The Psychological Effects Of Frequently Changing Schools

Changing schools creates challenges for children and adolescents. Most children change schools at least once, even if it is just their transition from primary to secondary school. Some children find themselves in new schools more often, especially if their parents move frequently for work, such as military families. Other children change schools frequently, even when their residence does not change. This could be due to a variety of reasons, including behavior or academic problems.

Regardless of the reasons behind the change, children face similar problems when they enter a school as a new student. The students must maneuver through a new social environment, learn a new routine, and make new friends. New students are often vulnerable to bullying or harmful friendships. These challenges do not only cause distress in the child at the moment; they also increase the risk of developing a mental health disorder later in life.

Study On Risk Factors

A recent study from the Warwick Medical School in the U.K., published in the journal American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, found that frequently changing schools during childhood increased the risk of adolescent psychosis by 60 percent, even when adjusted for other known risk factors. They did not find a specific direct cause and effect relationship; however, their research demonstrated that frequently moving from one school to another creates a direct and indirect increase in risk.

The data came from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and children (ALSPAC), a study examining the determinants of development, health and disease in childhood and beyond. The researchers from Warwick Medical School reviewed the data of 6,500 mothers and their children in southwest England. For the study, the researchers interviewed participants at the age of 12 about any psychotic-like symptoms, including delusions, hallucinations, and thought interference, that occurred in the previous six months, using the Psychosis-like Symptoms Interview (PLIKSi).

Psychosocial Adersities

The study also included information about known psychosocial adversities (such as urban upbringing, family adversity, and ethnicity), as well as how often the family moved, how often the child changed schools, and any peer difficulties (including bullying and difficulty with friendships). Analysis of the data showed that the participants who had moved schools three or more times had a 60 percent higher chance of having at least one psychotic symptom.

The researchers believe changing schools frequently not only has direct risks, it also indirectly contributes to mental health problems. Changing schools often can contribute to stress, anxiety, and negative feelings that could have psychological consequences, especially in those already vulnerable. For example, making new friends causes stress and anxiety for a child. High levels of stress and anxiety can lead to an anxiety disorder, depression, or other mental health problem. Having mental health problems in adolescence increases the risk of mental health problems and suicide in adulthood.

Connection To Bullying

Additionally, new kids often fall prey to bullying, which has been shown in other studies to increase the risk of developing mental health disorders. New students are also at risk of having negative friendships, which are relationships that seem like friendships but where one party constantly degrades the other. Changing schools also can lead to loneliness, isolation, and even feelings of low self-esteem and social defeat, all of which can contribute to the development of a mental illness. These feelings can also increase the chance of psychosis in adolescence. New kids at school might also feel excluded, which could sensitize the mesolimbic dopamine system, which increases the risk of psychosis.

The researchers are not using this study to suggest that parents should not move children to different schools; sometimes it is necessary. Instead, they feel this knowledge should be used by psychological professionals as part of the screening process for possible psychosis in young people. Schools and other organizations should also develop strategies that help new kids fit into the environment in order to lower their risk of developing mental health issues.

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Marissa Maldonado is a mother and has spent her career helping people of all ages. Currently she’s focused on dual diagnosis treatment at Sovereign Health Group.