are. This new school we’ve found teaches in a really fun way. They won’t make you sit at your desk all day. You’ll go on field trips, and you’ll learn in creative ways, by doing things like puppet shows and science experiments. This new school has lots of kids who learn just like you do.”
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“You want to help them understand what the opportunities may be and why you’re making the change,” says Cindy Goldrich, ADHD-CCSP, a board-certified ADHD coach at PTS Coaching, LLC, and author of 8 Keys to Parenting Children with ADHD (#CommissionsEarned).
Incorporate your therapist or learning specialist into the conversation. He or she can talk through your child’s concerns or discuss strategies to make the transition easier. Have your child write up a list of things that she’s looking forward to about the new school, and the things that frighten or worry her. The therapist can use that list to address your child’s concerns about the move.
Walk the Halls of the New School
Set up your child for success by giving him a preview of his new school. “Some schools offer visiting days for new students. That can be really helpful. It can be a relief to know what the school day is going to look like. They can meet some of the teachers and students,” says Meghan Tomb, Ph.D., assistant professor of Medical Psychology (in Psychiatry) at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
The summer before school starts, make introductions. “Arrange some get-togethers, some playdates, so your child is not walking into a sea of strange faces,” suggests Fay Van Der Kar-Levinson, Ph.D., a child psychologist practicing in Los Angeles, and co-author of Choosing the Right School for Your Child (#CommissionsEarned). Some schools will match new families with buddy families to help guide them through the process. Ask the new school for assistance in forging connections before Day One — whether through school-affiliated summer events, through a class parent who could loop you into birthday parties, or through a teacher who might volunteer to make introductions via email.
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While you’re forging new connections, also maintain the ones your child is leaving. Assure your child that she can continue to have playdates with friends from her former school.
Move Your Child’s IEP or 504 Plan
Having an IEP or 504 Plan in place, where appropriate, ensures that your child will get the specialized educational services he needs. What happens to that plan depends on the type of school where your child is moving. “If you stay within the public-school system, those move with you.” Van Der Kar-Levinson says.
“According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, if you’re moving from one school to another within the district, there is no change. Your IEP stays the same,” says Susan Yellin, Esq., director of advocacy and college counseling services at The Yellin Center for Mind, Brain, and Education. “If your child moves to another district within your state, he is entitled to comparable services. The new district in your state can adopt the old IEP or it can set up a new one, but no new evaluation is required.”
Keep in mind that your old plan might not be implemented to the letter. “When a child moves from one school to another, the new school is obligated to consider the plan that was in place at the other school but is not bound by it. They have a right to start all over again,” explains Matt Cohen, JD, founder of Matt Cohen & Associates, LLC, a special education, disability rights, and human services law firm in Chicago.
“If you’re moving to a new state, there will be a new evaluation,” Yellin says. “Until that can be completed, your child is entitled to comparable services. The IDEA and the Federal Education Records and Privacy Act both require your old district to promptly provide records to your new district. Section 504 has no such carry over provisions, but it does apply in all states so you could begin the process again.”
Private and parochial schools are under no legal obligation to provide IEP or 504 Plans. They may offer their own, unofficial versions of these plans. Or, you can go to your local board of education and request a service plan, which is similar to an IEP, but less comprehensive. Typically, you will have to fill out one or more forms that detail the special-education services to be provided. Then, a representative from your public-school district, working in conjunction with someone from your private or parochial school, will decide what services your child is eligible to receive. What services you ultimately get will depend on how much money your district has allocated for private school children, and the plan it has developed. However, you can get an attorney and appeal the service plan if it’s inadequate, or you can appeal to the district if it isn’t properly complying with the plan you’ve set up.
One way to ensure a direct transition of your plan is to get the IEP case manager and special-education teacher involved, as one parent who responded to an ADDitude survey on changing schools did. “We had a representative from the new school attend the old school’s IEP meeting to ensure that they could meet his needs,” the parent wrote.
Request School Records
You have a right to request copies of all your child’s records. Copies of report cards and teacher comments can help the new school understand how your child learns — and develop an appropriate teaching plan, says Van Der Kar-Levinson.
To do so, contact your school district’s office of special education or the school’s principal, and ask for a records request form. If the district and school don’t have a form, write a letter asking the school to mail a copy of your child’s records to you or to the new school. You may be able to make the request via email, which will make it easier to keep track of your communications with the school and district.
Whether you want to move these documents is another story. You may not want to share some of the less desirable documentation. “If your child has been labeled negatively at their current school, you want a fresh perspective,” Van Der Kar-Levinson adds. Whether you transfer your child’s records — and how much of them you share with the new school — is ultimately up to you.
Be Prepared for Bumps
No matter how thoughtfully you choose a new school and how careful you are about navigating the transition, there inevitably will be hiccups. Your child might feel out of place or miss his friends, especially during the first few weeks.
“I think everybody needs to be realistic and, as a family, you need to say this is called a transition, and transitions will have some stretches and some challenges to them,” says Van Der Kar-Levinson. “Don’t use the word problems, just challenges. And you’ll have to learn how to face them.”
“Accept that, despite your best efforts — and while some things may in fact become better for your child — there will most likely be gaps, cracks, snags and challenges that you’ll have to deal with,” one parent wrote.
Talk through any problems that do arise, and keep an open line of communication with the new school. “I always encourage parents to provide feedback to the school and communicate about what seems to be working well, in addition to what is not working, for their child’s learning process,” Tomb says. The quickest way to correspond with teachers, learning specialists, and the principal is through email, but you may prefer the immediacy of calling or the face-to-face nature of a meeting.
One of the parents surveyed advised parents to “Communicate with [the] principal and teachers. Be open about your child’s needs, and work WITH your IEP team, but don’t be afraid to question or challenge anything that is not right for your child. You are your child’s only advocate. Don’t assume the school is taking care of everything (even if it is a good school),” they wrote.
The Benefits of Moving to a New School
Switching schools can be daunting and stressful for both you and your child, but if you find the right fit, it could make a world of difference. Some of the parents surveyed said the move was well worth the cost. “My child missed her friends at her old school, and continued to struggle academically for a while, but the new public school helped us in discovering her attention deficit issues and long-term she has received the skills and training she needs to be a successful learner,” one wrote.
“Almost instantly he blossomed and LOVED school again. He went from being a delayed behind reader to an advanced reader within a year,” added another parent.
“He came home happy and actually talking about school and the things he was learning and what he liked,” another parent wrote. “The best was he said no one yelled at him.”
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