A few years ago, I attended a Military Child and Education Coalition (MCEC) seminar held at Fort Drum. “Things are finally getting more manageable,” I thought on my drive to the event. A thought I distinctly remember. After surviving multiple deployments, five moves, an infant with colic, a toddler who resisted the car seat’s five point harness like a ferocious wild animal, my life as a mom finally seemed to be smoothing out. Both kids were sleeping through the night, I was down to one child in diapers. My daughter was approaching kindergarten. I’m a little ashamed to admit, I viewed it as a sort of parole.
I was thinking to the future, confident that I could handle anything now that I was enjoying a solid 6 hours of sleep per night.
Not so fast.
The challenges weren’t ending, they were simply shifting – something the MCEC workshop taught me to recognize. Sure, I would be more well-rested, but with my daughter entering school, each move would present a whole new set of issues. Fortunately, there are a variety of organizations that have worked to facilitate school transitions for military kids.
As I mentioned, MCEC holds workshops to help parents and kids with the challenges of switching schools. The Interstate Compact has addressed many of the academic hurdles that occur when families move from state to state, and School Liaison Officers are available to answer questions about your new school district and its requirements.
Walking away from the MCEC workshop, I was pretty sure I could manage the academic issues related to moving. What really concerned me were the social challenges my kids would face. We were fortunate that our next two moves coincided with summer break and my daughter was just one of many new military kids starting the academic year at her new school. Unfortunately, our last PCS did not, and we were forced to confront the dreaded mid-year school transfer.
Shortly after arriving at our new school this past April, I volunteered to chaperone the kindergarten field trip. I arrived a little early to find my son’s class outside for recess. Kids were running around everywhere and it took me awhile to spot my son. He was sitting on a curb, by himself, making a small pile of dirt. When I approached him and asked what he was doing, he told me he was making a house for his pals, the ants.
My heart broke.
If there is one thing I’ve taken away from the many Army resiliency trainings I’ve dutifully attended, it is that the key to managing this military lifestyle is to optimize the things you have the ability to influence, and try to make the best of everything else.
Leaving old friends and routines is hard. Making new friends and fitting into a new school can be even harder. As much as you’d like, you probably won’t be able to arrange for a new best friend to be waiting at your child’s new school. However, our recent experience showed me the importance of identifying key things to make the experience a little smoother.
I wasn’t always successful, but I want to share my lessons learned in the hope that it might help during your next move:
Contact your child’s teacher before his or her first day of school. Use this opportunity to introduce yourself and make sure the teacher is prepared for your child’s arrival. Your military kid will feel much more welcome if there is a desk, cubby, coat hook and school supply box waiting for him or her.
Ask for any booklets or documents on classroom policy or routines. Most teachers, particularly in the younger grades, distribute something at the beginning of the year. Are there any special folders or a day planner your child will need for homework? Understanding how these systems work will help your military kid get into the new routine.
Learn where to find the most accurate school calendar. I mistakenly assumed the calendar on our school’s website was up to date until I showed up at 11:30am for an early dismissal only to discover that it was a full day. In most cases, you can check with your child’s school administrative office to find an updated calendar.
Make sure your name is added to all school distribution lists. I regularly receive emails from the school’s main office, the teacher, and the PTO. Does your child’s classroom have a room parent? My son’s class has six (yes, that’s 6!) room moms. You need to ensure that each of these volunteers adds you to her distribution list, or you might miss the email to send in items for a craft project or show and tell.
Be sure you understand, and are incorporated into, your new school’s emergency communication system. Okay, that tip isn’t going to smooth your child’s transition, but it may ease your own peace of mind. In the unlikely event that something should happen at your school, or in your neighborhood, you don’t want to be wondering how the school will provide you with updates.
Does your child’s school have any special programs that are unique to it and, if so, how might your military kid be impacted? Our new school’s PTO runs a hot dog lunch fundraiser on Thursdays. I signed up my kids at the front office but, unfortunately, word of the new additions did not travel to the cafeteria. Much confusion ensued when my kindergartener showed up looking for a hot dog. He was sent to the office to eat the “nurse’s lunch” which I eventually learned is a variety of shelf stable snacks she keeps on hand for kids who forget their lunch. I count this as my biggest fail and wish I had taken the time to learn more about Hot Dog Day to ensure it went smoothly.
Consider volunteering at the school as often as you can. For you, it will provide an opportunity to meet other parents. For established families, it allows them to put a face to your name. After spending a day with my daughter’s class and many of their moms, one of them realized that she didn’t see our name on an email list inviting families to a special event for 2nd graders. She tracked down my contact info and called to tell me about it. I was grateful that she thought of us and I’m not sure that would have happened had we not met while volunteering.
Recently, I picked my son up at school for a dental appointment to a chorus of kids shouting his name and asking when he’d be returning. It was such a relief to see that he has been embraced by his new classmates. While I wouldn’t want to repeat it, we seem to have survived our mid-school year move and learned a few things in the process.
Have you experienced a mid-year school transition? What are your lessons learned? What advice would you give to families facing a mid-year PCS?