Moving With Kids: How to Help Your Children Adjust to a New School

By Amanda Lutz | December 1, 2023

Back to school. Child with a backpack running to go into school with a friend.

Whether you’re moving across town or across the nation, relocating is just as taxing as it is exciting. Even with the best moving company around, resettling will be stressful for everyone— particularly your children. Regardless of their age, they’ll need your help adjusting.

Starting at a new school is one of the biggest changes your children will experience when you move. Being the “new kid” can be overwhelming, and you may not know how to help. We reached out to the following industry experts to find out what you should focus on to help your child or children adjust to their new school and life:

Preparing for the Change

Big changes take time to process, so you should tell your child about the move as soon as you can. Rimm-Kaufman encourages planning for each kid in three distinct segments: before, during, and after the move. She advises considering each child’s personality, interests, and potential challenges when doing so.

In the “before” phase, have a transparent conversation with your child, focusing on the good and leaving space for a continued conversation about what to expect. “It’s important for parents to set the emotional stage for the move as something that is an opportunity, that they’ll do together, and that they are excited about,” she says.

Here’s how to help your kids prepare for the shift.

Talk About the Move Early On

The sooner you tell your child about the move and their new school, the better. Although very young children may not fully understand the change, they will notice when you start packing boxes. You may need to continuously talk about the move, but always do so in an encouraging way that highlights as many upsides as possible.

Older children in middle and high school may need more time to process the move. When they’re ready, involve your child in preparations so that they feel in control and empowered. For example, Rimm-Kaufman suggests having your child help you explore the options at their new school and urging them to think about what activities they’re interested in.

Keep in mind that children will pick up on how you feel about the move. Even if you frame the change optimistically, any anxiety or disappointment you feel is likely to rub off on your child—and if you aren’t expressing it openly, neither will they. But if you’re open and honest about your feelings, your children will follow suit. It’s completely normal to experience a sense of grief or loss when making such a major transition, so let your child know these emotions are expected.

Address Their Concerns 

Your child may not be ready to talk about the move right away, but when they are, they will come to you with questions. Use this time to let them voice their concerns and address each one individually. You should remain positive but also be transparent and truthful with your answers.

“It is fine to talk about the changes and how things will be different,” says Rimm-Kaufman. Kids will be anxious about what’s coming next, “so a parent’s job is to contain that anxiety with truthful statements that show you really understand your children,” she says.

One key concern will likely be leaving friends behind. Social media offers an easy way for middle and high school students to stay connected with old friends, which can help ease the sadness of moving away, says Rimm-Kaufman. If you’re moving long-distance, you may organize a goodbye party, have your children write farewell letters, or make a memory box filled with pictures of their friends and favorite places.

Whatever their worries, proper preparation for these conversations is crucial. Research the new school, the neighborhood, and any extracurricular activities your child already participates in so that when they come to you with questions or concerns, you already have some answers. For example, if your child is in Girl Scouts, you can reassure them that even though they’re changing schools, the new school also has a Girl Scouts troop they can join, advises Rimm-Kaufman.

Involve Them in the Move

The best way to get your child excited about the upcoming move is to involve them in the process from start to finish. You might sit down with the whole family, make a checklist of all that needs to be done, and assign specific tasks to everyone, even your younger children. “If possible, give your child special responsibilities related to the move and show how proud you are of them for fulfilling those responsibilities,” says Rimm-Kaufman. 

As you pack, let your child help. You may ask older children to pack their own boxes so that they know what’s in each. Younger children should also help with the packing process, even if they’re only telling you what goes inside each box. Once their toys and belongings are put away, Rimm-Kaufman recommends letting your child color the boxes and choose a “first-to-unpack” box that has all their favorite things inside.

If you can, visit your new home before you officially move and let your child see their future bedroom. Not only will seeing their room ahead of time boost their excitement, but they can also start planning how they want to set it up, which color they’d like to paint the walls, and what types of decorations they want. Use this opportunity to visit or drive by their new school if you can.

When you arrive at the new place, work with your movers to ensure your child’s boxes make it into their room quickly. That way, you’ll have everything you need to set up their bedroom right away so that you can focus on preparing them for their first day at a new school.

Transitioning Children to a New School

A new city and home are already significant changes, but a new school presents an additional set of challenges. Your child will need to make new friends, learn a new routine, and become part of a new community. It’s crucial to prepare them for their first day and stay involved every day after—here’s how.

Prepare for the First Day

Whether your child starts at a new school on the first day like everyone else or in the middle of the year, it will be scary. Much of this anxiety comes from the unknown, so do your best to get your child accustomed to their new routine. “Visit the school with your child before their first day to familiarize them with the environment,” recommends Haslip. 

Also ahead of their first day, find your kid’s new bus stop, drive them to the new school, check out their classroom, and meet their teacher, if possible. For younger children, Haslip suggests using books about moving or starting at a new school to help your child understand the process.

If your child seems nervous or sad, getting them excited about the first day can be as easy as buying new school supplies. Let your child pick out their new folders, pencils, binders, and backpack, and let them splurge on fun locker decorations. As you set up their new bedroom, consider curating a special space for homework and studying and involving them in the design. Finally, help your child feel confident by buying a new first-day outfit that matches their identity and style.

Stay Involved as They Get Started

As the parent, you have the opportunity to be your child’s strongest advocate. “Some schools are terrific at creating a climate that is welcoming to new students, but others are less good at making these arrangements,” says Rimm-Kaufman. Because every school is a bit different, it’s up to you to make sure your child gets what they need.

Haslip and McClelland both recommend working directly with your child’s teacher before they set foot in the classroom. This will allow the teacher to get acquainted with your child, understand how they learn best, and note their strengths and areas of improvement. To help your child adjust, you may ask their teacher to assign them a classroom buddy, let them do a poster presentation about themselves for the class, or allow them to give out small gifts such as stickers or toys to classmates, suggests Haslip.

Before your child heads to school, you may pack them a special lunch, write an affirmation in their lunch box, or walk them out to the bus. When your child is home from school, take the time to learn about their day, and be empathetic and enthusiastic about their responses. “Ask specific questions about their day—not just how it went,” says McClelland. You could ask them what their favorite class was or who they sat with at lunch. “Once it’s part of a daily family process, it’s much easier to talk about harder things, like transitions to a new school or challenges that children are facing,” she says.

Helping Your Child Settle Into a New School

You can help your child cope with the challenges of a new school by remaining present, recognizing when they are struggling, and getting them involved in their new community.

Help Them Cope With Challenges

If there’s one thing our experts agree on, it’s that every child is different and will adjust to their new school and home in their own time. “Some children adjust easily to new things, while other children need more time,” says McClelland. Rimm-Kaufman reminds parents that the best thing they can do is remain actively involved in their child’s life, ask them about their day, and above all, listen and remain patient.

Keep in mind that children of different ages will have different challenges when adjusting to a new school. Younger children may struggle with new classroom expectations, new routines, and different types of homework, says McClelland. Older children, on the other hand, may have a harder time making friends, forming close relationships with teachers, or learning a new curriculum that differs greatly from their old one, says Lee.

For some kids, the adjustment may take a few months, but for others, it could take a full year, says Rimm-Kaufman. One day you may feel like your child has finally adjusted to their new school and routine, but the next, you may feel like they’ve slid several steps backward, she says.

“Your kids will be behaving consistently with how you know them if all is going well,” says Lee. There are some key signs your child is having a hard time adjusting, as highlighted by Lee, such as the following:

If you notice any of these changes, make it a point to connect with your child. “Parents should try to understand your child’s world, to understand what it’s like to walk in their shoes,” says Lee. “This will take time, but once you can see what it is like to go through their day-to-day life from morning till bedtime, you will be more astute to the key influencers and players in their lives and understand where their strengths are and also where their potential challenges might be.”

Get Them Involved in the Community

A new community presents a whole new world to explore, so take the opportunity to discover everything your new town or city has to offer. This will help your child acclimate to their new environment. You could bring your child to the nearest playground if they’re young; if they’re a bit older, you could go shopping downtown and go out to dinner at a local restaurant. Base your activities on your child’s existing interests.

If you have the opportunity, reach out to local parent groups or your school’s parent-teacher organization (PTO). You can use this as an opportunity to set up playdates with your kids’ classmates or find ways to volunteer at your child’s school. Lee stresses the importance of getting involved in the school community, especially if you have kids in elementary school.

Furthermore, activities such as sports, theater, band, choir, and special-interest clubs can make up a huge part of your child’s identity, especially in middle and high school. “Encourage participation in after-school activities or clubs to help your child connect with others and develop a sense of belonging,” says Haslip. For younger children, look into community programs, and, with your child, pick some activities to sign up for.

In Conclusion

When your child moves to a new school, they may feel just as anxious as they are excited. The good news? There’s plenty you can do to ease this transition. As a parent, you can support your students by involving them in the move, listening to their concerns, and advocating for them as they enter their new classroom.

With empathy, encouragement, and preparation, you and your family will be ready to take on this new adventure together.

Our Experts

​​Katherine Lee, Ph.D., is an associate professor in residence at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, with expertise in school psychology and health service psychology. Lee is well-versed in understanding child development, psychological assessments, and special educational eligibility and decision-making. She received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Princeton University and her doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Megan McClelland, Ph.D., is the Katherine E. Smith Professor of Healthy Children and Families at Oregon State University, where she serves as the endowed director of the Hallie E. Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families. Her research focuses on optimizing children’s development, especially as it relates to self-regulation, executive function, and school success. She is also leading a center to better support early childhood educators in Oregon and a center to promote children’s environmental health.

Michael Haslip, Ph.D., is an associate professor of early childhood education at Drexel University. His research and scholarship include investigating the sustainability of Pre-K outcomes; building frameworks of support for preschool social-emotional learning; creating nurturing classroom climates; and promoting altruism-sustainability linkages in education. He earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in early childhood education from Old Dominion University. He has worked as a first- and second-grade teacher, college instructor, and in the nonprofit sector.

Sara Rimm-Kaufman, Ph.D., is an education professor at the University of Virginia. She has studied children and youth for more than 20 years and has written about how school transitions play prominent roles in their lives. She has authored books and papers about child and youth development, including Social and Emotional Learning from the Start.