As a new school year begins many students will be changing schools. Often the change is due to advancing grades, but students may also be switching schools for a host of other reasons ranging from a family move to expulsion to reentry after hospitalization (Rumberger, 2015). Switching schools for a reason other than grade advancement is referred to as student mobility and students who experience mobility may have unique needs that make it difficult for them to adjust to a new school (Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, 2004). In order for these students to successfully adapt, it is important that the schools they are entering help them feel welcome, safe, and supported (Adelman & Taylor, 2015a).
Research suggests that students experiencing mobility are more likely to demonstrate several negative outcomes, including lower levels of proficiency, behavioral problems, and an increased likelihood of dropping out (Comey, Litschwartz, & Pettit, 2012; Folds & Tanner, 2014; Rumberger, 2015; Voight, Shinn, & Nation, 2011). To make matters worse, students who are already more likely to feel marginalized as a result of things like race, poverty, homelessness, and involvement in the foster care system are also more likely to experience mobility (Eadie et al., 2013), adding one more barrier to overcome. Student mobility also affects more than the student – it affects the school as a whole. Schools with high levels of student mobility perform worse than schools with stable populations (Comey, Litschwartz, & Pettit, 2012; Eddy, 2011; Bradbury, Burke, & Triest, 2014). Despite all of this, research suggests that highly mobile students can demonstrate outstanding resilience when it comes to academics if given support (Cutuli et al., 2013).
What can be done? Like many efforts to improve supports and outcomes for students, schools benefit from developing a multi-tiered response in order to reduce and effectively respond to challenges created by student mobility (Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA, 2007). Universal approaches benefit all students and should be incorporated into the school or classroom. Some examples of universal practices include hanging welcome signs in and outside of the school (bonus points for using multiple languages!), sending home welcome packets, and incorporating student, staff, and teacher greeters outside of school (Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA, n.d.). For students identified as needing more support with transitioning, more specific responses may be necessary. Some examples of these more selective supports include reaching out to the students’ families, pairing new students with peer-buddies, developing a transition plan with new students, providing a contact person for them to ask questions or share concerns, and regularly checking in with the students to make sure they are adjusting well (Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA, n.d.). Administrators from the previous school can also support transitioning students by creating a student profile packet to be given to the students’ new schools. Communication between schools is especially critical for students with IEPs who are transitioning (NCSET, 2012). As with anything, it is important to evaluate how well supports for mobile students are working. This can be done by tracking the progress of new students, scheduling regular meetings or phone calls with the student and their family to understand their perspective, surveying mobile students and their families, and adapting strategies based on results (Adelman & Taylor, 2015b).
Change is hard even in the best of circumstances, but with the right structures in place, schools and families can help mitigate the effects of student mobility.