One of the biggest challenges about military life is the frequent moving after new orders come through, when we must pack up, leave friends who became family, and start all over again.
As hard as it is for us as adults, it’s even more difficult for our kids. From kindergarten through high school they must constantly readjust from another transition into a new school in another new city, leaving everything they had just gotten used to. Oftentimes, during the middle of the school year.
The angst of it all can be downright overwhelming, but with these insightful tips from three teachers, who are mothers and military spouses like the rest of us, you will be sure to have a smooth transition.
Well, as smooth as possible anyway.
1. Be organized.
As a busy mom, experienced teacher, supportive milspo, and doctoral student, Jennifer Ellis believes staying organized is always top priority whether your family is moving over the summer or in the middle of the school year. Having recently survived her eighth PCS move, from Arizona to Georgia with five kids, she has become quite the expert.
“Make sure all of your paperwork is in order and with you during the move,” says Jennifer. “School withdrawal paperwork, report cards, high school transcripts, IEP and 504 documentation, shot records, birth certificates, and social security cards need to be easily accessible.”
Many of us have experienced the PCS nightmare of not receiving all of our goods at the same time, or items getting lost. Losing these documents is definitely not worth the gamble! Author of Talk to the Teacher and founder of MilKids, an online education consulting resource, Meg Flanagan agrees it’s important to get your child’s school paperwork in order, as soon as possible.
This may also mean requesting copies of the most recent standardized tests, progress reports and a letter from their current teacher or coach. “They can offer academic or extracurricular insights that will make it easier for the new school to best meet your child’s needs,” says Meg.
2. Do your research.
Amy Trimble, who has been married for 20 years and is working on a Master’s degree in teaching special education, believes social media is a friend. No matter where you’re going, there are sure to be multiple local Facebook pages to scope out.
“Ask to join them all,” says Amy. “Weed out the best ones over the next few days or a week and start searching past posts for things like best restaurants, hair dressers, children’s activities, family activities, and schools. You will be surprised how fast you can get a feel for the area by using social media.”
Meg suggests reaching out to your School Liaison Officer (SLO) at your new duty station. Through her personal experience as a teacher and milspo, she has uncovered essential tools for busy parents who want to build a better parent/teacher team at their child’s school.
“The SLO can help direct you to local schools but can’t give input about which school is the best fit for your family,” says Meg. “Spend some time online checking out the school ranking sites (such as Greatschools.org). Make sure to read the reviews and contact each potential school personally.”
Jennifer agrees that she and her husband are diligent about finding their new home in a good school district. “You don’t want to pick the perfect house, just to realize that your children will be in schools that are subpar or unsafe,” she says. “Keep in mind that many districts now have open enrollment, which means if they have open seats in a school within your district, you can apply to take your child there as long as you provide transportation. This is an excellent option for some families.”
3. Communicate with your kids and maintain a familiar routine.
No one likes uncertainty, regardless of age. “Ask your kids what questions they have, let them talk and really listen,” advises Amy. Get out a map and show them where you’re going, encouraging conversation. How long will it take to get there, what will the weather be like, will you spend time with extended family on the way?
“The more they talk, the better you can help them transition,” says Amy. “Use this gift of time together, even if it’s just a short 10-14 days, and visit someplace on your bucket list. Who knows when you will ever have the opportunity again!”
Jennifer adds that setting up familiar routines in your household will also help your kids feel better settled. “I have found that our routines are altered after a PCS due to changes in work and school,” she says. “The faster you can establish the routines that your household will follow, the smoother the transition will be for everyone.”
4. Do a drop in.
Every time Amy’s family has moved in the middle of a school year, she registers her kids one day and has them start the next. “The secret?” she asks, “Have them come with you and ask for an informal tour. Schools are used to military folks coming in at all times of the year, and I’ve yet to be told no.
Amy recalls enrolling her daughter in second grade, the day before Christmas break. The school secretary had offered a tour and took them to meet the teacher, and it turned out she was a classmate of Amy’s during high school! Of course, both of her kids started the new year without hesitation. “It still gives me goosebumps when I recall that day!”
Since military families miss out on back to school activities when they PCS mid-school year, Meg agrees that is it very important to create a connection by requesting a meeting with your child’s teacher as soon as possible.
“Give your next school a head’s up that you’re coming and provide a tentative enrollment date if you can,” says Meg. “Let them know about any special circumstances, like education plans, in advance. This can help them to make adjustments before you ever arrive. Moving a child with an IEP requires extra time and advocacy. You’ll want to get their IEP and testing in order well before you move. Keep it friendly and focus on sharing information, and make sure to hand carry everything!”
5. Unpack the kids first.
There is nothing we all miss more than sleeping in our own bed during a move, perhaps it’s the familiar sheets! The first thing Amy wants to do when their household goods arrive is make her bed and unpack the kitchen. However, she says unpacking the kids’ stuff first and getting them settled is the way to go.
“Once the kids are unpacked, they can head to school and come home to a space that is their own,” says Amy. “This allows them to feel settled and allows you to keep unpacking boxes.”
6. Stay involved with the new school.
Military kids face difficult daily challenges that most other kids do not. As a teacher, Jennifer has observed that most military students are well-rounded and adjust well to new environments. However, some do not, and she says both teachers and parents need to remain supportive as these students attempt to fit in to their new schools and communities.
“Unless you are fortunate enough to move during the summer military children tend to come into new schools during times where they have to catch up fast, and unfortunately if you move into a large military community, teachers have “revolving doors” in their classrooms, whereby new students may unintentionally fall by the wayside,” says Jennifer. “Be involved and up-to-date on school happenings so that you can lead your child and ensure that he/she settles in as quickly and painlessly as possible.”
Meg agrees that staying in touch with the school will help guarantee your child’s success and suggests sending friendly emails to the teacher as you continue to settle in. “This will help you to build a strong parent-teacher team,” she says. “You’ll be able to lean on this relationship if things get rocky.”
7. Get involved with your community and FRG.
Lucky for us, having a GPS makes it super easy to explore new areas without getting lost. Amy says when her family moves to a new location they drive around together, making it a point to drive by new schools, libraries, and restaurants.
“If you are living on post, some must-finds are the PX, commissary and of course, the 24-hour shoppette!” says Amy. “Sometimes just laying eyes on things will speed up the assimilation process.”
“Whether you are stationed at your new place for one year or three years, family involvement will be essential to helping your children settle in and feel that they are a part of their new world,” says Jennifer. “Whether it is a church, club, sport, or activity that your family enjoys doing together, find ways to get involved and help your children feel at ease and comfortable.”
As a former FRG leader, Jennifer believes it’s also just as important to connect with your spouse’s FRG. “They will involve you as much or as little as you want, but it is such a great way to stay updated and to start involving yourself with other spouses,” she says. “They understand your experiences and can connect your children with others who understand what it means to be a part of a military family.”
8. Stay positive, take your time and BREATHE!
Even if you are PCSing to choice number 38 of 38 on your preference sheet, Amy says our kids take their cues from us as parents. So, if we have nothing positive to say then neither will they!
“A PCS is always overwhelming, especially when you have school-aged children, but we always get through it,” agrees Jennifer. “Military families are resilient and bind together. Your family will be stronger, and your memories will be full of wonderful places and experiences.”
Meg says it’s important to give yourself time to settle in and get back into the swing of things. There’s no need to jump in full throttle right away!
“The best piece of advice I ever received for moving mid-year was to live in the now,” says Amy. “It is very likely you will be PCSing at holiday time, so spend time with those you are leaving. Attend all of the farewell events and concerts at the school, have that last girls’ night out. Don’t worry about the move until you get there, and you will feel a sense of peace and closure.”
Before moving to the Seattle area and founding her writing business and nonprofit Northwest Military Wives Foundation, created to inspire and connect past and present military wives in the Pacific Northwest, Kristin Bentley was the editor of the National Infantry Association’s official magazine, “The Infantry Bugler.” As well as working as a news reporter, Kristin has been a writer for many years and has found a passion is using her gift to create community by sharing other’s stories.