An Exit Interview Helps Kids PCS

Leaving school

Many schools serving military families provide new students with a warm welcome when they enroll. They may even link them up with other students or monitor their transition into the school in other ways.

Not many schools give the same level of attention to students when it comes time for them to transfer out. This can also be a stressful time for children, filled with anxiety over whether they’ll make friends at the new school, whether they’ll be familiar with material being taught in their new classes and whether they’ll be able to maintain their current friendships.

Parents, while trying to calm any fears their children might have, are also likely to be uncertain about the next phase in their children’s education.

One practice that schools could use to address such “what next” questions for both students and parents is to schedule an exit interview -- a chance for educators, parents and the child to review exactly where students are academically, socially and emotionally and to discuss any important issues that might require attention as students enter a new school.

This practice is recommended in the "Military Family’s Parent Guide for Supporting Your Child in School,"one of four books published as part of Building Capacity in Military-Connected Schools at the University of Southern California.

Building Capacity is a four-year partnership between the USC School of Social Work and eight military-connected school districts in San Diego and Riverside counties. Funded by a grant from the Department of Defense Education Activity, the project seeks to create a more welcoming school climate for military families, monitor health and behavior issues among military students (compared to their civilian peers) and implement evidence-based and community-grown practices that could also be used in other schools serving military students.

An exit interview -- meeting or calling a teacher or school counselor before the move -- signifies that changing schools is another major event in the life of a military child. An exit interview can signify that both parents and educators want it to go as smooth as possible.

Below are some questions that parents might have about such an interview as well as some suggestions for how to approach the conversation.

Should my child be present at the exit interview?

An exit interview should be viewed just like another parent-teacher conference. A lot of schools now invite or even expect students to be a part of these meetings, especially at the middle and high school level. But this aspect should also be left up to the discretion of parents and teachers. It’s possible they want to discuss something without the child present. It’s also possible that the student prefers not to be there and would prefer to just hear the parent’s account of what was discussed. But this meeting can also be a chance for a child to share what they liked best about attending the school, which practices were most helpful and whether there are any rules or policies they feel are unfair to military students.

If I have more than one child, should an exit interview be scheduled for each one of them?

Each child experiences the move to a new school in a different way. And just because a child sailed through a previous move with little trouble doesn’t mean that the next move will go equally as well. If possible, it is recommended that parents review how each of their children are doing in school with teachers or counselors. It’s also possible, however, that a parent has had ongoing communication with their children’s teachers throughout the year and only a brief recap of key issues might be necessary.

How should I prepare?

Whether or not the child is going to attend the meeting, parents should talk to their children beforehand and let them know that the primary purpose of the conference is to make sure they are ready to be successful in their next school. Parents should also come with some specific questions in mind, such as whether there are any subjects in which their children are struggling or whether there are any particular study habits that could be improved. Parents might appreciate teachers being ready to suggest websites where students can get some extra practice or keep their skills sharp. This might be especially critical if the move is occurring during the academic year and students are going to miss school days in the process. Both parents and teachers can also prepare by viewing the website(s) of the school and district to which the child is moving.

Is my child at a grade-level transition point?

If the move is occurring for a child between elementary and middle school or between middle and high school, it might be especially important to discuss how prepared the child is for that big step. Do students have the organizational skills they need to start middle school off in a positive way? With all the other confusion that can sometimes occur with a family move, it’s important for the child to have materials they need for school and a system for making sure assignments are turned in on time. If a student is entering high school, the discussion can focus on the graduation requirements for that state and perhaps what extracurricular activities the school might offer. If the student is already in high school, it’s important to review the courses the child has already taken and whether they are on track for the expectations in that state.

It might also be wise for both the parent and the teacher to determine whether the state the family is moving to has adopted the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children. The goal of the compact is to eliminate some of the barriers that exist for military students when they change schools and includes provisions such as accepting credits for comparable courses if an exact match is not listed on a transcript and allowing students to remain eligible for sports even if they have missed tryouts. Forty-three states have now adopted the compact, but implementation at the local district level varies significantly. It’s possible that schools are still unaware that the compact exists, and many military parents may not be familiar with the specifics of the document.

What else should we discuss?

It’s important to give as much attention to a child’s social-emotional well-being as to his or her academic needs. A child’s teacher(s) or the school counselor can offer some suggestions for how to support the child through the transition process. They can also provide advice on how and whether to approach staff in the new school if there are concerns over the child making friends, feeling depressed, or displaying other behavior that could hinder their adjustment.

Is there anything else the school can do to assist during this transition?

As the Building Capacity guidebooks describe, the administrators and staff in many military-connected schools are aware of the needs of transitioning students and are coming up with some creative strategies for welcoming new students and making those who are leaving feel special and appreciated. Some prepare small gifts or farewell messages for students who are moving away. Others continue to connect with students through Facebook or video chats. Teachers can also write letters or e-mails to the new school to share information on a child’s strengths or special interests.  

An exit interview may seem like one more thing to put on the long, long list of PCS To Dos. Yet it is a powerful strategy to help military families stay informed about their children’s progress as they move between schools. Changing schools is rarely easy for children or their parents, and sometimes learning or other issues don’t surface until a child is in a new school. But the more parents know about their children’s strengths and needs, the more support they can provide through the process.

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