by Diane Wiltshire

Children and parents alike tend to feel a bit anxious at the start of a new school year, not only about the academic challenges ahead, but also the social scene, too. Whether your children are adjusting to a new school or moving up to the next grade, during the first few weeks they may worry about fitting in and finding friends.

All parents want happiness for their children, and social acceptance is a critical factor at any age. With a little time and effort, parents can create opportunities for their chil­dren to develop friendships as well as teach them social skills for being well liked among their peers.

If you are new in town, arrange to meet your child’s teacher before school starts and maintain a dialogue as the school year progresses. It’s a good idea to mention your child’s strengths as well as the areas that need support; one of our chil­dren is extremely shy and we made sure the teachers were aware of this. If possible, ask the teacher or home­room parent for names of other stu­dents that your child can get togeth­er with so that she will see a few familiar faces on that first day.

As soon as school begins, request a contact sheet for your child’s class; school directories may not be published for a couple of months. Try to invite a different classmate for a playdate each week until you see your child begin to develop friendships on his own.

Parental involvement can make a huge difference in how well your child adjusts to new situations and how confident he feels socially and academically. Studies show that children whose parents are active members of the school community’ are inspired to do well and have stronger academic records. I am always eager to volunteer for class­room activities or field trips for another reason: it gives me a chance to watch my kids in action. If they are having difficulty with friends, I can often see why and help them sort out the issue later.

Over the years the children and I have had many conversations about bullies and cliques; they know I don’t have all the answers, but talk­ing keeps the communication lines open.

Another advantage to assisting at school is that the other kids will figure out whose mom or dad you are; this was always a source of pride to my children when they were young, but as they’ve gotten older, it’s not quite as thrilling for them. No matter what the ages of our children, whenever we are the new family in town, I try to take a group of kids on special outings several times a year. Sometimes it’s a sleepover at our house or a trip to the movies or sled­ding on a special hill.

There is something about the camaraderie of having fun together that makes all of the children com­fortable with one another, even our shyest child can relax and not be so self-conscious. On these outings we take photos of everyone and make plenty of copies to hand out later. This picture-taking habit has helped us remember good times and friends from long ago.

Just recently my older son’s best friend from kindergarten through fourth grade in Tokyo showed up at our house. We hadn’t seen him since he moved to Europe in 7th grade, and both boys are now 16. It turns out that each had kept the photos of their adventures together and they enjoyed re-telling the stories behind the pictures.

So now you’ve done everything on the list: met with the teacher, become involved in the school, talked to your kids, arranged for playdates; is there anything else that will help your child fit in? Actually, there is one area where, unfortunately, children can be quite judgmental about each other: who looks cool and who doesn’t.

If you have a child who is clueless about fashion, help him to dress the part and look as much like the other kids as possible. This advice may be more pertinent for families who move from country to country where styles vary greatly. Even in schools where uniforms are required, we dis­covered that there are certain “in” ways to dress. My younger son, who has been hip to fashion trends since he was 4, noticed right away in his new school last year that the cool kids never wore blue shirts with their neckties, only white ones with the sleeves rolled up.

I was a bit exasperated as we had bought an equal number of regula­tion blue and white shirts, but I real­ized that fitting in was more impor­tant for him; as a result the blue shirts are still hanging in his closet and he’s made a smooth transition into the social scene at school.