Wave Goodbye: Helping Children Deal with the Stress of Moving
By Marian Marion, Ph.D.

Jamie turned back to look at Mr. Rivas, smiled, and waved good-bye. Waving back Mr. Rivas said, “Good-bye, Jamie,” in a low soft voice, hardly audible. This had been Jamie’s last day at her early childhood program because Jamie’s family was moving to another city. Mr. Rivas, having worked with Jamie’s parents, was confident that they would support her in dealing with the stress of leaving her neighborhood, program, and friends. Other children, he knew, were not so lucky.

 

Children experience many potentially stressful events (Marion, 2003) and moving is one of these because we live in a mobile society. By the end of third grade, one in six of the nation’s third-graders will have changed schools at least three times since beginning public school (Department of Education, 1994). Some groups like migrant children, urban low-income, or abused children move even more frequently. For example, 58 percent of one sample of urban low-income children changed schools at least once (Mehana & Reynolds, 1995). Kerbow (1996) also described the high mobility in large urban settings. Abused children move two times more frequently than other children do (Lang, 1996). Migrant children, who can move several times in one year, are especially vulnerable to stress from moving (Prewitt Diaz, 1989).

 

Teachers experience frequently and first-hand the effects of a mobile society just as they have for the last several decades. Teachers know that some of their children will move to a new program and that they are likely to get new children at anytime. Teachers witness the stress that moving often produces in children and their families.


Moving is Stressful for Many Young Children

Moving to a new area is among the most stress-inducing experiences that a family faces. Moves are especially difficult for preschool and primary-grade children (American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry [AACAP], 1998; Cornille, 1993). For children, moving is a type of loss just as are death or a parent’s divorce. A child loses friends, a home, and her early childhood program, the losses often resulting in feelings of sadness and anxiety or even anger. Moving is stressful for many young children for several reasons.


Moving interrupts friendships and children lose social support. Children who move to a different area or a new program often think that everybody there is in a group or has a best friend. Children who lose friendships are likely to go through a mourning process for those friendships. Having somebody dismiss or laugh at the loss intensifies the sadness over the loss. If a child is shy or aggressive or has poor social skills then the move and the need to make friends will be even more difficult and stressful. Many children lose the support of older people, too. Moving away from trusted teachers, a scout leader, religion teacher, relatives and neighbors means that a child will not have these adults to turn to for support (AACAP, 1998; Lang, 1996).

 

Moving elicits unpleasant emotions. Children tend to feel anxious and sad when they move. Some children are angry about having to move. Anger and anxiety, the “worry” emotions, are two of the most difficult emotions for anyone to manage. Young children, however, do not understand their emotions and do not know how to manage them on their own. So, added to an already stressful situation of moving is the stress that goes along with emotions that the child cannot manage (Prestine, 1997).

 

Moving interrupts the separation process. Moving is especially troublesome for children during early childhood because they are in the process of separating from parents and adjusting to adults other than their parents in child care programs and schools. Young children are also adjusting to peers. Relocating often pushes young children to return to a more dependent relationship with parents than they might want, thereby interrupting the normal separation process (AACAP, 1998).

 

Moving requires children to adjust to a new curriculum and to different teacher expectations. Some primary grade children discover that they are behind in some curriculum areas while other children find themselves ahead, the latter resulting in boredom or anxiety. Children can withstand the stress if their parents and teachers give them the support that they need (AACAP, 1998; Lang, 1996). However, children who move most frequently are the least likely to get the help that they need for managing the stress of curriculum changes (DOE, 1994). Their families and schools are often not prepared to give them the support they need. For example, Prewitt Diaz (1989) studied the culture of migrancy and noted that there is a survival-oriented way of thinking among migrants of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. This survival-orientation makes it very difficult for many migrant children to do well in school. Migrant children are negatively affected by many things; among the most important is the fragmented education received between moves and diminished self-esteem related to the trauma of constant moving.

 

Abused children also move much more frequently than most children, and Lang (1996) reports that the frequent moving accounted for many problems in language arts and reading. Moving so frequently also accounts in part for abused children having to repeat grades.

 
Moving interrupts school and social services. Kerbow (1996) noted that some public school systems like those in Chicago are undergoing reforms that focus on promoting greater local school autonomy. Greater local autonomy is based on the assumption that children will attend one specific school consistently enough so the school can make a difference in the child’s achievement. Urban, low-income children who frequently change schools lose the benefit of any school or social services that go along with such school reform.


Suggestions for Helping Children Deal with the Stress of Moving

Teachers can help children develop resilience (Bernard, 1995) and schools, teachers, and policymakers can buffer the stress of moving and changing schools. Moving and changing schools does not necessarily have to affect children adversely, and with appropriate support, moving can be a positive experience for children (AACAP, 1998). Teachers, directors/principals, centers, schools, and policymakers must take the first step and make a conscious effort to help children who are about to move away from or who have just transferred (Prestine, 1997).

 

It is important for teachers and early childhood programs to shield all children from the stress of moving and changing schools. Standing between a child and the stress of moving is especially important for children who move frequently (Department of Education [DOE], 1994). Children’s academic progress is likely to suffer when they have to repeat grades unless an effort has been made to help them with the move. Occasionally, policy change is needed at a system level, i.e., for an entire school system, chain of early childhood programs. Similarly, child care programs could help children who change programs by maintaining excellent records and then transferring a child’s records to the new center in a timely fashion.


When a Child Moves AWAY FROM Your Classroom

  • Consider some of the following strategies to help a child deal with the stress of moving away from your classroom.

  • Talk with him about moving away and help him understand something about his new child care program. It would help greatly if you would make the effort to find out where he is going, the name of his program, and his new teacher. Present this information in a positive way.

  • Listen carefully and encourage him to talk about his feelings about moving away. Avoid being intrusive, however, and do not force a child to talk about feelings.

  • Encourage him say “good-bye” to his school in a low-key and positive way.

  • Give the child a picture of the entire class with him included.

  • Make sure his records are up-to-date and accurate and make sure that the records are transferred quickly to the new program if parental permission is given.

  • Work with the child’s parents or legal guardian. Answer their questions and give them information that will enable them to help their child make the move with as little stress as possible.

When a Child Moves To Your Classroom

You can welcome a child who is moving to your classroom by drawing your classroom circle to include this new child. Adding a new member to a family or a classroom involves adjusting the boundaries to include that person. Additional suggestions for welcoming children to your classroom and program can be found below.


Checklist: What Can I Do to Help Children

  • Obtain the child’s file and read it carefully. Follow program policy on contacting the previous teacher for clarification on any issues.

  • Do a home visit if your program encourages teachers to make home visits.

  • Familiarize the child and family with the new program. Invite them to come to your program for a tour so that your environment is not so new on the child’s first day.

  • Make sure that the child and his family know the daily schedule in your room. Give them a copy of your schedule and encourage parents to share it with their child.

  • Create a space for a new child by preparing a locker or cubby, cot for napping, and any other individualized area or material. Create his space before he arrives.

  • Take a new group picture with the new child included. Do this on the first day that the new child enters your room.

  • Walk through your classroom or school routines, e.g., bathroom, snack, or lunch, getting on the bus, waiting for parents.

  • Take your class through the fire safety drill so that everyone, including the new child, knows the procedure.

  • Ask the child to tell you about the new routines in his program, if developmentally appropriate.

  • Talk with the child and find out what he likes to do.

  • Include the child in activities of his new room at his pace.

  • Request that other children act as guides for the new class member. Be specific in your requests, “Joe, please walk with Robert to the lunch table. He will be sitting next to you and I thought that you could show him how lunch is served.”

Working with Parents

Use the information from the next section to help parents learn some simple but powerful and practical strategies for helping children adjust to a move. Offer these strategies to parents of children who are either leaving or who are new to your program. Ask parents how they would prefer to get the information, remembering that these parents are in the midst of a move. A brief telephone call or email with an offer of assistance and simple handout with this information might well be the most efficient way to reach parents who are likely feeling the strains of moving. If the parents of the children in your classroom use email, then consider sending information as an attachment to an email message. The goal is to serve the parent’s needs in as helpful a way as possible.


Is Your Family Moving? Tips for Helping Your Child Cope with the Move

 
Explain and listen. Explain clearly to your child why the move is necessary. Are you being transferred? Are you starting school in another section of the state? Is the home you have been building finally finished? Is his school closing? Your child will understand the reason for the move if you state it simply and clearly. Get comments from your child about what you have explained. Listen closely, clarify anything that your child did not seem to understand, and “listen for feelings” like fear or anxiety.

 

Read. Read a book about moving with your child (Jalongo, 1986; Rovenger, 2000). Ask your local librarian about appropriate books to purchase or check out.


Learn about the new area. Acquaint your child with the new area as much as possible. Visit the new area and take your child on a tour of the new house and neighborhood. Consider visiting the public library or parks. Familiarize children with their new home by using maps (for older children) of the area or photos of a new house or apartment building. Consider taking the local newspaper early to acquaint your child with the comic section if he has a favorite cartoon. Describe something about the new area that your child might like such as a pool, a pond with ducks, an amusement park. Give the information in a positive “upbeat” way but do not force your child to be enthusiastic.


Get involved. After the move, get involved with your children in activities of the new community such as synagogue or church, parent’s group at school, YMCA, family education and support program, and volunteer groups like the Humane Society.

 

Sources: AACAP (1998); Prestine, J (1997). Helping children cope with moving: A practical guide for “Moving is Hard.” Kids Have Feelings, Too Series. 299 Jefferson Rd., P.O. Box 480, Parsippany, NJ 07054-0480. This book is a good resource for parents and accompanies the children’s picture book called Moving is Hard. Marion, 2003.

 

Marian Marion, Ph.D., is a professor of child development and early childhood education at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie, WI. She is also the author of Guidance of Young Children, Sixth Edition, Merrill/Prentice-Hall.

 

 References

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (1998). Children and family moves, AACAP Facts for families, No.14.

 

Benard, B. (1995). Fostering resilience in children. ERIC Digest, EDO-PS-95-9, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.

 

Cornille, T. (1993). Support systems and the relocation process for children and families. Marriage & Family Review,19(3-4), 281-298.

 

Department of Education (Migrant Education Program), (1994). Elementary school children: Many change schools frequently, harming their education. Report to the Honorable March Kaptur, House of Representatives. Washington, DC: author. ERIC No. EC369526.


Jalongo, M. R. (1986). When young children move. In J. B. McCracken (Ed.), Reducing stress in young children's lives. Washington, DC: NAEYC.


Kerbow, D. (1996). Patterns of urban student mobility and local school reform. ERIC No. ED402386.


Lang, S. (1996). Maltreated children move more often, do worse in school. Human Ecology Forum, 24(3), 24.


Marion, M. (2003). Guidance of young children, 6th Ed. Columbus, Ohio: Merrill/Prentice-Hall.


Marion, M. (2004). Using observation in early childhood education. Columbus, Ohio: Merrill/Prentice-Hall.


Mehana, J. & Reynolds, A. (1995). The effects of school mobility on scholastic achievement. Paper presented at the Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Indianapolis, IN (March 30-April 2).


Prestine, J. (1997). Helping children cope with moving: A practical resource guide for “moving is hard”. Parsippany, NJ: Fearon Teacher Aids.


Prewitt Diaz, J. The effects of migration on children: An ethnographic study. ERIC No. ED327346.


Rovenger, J. (2000). Fostering emotional intelligence: A librarian looks at the role of literature in a child’s development. School Library Journal, 46(12), 40-41.


Resources for Teachers and Parents: Books about Children and Moving

Johnson, A. (1992). The leaving morning. New York: Orchard Books. A beautifully illustrated book that shows how two sisters feel about moving and how their parents help them understand the process of moving.


Kalan, R. (1996). Moving day. New York: Greenwillow Books. This is the story of a hermit crab that searches for a new home. He tries on several different shells before finding the shell that is just right for him.


Prestine, J. (1997). Moving is hard. 299 Jefferson Road, P.O. Box 480, Parsippany, NJ, 07054-0480. This children’s picture book goes along with an informational booklet for adults who are helping children understand the process of moving.


Web Sites Related to Stress in Childhood

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry – one of the most helpful web sites available to parents and teachers; contains information on a wide variety of topics, including childhood stressors.www.aacap.org – the home page for this organization.

www.aacap.org/publications/factsfam/14 – this is a set of “family fact sheets” that you might find useful in your work with children and families.

 

Center for Effective Parenting – is a collaborative project of the University of Arkansas for Medical Science, the Arkansas Children’s Hospital, and the Jones Family Center. This site has numerous links for parent education information, including information about stress.

www.parenting-ed.org – the homepage for the Center for Effective Parenting. The following is one of the many good links: www.parenting-ed.org/handouts3 – handout on children’s stress. Accurate.


ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is a valuable resource on many topics, including stress in childhood. www.ericps.crc.uiuc.edu/eece

 

Extension Divisions of Land Grant Universities. Each state has a university with an Extension division, charged with providing information and education for people throughout that state. Extension produces written documents on many topics, including parenting. Here are examples of information on stress management for children from three different extension sources. Check the extension division in your own state, either on the Internet or at your county’s extension office (yellow pages).

 

www.extension.unr.edu/children&violence/child&stress.htmlUniversity of Nevada Reno. This link is a Fact Sheet on stress in children.

 

www.exnet.iastate.edu/publications/PM1660F.pdfIowa State University. This is a three-page article on stress.

 

www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/Familydevelopment/components/7269cm.html – The University of Minnesota Extension. This is a list of articles on children and stress.