Every September, I greet a new class of incoming preschoolers, happily looking forward to a year of teaching them what they'll need to know for kindergarten. Yet I also feel a little pang, knowing that there will be at least one or two children who won't be in the class by the end of June. It's just one of those realities of life, but I can't help wondering what happens to a child's brain when they move during the school year.
Only 11 percent of the U.S. population moved residences last year, according to stats quoted by Move.org. That still comes out to a substantial 35.5 million people who pack up and change addresses, plus, some 6.5 million kids a year change schools, said Education Week. Sometimes, that goes along with a move, though this stat also includes kids who transfer to private schools or a different school within their district.
It's difficult enough for us adults to pull up stakes and establish ourselves in a new home, neighborhood, or region. But it's even tougher on a child; remember, they're the ones who go into a meltdown if you serve Cheerios instead of Froot Loops for breakfast. But understanding what goes on in their brain during a move can make it easier to help your child adjust.
1. Higher Levels Of Stress Hormones Are Released
Moving is nothing if not stressful, for children as well as adults, and that stress can take its toll. As the University of Georgia explained, when we're under stress, the brain releases the "stress hormone" known as cortisol. This isn't a problem under normal circumstances, but when the stress is prolonged, the extra cortisol can take its toll on the immune system. So your child may be prone to catching cold right after a big move. Pack some extra oranges in their lunchbox, and make sure they get enough sleep.
2. The Mind Goes Into Grief Mode
Moving in the middle of a school year uproots children not only from the home they know, but also from the school friends they may have had for years. For a child, this unexpected separation is similar to a death, school counselor Bridget Hartnagel told Baltimore Life. And by mapping brain activity, researchers have discovered that when we grieve, the brain increases activity along the neural pathways that controls mood, memory, perception and other functions, explained Psychology Today. This can lead us to dwell on our losses and suffer lingering sadness. So if you're moving, be prepared to offer your child lots of comfort, along with assurances that they'll make friends at their new school.
A long-term study of volunteers ages 20 to 75 found that the more times the participants moved as children, the more difficult it was for them to develop good social relationships as adults. The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, noted that people who were naturally introverted tended to fare worst socially as a result of frequent moves. If your child is shy or introverted, you may want to seek out local playgroups, sports leagues, or other social outlets in your new location after a move.
3. The Brain Loses Focus
Not long ago, a news-making study from Boston College studied nearly 20,000 children and compared children who had moved frequently in their lives with ones who hadn't. Lead researcher Rebekah Levine Coley discovered that elementary and early teen children who frequently moved showed temporary decreases in their reading and math skills, reported Science Daily.
What accounts for the drop in school performance? A study published in the journal Nature Communications may hold a clue. Neuroscientists discovered that the portion of your brain that makes you stop moving when something startling happens also affects your cognitive abilities. In other words, your child may find it hard to concentrate on schoolwork when they're coping with the unexpected stresses of moving. With that in mind, parents may want to offer extra homework support when their child enters a new school.
4. The Fight-Or-Flight Response Is Activated
The Boston College study also found that for younger children, moving frequently was associated with increases in emotional and behavior problems, an effect that lasted "for years." Anxiety could very well be to blame: As the Child Mind Institute explained, when faced with an anxious or stressful situation, the brain responds with a fight-or-flight reaction. For a small child who may not be able to verbalize their feelings, that reaction often manifests as tantrums, shyness, fearfulness, or acting out.
5. Their Brain May Make Them Believe They're Hearing Things
Moving frequently appears to have a greater impact on children than changing homes just once or twice in the early years. In fact, according to one study, frequent moves may increase a child's risk for psychotic symptoms. British mental health researcher Dr. Swaran Singh and colleagues looked at a long-term study of nearly 14,000 children whose mental and physical health had been tracked over 13 years. They found that kids who had changed schools more than three times before age 12 were substantially more likely to experience such symptoms as hearing voices, hallucinating, or believing their minds were controlled.
Singh suggested that this worrisome effect could be caused by the stress of adjusting to a new social environment. "Repeated experiences of being defeated in social situations leads to changes in the brain and in the dopaminergic system," he told Time. But while this sounds pretty dire, it's not a reason to panic or to cancel your moving plans. The children in the study saw their symptoms fade away over time.
The bottom line: Moving can be a positive thing for families, particularly if it means an improvement in finances or way of life. But it can have an emotional impact on children, who thrive on stability, and whose social lives can be affected by changing schools. So if a move is in your future, be sure to prepare your kids well in advance, and watch for signs that they may be having a difficult time adjusting.
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