It all started with the bus. The first day of fifth grade I drove my son to school, but he had to take the afternoon bus home. It was three hours late to our stop, without information or an explanation. And without air conditioning or water for the bus riders in South Louisiana in August. Through the first month of middle school, this became a pretty regular occurrence, to the point where I adjusted my morning work schedule and leaned on other parents to help with afternoon carpool. It was simply not sustainable for our family.
There were other problems too. The only reports I ever got back from school were about “behavior points” and my son still couldn’t write a grammatically correct sentence. He didn’t know where the punctuation went, or that he should even be using it. He seemed happy though and after the COVID years, I really didn’t want to pull him away from friends he had been with since kindergarten.
In November, we took him on a tour of a small private school, close to our house on the Westbank. We were looking for a sixth-grade option for the following year and hoping that he’d be open to change. He was uncharacteristically quiet the whole time. The only questions he asked on the tour were about security and discipline, which was sad and a little scary.
When we got in the car, he looked at me, serious as can be, and said “Can I start now?” Apparently, he’d felt the same frustrations with his middle school experience and didn’t realize there were other options. We talked about the pros and cons of switching mid-year and, while he was ready to take off, I was agonizing over the decision. With only one con, missing his friends, we made a commitment to staying in touch and then we made the switch. We both cried on his last day.
The staff at his new school could not have been more welcoming. They assigned a student to be his helper for the first couple of weeks while he acclimated to his new environment. They even let him join the basketball team mid-season.
Since making the move, he’s a new kid on school days. Excited about going every day, talking nonstop about the projects he is working on, and, the biggest shock, he took first place in the 5th grade speech contest! He used to have such crippling stage fright that he could barely enter a room to give a presentation. What courage it must have taken for him to step so far out of his comfort zone, in front of people he had just met, and win.
Looking back, I think that there were five effective strategies that we both purposely and unknowingly used that helped with the transition.
- Encouraging him to get involved in activities: By joining the basketball team right away, he was able to make early connections and feel more of a part of the school community.
- Communicating with teachers: I was nervous because his old school did not emphasize grammar and spelling at all (my pet peeve!), which he would need, and the math curriculum would be one grade ahead of where he was. By establishing communication early, we were able to stay informed and raise any concerns on the front end.
- Touring during the school day: One thing my son mentioned after taking the tour was that he was so surprised that “all the kids seemed to be paying attention.” (Yikes.) I think the tour helped him get comfortable with the layout too and alleviated his anxiety about switching classrooms frequently.
- Connecting with other parents: Given that his new school is so much smaller, we were all worried about fitting into long established relationships. By connecting with other parents, we were able to encourage our son to do the same with their kids.
- Staying positive: Not the toxic kind of positivity that didn’t acknowledge the challenges he would face, but encouragement that he can do it and we are here to help. Is this going to be a tough transition? Yes. Can you do it successfully? Also, yes.
There is no question that moving in the middle of the school year was the right choice for us. He now has the structure and academic challenges that he was missing and, aware of his new school’s high expectations from him, he has risen to the occasion.
As we approach the end of this fifth-grade year, I will always be grateful for his elementary school experience. It helped us both acclimate to a new city, introduced us to a diverse group of friends, and gave him a sense of empathy that I hope he carries with him always. But I am also glad that we all had the courage to jump into something brand new and unknown. Soon it will be time to look at high schools and when I asked my son which open houses he wants to attend, he said “None of them. I want to stay here.” I consider this a #momwin.