“Look for the new kid.” A common saying I tell my children as I help zip their backpacks shut, arrange their clothes and tie their shoes preparing for the first day of school. It’s a simple saying, but one that can change the trajectory of a new student.
We are a military family. My children have moved six times, two countries in 12 years. My children have attended five different schools as my oldest heads into eighth grade this fall. My kids, like most military-connected children, are well versed in being the new kid – but it never gets easier.
The academic term used when referencing military families is “living a highly mobile lifestyle.” There is truth in the reference with daunting facts to support it.
– Department of Defense moves 650,000 military personnel yearly.
– There are more than 1.2 million active duty military-connected children, 650,000 attend public school.
– 200,000 school-age military-connected students move every year.
– The average military family will move every one to three years.
– Military families will move 2.4 times as often as civilian peers.
– A military-connected student will experience six to nine school changes through their K-12 education.
Of course, not all new kids in school are from military families. Civilians make up a larger demographic of moving across the United States. However, some military kids will take on the stress of frequent moves their family experiences. According to a recent 2017 study by Military Child Education Coalition, frequent moves can exacerbate existing social-emotional issues because of the changing support system that comes from moving to a new school and the difficulties with keeping in touch with friends in addition to the ordinary stresses of adolescence.
Military-connected students also struggle for sure footing while trying to bridge the curriculum and academic gaps that come with frequent school changes. Coupled with nearly 18 years of war, increasing ops tempo, and frequent deployments military families endure, the simple extension of kindness during a time of instability can be the connection kids need to thrive in a new community.
After each move, when my children bravely enter a large, unknown building they’ll call school for the next uncertain number of years, I close my eyes and wish upon a school bus that one of their classmates will take kindness to a new level and look for the new kids like mine. A simple wish to ask these well-established students and friend groups to include new students throughout the upcoming weeks.
After a tough move from overseas, my then 6th grader spent the first two weeks of school begging me to homeschool him. The school did everything different than what he expected, he didn’t know how to integrate academically or reach out socially. It was rough on the entire family. As a parent, I was helpless. My son needed to connect with a peer and his school; he hadn’t smiled in six weeks since we moved from our last assignment, where he was surrounded by friends, familiar hallways and wonderful supportive community. It wasn’t until a family with a gentle heart and lots of kids reached out to include my son in a local activity that he finally cracked a smile. That one small act of inclusion changed his outlook for the rest of the year. He stood up a little straighter, laughed a little more. He was lighter. I will never forget what a small gesture from a stranger did for our family dynamic.
Becky Harris, a National Certified School Psychologist living in Northern Virginia believes one way parents of returning students can support new students — military or otherwise — is to encourage their children to find ways to connect with new students.
“Parents can encourage their children to empathize with new students by having them reflect on a time they were new to a group, how they felt, and what made them feel comfortable or included. Ask them how they can recreate that scenario for someone new.”
Parents can also teach their child communication skills to connect with new kids. Harris suggests, “Starting with the simple act of saying hello, or together come up with simple questions to ask the new kid about themselves. Also, returning students can share information or advice about the school with new kids. Students will find a connection by communicating and engaging with one another.”
Sharon Smith, an Air Force spouse and mother to five boys ranging 9-18 years old, experiences the emotional roller coaster five different times with every change of duty station. She encourages her boys to be proactive and to look for the new kid at school. She wants her boys to seek out fellow students who are new and not quite comfortable within the school halls.
“Each one of my boys knows what it feels like to be the new kid. I want them to remember that and make another child’s day by saying hello, sitting next to them at lunch or inviting them into their group. One smile or lunch buddy could make a difference in a child’s self-esteem and how they feel about being a military family,” says Smith.
As parents ready their children for school by helping to zip up backpacks, tie shoes or pick out clothes, don’t forget to help them see the world through the eyes of others. Encourage them to be includers. Have them look for the lost, the nervous and the eager. Encourage empathy towards others, arm them with ways to connect. A small gesture of kindness will make an impact not only to the student, but possibly their entire family as well.
Have them look for the new kid.