When Kyle C. moved from Singapore to St. Louis the summer before his junior year, he was not looking forward to it. “I had a ‘get-in-and-get-out’ mentality.” After he was cut from the baseball team, he just tuned out at school. He recalls that after that experience, he didn’t want to make any friends. To this day, Kyle remembers high school only as time spent waiting to go to college.
Stephanie Z., the child of a military family who transferred from Wisconsin to Virginia, was in the exact opposite situation. “I had to stop thinking that I was walking around with a sign on my head that said, ‘I am the new kid not worth getting to know.’” When she decided she was a valuable asset to her new school, she was taken under the wing of a fantastic art teacher and made a name for herself with her creative talents.
Teens Just Want to Fit In
On average, Americans move every five years, which means that each year, forty million Americans are on the move. Adolescence can be hard enough for teens exploring their own identities, values, hopes, and dreams, but throwing a family move into the mix can be overwhelming. Tom Monturi, a social studies teacher at New Jersey’s Dumont High School, believes that “the greatest challenge for a teen in a new school must be the pressure to fit in. With an underdeveloped sense of self, an adolescent who lacks confidence could easily succumb to peer pressure.”
So what can parents do to help steer their children toward positive friends and experiences at their new schools?
Getting Involved Means Feeling at Home
Deanna Green, a counselor at Forest Hills Eastern High School in Ada, Michigan, has one top tip for new kids in school: get involved. Using the Internet, it’s easy to find out ahead of time about the community and what it offers. The sense of new-kid strangeness and loneliness can be lessened with the anticipation that whatever a teen is passionate about can be continued in his or her new environment. Then too, kids who are busy with activities are more likely to find their way into a peer group that suits them and are less likely to get into trouble.
Mike W., a Fortine, Montana, teen who just enrolled in a public high school following years of home schooling, used the Web to check out sports teams at his new school: “I wanted to see how well they did, and how involved the school was in general.”
Once he made some new friends he continued using technology to develop his relationships: “I use my XBox Live to chat with some of the friends I’ve made in school.”
Other kids might use MySpace and Facebook to meet friends before starting at a new school.
What if Your Teen Isn’t Mixing In?
Rebecca Turco, a school counselor at Brighton High School in Salt Lake City, Utah, advises parents not to panic if their teen takes a little longer to feel comfortable in a new environment. She recommends that parents encourage their child to go to school dances and sports events and to try to get to know at least one new student a day for a week or so. Such a specific target should help teens feel that the goal is attainable while at the same time add up to many new social networks.
Of course, this goal can have its downside, too. When teens are too busy with social activities, they may neglect their academic and family responsibilities. Parents simply have to lay down the law to be sure there’s a good balance of activities and work.
How Teachers and Guidance Counselors Can Help
Sue Carney, a school counselor at Upper Moreland Middle School in Hatboro, Pennsylvania, points out that “teachers need to be aware of the fact that, for many kids who transfer midyear, family upheaval may be one of the factors.”
However, teachers will probably only know what is in a new student’s file. To truly ensure that teachers know everything, it can help for parents to start a discussion with a guidance counselor. From there, they can reach out to teachers, whether on the phone, in person, or during parent-teacher conferences.
“Teachers can also help recognize that transfer students, especially those who move around a lot, may have gaps in their learning that require extra attention,” explains Carney.
If parents can help teachers identify these gaps, everyone can work together to see that they are filled.
There’s another possibility that may make moving to a new school easier. Teens are in the business of reinventing themselves (as can be seen by their frequent changes in dress, style, and online avatars). A move means another possibility to become someone else. So if your teen was exploring drama in his old school, he might just try out for a sports team in his new school. If she was on the school paper last semester, she could enter an art contest this semester. With a little luck, patience, and encouragement from parents, a teen may well flourish in a new environment.
Parents who move may feel just as overwhelmed as their teens. Donna Secor, a school social worker at Forest Hills Central High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan, advises them to:
- Get involved in at least one activity in the new community.
- Maintain family routines from before the move, including family meal times.
- Seek sources of emotional support as needed.
- Minimize discussions of their unhappiness in front of their teen.
- Remember that they are role models and try to employ positive coping strategies when feeling overwhelmed.
Make New Friends, but Keep the Old
Thanks to cell phones, IM, voice-over-Internet phones, and more, teens can easily keep in touch with old friends. Parents can help by:
- Offering teens unlimited text plans in exchange for doing chores, joining a volunteer group, etc.
- Downloading Skype or similar Web-based telephone options for lengthy chats.
- Encouraging teens to set up a website or blog to chronicle their new adventures.
Inviting out-of-town friends to visit during school breaks and allowing their teens to travel back to their old hometown.