Cambridge, Mass. — Back-to-school is a momentous occasion for all children, but especially for those who are going to a new school. Each year nearly 18 percent of all Americans move.
Ann Banks, co-author of "Goodbye, House," knows firsthand the challenge of a peripatetic childhood. Born in Florida, she grew up in such places as Virginia, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and West Germany as her family followed her Army father.
Although she did not mind moving to new places, entering a new school was sometimes hard. Ms. Banks understands what it's like to enter a classroom where everyone else already has friends and you don't know anybody.
But she survived the uncertainties and usually enjoyed the moves. She points out that many children are not fearful about going to a new home. They are excited about living in a new place and making new friends.
"There is also the powerful fantasy of the fresh start," she says. "If there is a nickname they want to drop, now's the time."
Parents can do a lot to make a move or school transfer happy. Familiarize children with where they are going before they leave their old home, she advises. Point out the location on the map. Get information from encyclopedias and almanacs. Write to the local chamber of commerce for brochures.
Ms. Banks says that a move is a chance to help children realize they are growing up, and parents should emphasize the joy in this. Maybe they'll ride a school bus for the first time. If the move is just across a city, tell the children they will be able to take a bus by themselves to visit old friends. If it is farther, let children make a long-distance phone call to an old friend.
"Children may feel they will lose all their old friends," Ms. Banks says.Parents can help children understand that memories are a way to hold on to friends. Take pictures of friends and some of their favorite activities.
When searching for a new school, parents are usually interested in academics. Children may have different concerns.
"Listen to what kids are worried about," the author advises. "They might be very interested in whether there is a school band. They will want to know what kind of clothes they should wear. To kids, these things seem as important as academics."
Write or talk to staff members at the new school to get answers to these questions. During a midyear transfer, find out how far along classes are in each subject.
Ms. Banks also suggests asking for a pen pal from the new school when the move will be long distance.
"He will be an instant friend when the child arrives," she says.
Ron Clawson, principal of the West Gresham Grade School in Greasham, Ore., reports that some parents visit schools before they move into the area. But more often they arrive without any investigation. His staff is ready to help them.
"Our secretaries do a super job," he says. "They help parents and children get familiar with the area. They can even give names of day-care facilities or baby sitters."
After that introduction, Mr. Clawson or a school counselor will take the child on a tour of the school. It helps to see the layout of the school, talk to the teacher, and know what the class is studying. The teacher will also know more about the child for his or her introduction to the class.
"We find a student who can be his buddy the first week," Mr. Clawson says. This system takes on added meaning, because the "buddy" is usually a child who needs some special attention also. Perhaps he is shy in class or has a reputation as a bully.
"With the status of helping the newcomer, this child gets a brand new start also," Clawson says. "We find these children go to newcomers like a magnet."
Ms. Banks tells children to take stock of their own "salability" as friends.
"Kids should review their strengths. We all have little arrows in our quiver."
A child might be good at telling jokes, have an extensive bug collection, or be a great soccer player. Ms. Banks used to bring a buffalo jawbone to show-and-tell whenever she came to a new school.
"It was a fabulous calling card," she recalls. "Who can resist a buffalo jawbone?"