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When Children Move

In the poor rural areas of upstate New York where I worked as a superintendent, it was not uncommon for a child to have moved several times during his elementary schooling.  Typically the moves were within a 50-mile radius.  Children of poverty were more likely to be transient. Parents lost jobs or separated and moved in with family members.  Sometimes families were evicted; other times the move was a response to pressure from the school or other social agencies regarding the welfare of the child.

Suitcase  Evidence that moving frequently has a negative effect on a child’s progress is plentiful.  Although schools throughout the area are generally aligned in terms of curriculum, children are sometimes withdrawn from one school and not re-enrolled until weeks later in another.  Support services are lost or delayed.  Relationships with adults and peers are tentative.  After all, if a child has moved 3 times before fifth grade, she is less likely to commit fully to her present situation.

Now a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that the negative effects of frequent mobility can endure well past elementary school.  The study followed over 7,000 adults for 10 years and found that the more children moved, the lower their well-being as adults even including higher rates of mortality.  Lead researcher Shigehiro Oishi, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, notes that the negative effects of mobility are particularly hard on introverts; extroverts seem to fare better. 

Frederick Medway, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, cites other factors that can determine how difficult a move is for a child.  For example, if a move is the result of divorce or foreclosure, adult unhappiness can add to the child’s discomfort.

These findings will not come as a surprise to teachers and administrators who have observed the phenomenon in school performance.  Children who frequently move are often assigned outsider status by their peers in the early grades because they lack a common history with their classmates. 

Children from military families are less likely to encounter difficulties with moves, according to Professor Medway, because the military helps ease the transition.  If the child is enrolled in a military school, he has company. 

Given this information, shouldn’t we consider what we do to help transient children become integrated into our schools?  Besides making sure they have a desk and materials, is anyone keeping special watch over them so that they don’t become invisible?  After all, the negative effects of transition can last a (shortened) lifetime.


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