Changing schools can significantly impact the mental health of even the most resilient children. This is something we must remain mindful of in our work as behavioral health professions. Even during difficult transitions, we must be determined to safeguard their health, happiness and well-being.
You probably remember it well, the nerves you felt finding your desk on your first day in a new grade or at a new school. Whether you awaited the school year with eager anticipation or approached the end of summer with dread, one reality remains universal: for kids, this time in their lives is a big deal. It is the adult equivalent of the first day on a new job, but one that exerts an even greater impact on kids.
From preschool to college, school can have a profound impact on students not only because of how much time they spend there – about 180 days each year for most K-12 students in the U.S. – but because of the many ways it directly and indirectly impacts how they see themselves and socialize with others. The behaviors and relationships formed at school can affect how children spend their time outside of school as well.
Not surprisingly, changing schools can be highly stressful. On one end of the spectrum, families may move to an entirely new school during the academic year which can be traumatic for some kids because it’s a new situation and because of the people and things they are leaving behind. On the other end, kids may progress to a higher grade or school where they are suddenly surrounded by older kids or students from neighborhoods and towns they may not be familiar with.
Even in the best circumstances, these transitions – whether they occur in preschool, kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, high school, boarding school or college – can be hard, particularly for kids who are in developmental ages that still need reassurance and safety from parents and other authority figures in their lives.
Change can feel especially hard for children who feel stressed under the weight of expectations they place on themselves, perceive from others or feel in social settings – school, of course, being the environment where this is most acute. These feelings can be heightened for children who are already experiencing significant shifts, instability at home or who are grappling with changes in other aspects of their lives like puberty or gender identity. Regardless of age, any significant change like switching schools will introduce new challenges.
Children today are already experiencing more stress, and more change, than ever.
Changing schools does not happen in a vacuum. It is important for mental and behavioral health practitioners to be mindful of the stress it adds to kids already grappling with additional sources of worry. Many of the issues kids face today were unimaginable to previous generations and add an additional layer of complexity to changing schools:
- Violence: I have a daughter in high school who created a list of songs to play at her funeral in case there is a school shooter. She is not alone. Even though the risk is statistically low, threats of violence – typically from students and conveyed via social media – are common. In 2022 there were nearly 6,000 threats to schools reported to the FBI and 51 school shootings that resulted in death or injury.
- Social Media: Social media use is ubiquitous among children today, with a recent advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General noting that “up to 95% of young people aged 13-17” use it. Subsequent findings show that kids who use social media for more than three hours each day “experience double the risk of mental health problems, including experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety.” Online activity and screen time also have an opportunity cost – depriving children of other, more productive, activities – and presents other risks, including cyberbullying, lack of exercise and poor sleep. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly half of all teens have been harassed or bullied online.
- Climate Change: Research increasingly finds that children “exhibit high levels of concern” over climate change, and being displaced by natural disasters, tacking on another source of anxiety as they become more aware of the world around them.
Even without changing schools, these factors only add to what is already a stressful environment for children. Research used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that “Nearly one in seven children aged 2 to 8 years in the United States has a mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder.” And less than two years ago, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory to highlight the urgent need to address the mental health crisis impacting the nation’s youth.
Health professionals may diminish the impact school changes can have on kids’ health.
While the mental health impact of changing schools is unique to each child, the most common factors that emerge include bullying, academic pressure, the challenge of finding new friends, and peer pressure to engage in risky behaviors like drug use or sexual activity – all of which can fundamentally impact their overall wellbeing. While symptoms may vary, several are common and include refusing to go to school or clinginess, new physical symptoms, late or missing homework, refraining from group work or answering questions in class and even disruptive behavior.
Kids who experience these factors while changing schools often experience loneliness, academic failure, or other challenges like addiction and binge behaviors. In more severe circumstances, it can lead to suicidal ideation, which is the second leading cause of death among kids ages 15 to 19 and the leading cause for kids ages 14 to 15.
Regrettably, some healthcare professionals may write off the stress of changing schools as a small development that resilient children can quickly adjust to or misattribute children’s stress to more general depression and anxiety. These assumptions can result either in no care or in quickly moving to prescribing a medication instead of addressing the underlying issues that could require therapy or environmental adjustments and consultations with parents, school counselors, and others.
We can all help kids effectively address the mental stress of changing schools.
As with all challenges, solutions begin with knowledge. As practitioners and professionals, we can help children, their parents, educators and school personnel effectively address the mental health impact of changing schools. The CDC offers an exceptional overview that is great reading at this time of year when so many kids find themselves in a new setting. Some of the most noteworthy recommendations I stress in my work include:
- Remember to ask if the child recently changed schools;
- Acknowledge stressors like making new friends that may occur, as well as more general sources of anxiety like social media and cyberbullying;
- Discuss the stress of changing schools and provide kids with strategies that enable them to cope with it and their worries about it;
- Make sure the child has a structured, predictable daily routine;
- Make sure parents follow the best way to separate from their child at the start of the school day; and
- Treat changing schools as a fundamental factor in kids’ mental health.
It is essential that we never lose sight of school’s direct impact on the mental health of children. The importance of getting them care quickly cannot be overstressed.
Dr. Caroline Carney
Dr. Caroline Carney is the president of behavioral health and the chief medical officer of Magellan Health, a company focused on improving the quality and delivery of behavioral healthcare. An active clinician, she is board-certified in both psychiatry and internal medicine. Prior to joining Magellan, Dr. Carney served as the medical director for the Indiana Office of Medicaid Policy and Planning, where she helped to launch the Medicaid expansion product as well as the behavioral health transformation for the state’s community mental health services and served on the Governor’s Mental Health Commission. Earlier, she was a tenured associate professor of Internal Medicine and Psychiatry at Indiana University, where she developed the psychosocial oncology program for the university’s NCI accredited cancer center. Dr. Carney earned her medical and master’s degrees at the University of Iowa.