When children change schools in elementary school, dips in academic performance and classroom participation can follow. But having a supportive teacher who encourages other students to accept newcomers can go a long way toward helping children make a smooth transition.
That's the conclusion of a new longitudinal study that found that moving during 2nd to 5th grade can lead to declines in academic performance and classroom participation, but is not always accompanied by declines in attitudes toward school.
The study, conducted by researchers at Western Washington University and the University of Washington, appears in the November/December 2008 issue of the journal Child Development. It seeks to expand our understanding of how moving during the elementary school years may contribute to disengagement with school just before the significant changes of adolescence.
"Our findings support the notion that school changes can negatively affect children, but we also show that supportive social contact with a teacher and peers can influence both academic and behavioral outcomes," according to Diana H. Gruman, assistant professor of psychology at Western Washington University and the study's lead author. "We suggest that teachers can play a critical role in mitigating the negative effects of mobility through their own caring response and by addressing the peer acceptance of newcomers in the classroom."
Researchers followed 1,040 elementary school students for four years to determine how moving disrupts children's attitudes toward school and their behavior in the classroom, such as how much they participate and whether they are cooperative. Although work in this area has been hampered by the difficulties involved in maintaining contact with students who move, the researchers in this study were able to keep in touch with 94 percent of the students. Many children who move also experience other stressors, such as poverty and divorce, but the study separated out those stressors.
The researchers found that not all mobile students suffer negative consequences. In an effort to identify protective factors, they looked at the role of students' ties with teachers and peers at school. They found that children who are accepted by their peers are more likely to do well academically and have better attitudes toward school.
But perhaps the most important factor in the equation was that of the teacher: Teachers who were supportive of mobile students had an especially strong influence on their attitudes toward school, particularly for children who moved a lot. In addition, teacher support had a positive influence on children's behavior in the classroom.
The findings have implications for educators, suggest the researchers. They call for effective interventions for students who transfer to include intensive tutoring to address any academic deficits children may have. They also recommend teacher training to raise awareness of the hardships faced by mobile students and encourage caring responses that address peer acceptance in the classroom.
The study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Summarized from Child Development, Vol. 79, Issue 6, Longitudinal Effects of Student Mobility on Three Dimensions of Elementary School Engagement by Gruman, DH (Western Washington University), Harachi, TW, Abbott, RD, Catalano, RF, and Fleming, CB (University of Washington). Copyright 2008 The Society for Research in Child Development, Inc. All rights reserved.