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The Psychological Impact of School Transitions

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Jan 1, 2011

School moves can represent a stressful experience for the majority of children. However, for children with disabilities, a change of schools can be particularly unsettling for many reasons. We can find situations stressful or distressing when there is a change in our environment that increases our lack of predictability or lack of control. For children with disabilities, structure is an integral part of their ability to adapt to their surroundings. Structure provides a consistent framework, set of limits, expectations, and procedures that are familiar and predictable. When the structure is clear, consistent, and well-defined, the child is able to handle age-appropriate tasks more successfully.

Reactions to stress and unpredictability can occur physically, emotionally, behaviorally, and mentally. At a physical level, when placed under stress our body mobilizes to respond to the stressful threat by fight or flight. Our body responds by increasing its heart rate and adrenaline production. While in this state of alert, we are mobilized to combat the stressor. However, this physical response is very taxing on our system and if we remain in this state of alert for too long, we become exhausted. One of the consequences of being in a state of heightened alert is that ultimately it drains our reserves, resulting in increased susceptibility to illness. Other physical symptoms can include sleep problems and eating problems (overeating or undereating). Our thinking can lso be impaired. We can make errors in judgment and make impulsive and rash decisions. Emotionally, we can become irritable, angry, and act out our frustrations toward others.

Children who are stressed may respond with a wide variety of symptoms. Some children may become weepy and break into tears at a moment's notice. Other children withdraw, attempting to avoid the stressful situation. Fantasy play may help some children avoid a too-stressful reality, while others respond to stress on a physical level, complaining of headaches or stomach aches or exhibiting sleep problems (for example, needing too much sleep or having problems falling asleep or staying asleep). Some children demonstrate regressive behavior; for example, a five-year-old may want a bottle because her new baby sister is getting too much attention. Acting out in an aggressive way is also a common childhood reaction to stress. Many children will use denial to avoid acknowledging a stressful situation; for example, a child may continually forget to bring his schoolbooks home because he is at a loss as to how to do the work.

Easing School Adjustment Problems

If a change of schools is imminent either due to relocation or moving from one school level to another, children should be made aware of the move in advance so that they can prepare for it. If at all possible, especially if moving any distance, it would be helpful to find the school's Web site and introduce the child to pictures of the new school to ease the fear of the unknown. If possible, a visit to the new school can also be a positive way to ease the stress of adjusting to a new location.

As for special education services, make sure that you talk to educators in the new location to become familiar with how they process their cases for special education placement. Even though a child may currently be placed in special education, the same criteria may not be used by a different state or school district. Your child may have to undergo further assessment in order to see whether he or she meets the criteria for placement in the new location. To assist educators at the new school in their efforts to help your child succeed, make sure that copies of all reports, IEPs and assessment results are sent to the new school district.

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