Moving? Tips to help your child with the transition

When moving to a new neighborhood and school, the key to success is understanding your child's temperament.

By Dr. Ron Taffel, Family Therapist

You are about to take on a double whammy — moving to a new neighborhood and a new school. Many parents dread this double-edged transition, but despite the significant challenges, there are a few steps you can take to ensure that your child has the best chance of doing well.

Understand your child's temperament

The key to success is to accurately understand your child's temperament when it comes to transitions. Children do not act in similar ways to the process of change. And, how your child reacts will depends on his temperament, his personality-style.

For example, if you have a child who goes through change easily, you will have noticed early on that he seems fairly adaptive during the endless transitions of childhood. He moves from classroom to classroom easily, birthday party to birthday party without much of a fuss and between play dates without creating a scene. Chances are this kind of child will require little extra preparation, beyond common sense, before entering a new neighborhood and school. Try not to be alarmed by all the hype regarding the inevitable difficulty of such a double transition. Just use your basic instinct as a parent, and you'll probably sail right through.

On the other hand, if your child has shown difficulty with transitions before, you need to put in a bit of extra effort. The best way to successfully prepare is to keep this word in mind — practice! Practicing ahead of time helps your child become familiar with a new situation without needing to face things head on during those frenetic, first days of school. There are a number of painless ways you can create this process of practicing psychologists call "de-sensitization."

Practicing the transition

1. Practice the route that the school bus or you will take from your house, by driving there together.

Kids feel very reassured seeing the exact trip ahead of time. Do a little homework and talk about the different landmarks along the way. This helps a child know what the other kids already know, the basic geography of the area. Keep in mind that children pay attention to many of the things we adults take for granted — a shopping center with a nice toy store, a cool-colored billboard, a sleek new building, and so on.

2. Get permission from the school to visit the building itself, a few days before your child's first day.

Most schools are open for teacher prep, and most administrators are sympathetic to this request. Walk through the school together, and again, be sure to hit the places that matter most to kids — classroom/homeroom, the cafeteria, the gym, and the outdoor play areas.

3. Help your child practice socializing with the school personnel.

Especially seek out those you've heard (by plugging into the parents' network) are outgoing and friendly. Make these encounters brief. Don't expect much more from harried teachers than a nice hello and a bit of warmth. Also, don't be surprised if your child doesn't have much to say. This is fine — for kids, such a practice visit is about scoping out the adults he or she will have to contend with, so real conversation is not a high priority in a youngster's mind.

4. Practice and model socializing with new families in the neighborhood.

Joining the local religious or community center is an easy, no-stress way to meet other families. Just one potential chum in another family is all your child may need as an entrée to other kids, and a new world. If you can manage, host a simple dinner, dessert, or afternoon get-together at your house in which you're essentially practicing the art of becoming a good neighbor and doing some proactive matchmaking — setting your children up with a few other kids in the comfort of your own home. Kids' relationships can form quickly and are very portable, often moving from the living room into the classroom.

When you face that seemingly impossible transition to a new school and a new neighborhood, remember it's not impossible. Take a temperamental reading of your child, try a few practice moves and you can make a huge difference. No matter how anxious you or your child are, with a little bit of preparation, you're on your way to a smooth transition and, most often, the start of something really good.

Dr. Ron Taffel is a noted child and family therapist, and author of Parenting by Heart, Why Parents Disagree, Nurturing Good Children Now, The Second Family, and a guide for child professionals, Getting Through to Difficult Kids and Parents. He consults with and lectures at schools and community organizations around the country. He lives with his wife and children in New York City.