The events of the past two years have disrupted many families, led to housing instability for many, and has often meant that children and young people have had to relocate, join new families, and find their way in new schools. Beyond the crises and trauma leading to life disruptions, students also pay a price in their learning.
Even before the pandemic, estimates were that roughly 6.5 million students changed schools each year. Some of these students faced having to change schools multiple times. For students who lost parents and family members to COVID and suffered other related traumas, changes in schools they attend may be only one of many challenges they face.
Of course, we carefully prepare and support students as they make planned transitions from one school to the next within a system, such as from elementary to middle school and middle school to high school. We know that moving from one school to another, even when planned and supported can be traumatic for students. So, we prepare for and monitor the process carefully. We arrange visits and orientation well in advance. Entry to the new school is orchestrated to be smooth and information about students and their needs is provided to receiving staff to prepare them to move students forward with as little disruption as possible.
However, for students who move from one school to another during the year, such planning and supports are rarely available. Yet, the trauma and confusion associated with changing schools are felt no less intensely. In fact, the intensity is often greater given that friends and even families may be left behind, the new neighborhood may not be familiar, and little information about the student may be available to inform us about the student’s history, needs, and strengths.
This is a situation we can ill afford to ignore. Researchers have calculated that students who transfer schools four or more times by sixth grade have an average academic deficit equal to a full grade. Estimates are that each transition sacrifices three months of reading and math achievement. Frequently transferring students tend to engage in more at-risk behaviors than age-mates. They are more likely to be held back a grade. They also are more likely to drop out of school before graduation and, if they graduate, they are less likely to pursue post-high school education. The pandemic has added to the trauma experienced by these students and we are just beginning to understand the impact.
Obviously, such a situation is intolerable. Educators alone can do little to change the factors that often cause student mobility. Inability to pay rent, loss of job, family stresses and break-ups, adult mental health challenges, and other factors are complex and often intractable. Yet, there are several steps we can take to help students who face school transitions to do so successfully.
Where possible, we can offer flexibility in school attendance area requirements to families that move locally, but relocate in new school attendance areas. Preventing the need to make a transition can be the most effective prevention step we can take.
When a transition is inevitable, we can quickly reach out to the sending school to learn as much as possible about the student, including their academic achievement profile, social strengths and struggles, any special programs or supports needed, and other information that might support a successful transition. Granted, sending schools are not always prompt in sending records for transitioning students, but personal contacts and reach outs can often hasten the process and glean important informal information. This information needs to be in the possession of receiving teachers before the student arrives, if possible.
We can also take steps to see that these students feel welcome. For example, students might be formally introduced and welcomed to their new class. Work products posted by the class should include the new student’s work as soon as possible. Posted information and activities such as birthdays, weekly class leaders, etc. should feature the student as soon as they can be integrated so these students feel included and connected.
We can encourage connections and friendship with other students. Peer mentor programs can assist in making this process intentional and consistent. However, informal introductions to students who might share interests and become friends can also help. Further, we can encourage and arrange for new students to join school clubs and activities that can facilitate friendships and foster social inclusion.
Adult mentoring programs can be an effective way to smooth the transition and identify emerging issues before they require formal intervention. For some students, having a positive, stable, caring adult checking in with them regularly may be exactly what they need to succeed.
We may not be able to control the frequency of school transitions for students, but there is much we can do to help them survive and succeed when a change of school is unavoidable. Our attention and support may be the key to making the transition successful and allowing learning to continue.