Better to Move Schools in 5th or 6th Grade?

Possibly not hypothetical question: We are starting to consider a move to a community about 30 minutes away. It would be a change of schools for both kids. The older one would be joining at either 7th or 8th grade, socially difficult either way but presumably not a lot of difference between the two grades, at a middle school that starts at 6th. The younger one would be starting either 5th (last year of elementary school) or 6th (first year of middle school). The middle school combines 3-4 elementary schools, so there's a lot of mixing at that time, but she'd be going in cold, knowing nobody in a school of 1000 kids, and that sounds like a very lonely way to start. Perhaps it would be better to try to push up the move so she gets to start cold in a class of 30 for a year? It's virtually impossible for me and my husband to gauge this, as we haven't moved as a family and neither of us grew up moving across school districts. To complicate things, the younger child is pretty shy, and will certainly struggle during the transition no matter what. I'd appreciate any thoughts from parents whose kids have been through this.

Parent Replies

New responses are no longer being accepted.

I have kids in 6th and 8th grade right now at a massive middle school.  I would make the transition beginning 6th grade so that only has to transition once.  5th grade friends aren't necessarily 6th grade friends.  Good luck! 

We went through this with my daughter this year. She unexpectedly had the chance to transfer into a better school district for fifth grade, and we decided to go for it instead of waiting a year and transferring her in for sixth grade. While I felt at the time that it was not ideal to pull her out of the school where she'd been since kindergarten and have her miss her last year with her friends, and she was really upset initially, I am now sooooo glad we did not wait until sixth to move her. The new school district has three elementary schools feeding into one middle school, so similar situation to yours, and she has already made good friends at her new school who will be going with her into sixth. I think the social transition into a smaller elementary school in fifth grade, especially for a more introverted kid, is going to end up being way easier than the social transition into a bigger middle school. So, I'd strongly recommend switching schools for fifth grade if you can, even if it doesn't at first blush seem like the most logical time to transition! I really worried about switching my daughter at that juncture, but with the benefit of hindsight I would 100% do it again. 

If you have a chance to move at 5th grade, I would do that. We moved our son in 6th grade to a 1000-person middle school that combined five elementary schools in a new town. He survived just fine, but he found that, in 6th grade, all the kids split off into factions based on which elementary school they attended. At that age, most kids didn't seem to have the social confidence to break out on their own and find new groups. So he was always the 'new kid' and never really made close friends. He still enjoyed his time there, and found people to hang out with at lunch, etc, but compared to a friend's daughter who made the same move in 5th grade, he made fewer real friends. I think elementary school is an easier place to make friends, and knowing people before entering a huge middle school would be a benefit. (For what it's worth, my older son started in 9th grade and that was easier, as kids in high school seem mature enough to make new friends.) Good luck!

I'd vote for the move for the younger one to start in 5th grade. We did that for our daughter. She made friends that could go with her into middle school (6th-8th grade). Although the middle schools are large, just knowing a couple of people give some peace of mind. Another benefit is for you as a parent to understand this new school system better: whether your child needs to register in spring of 5th grade for some elective in 6th grade; whether she needs to take some placement test in spring of 5th grade for 6th grade placement; and to meet other parents in the new district. Every time we switch school districts, it's not just a change for our kids, but for us as parents to learn the new policies, who's who, what/which schools have what, after/before school options, etc. My kids have been in 3 different school districts for elementary/middle school and that requires getting up to speed fast. If you're reluctant to move them midway through middle school, could you move for the younger one (whether at 5th or 6th grade) and at all possible for the older one to continue/finish in her old school for 7th-8th and commute? 30 minutes commute is pretty normal for the Bay Area. Finally, kids are pretty strong. If you have a positive outlook with the move and setup some play dates in advance before school starts, everything will be fine.

I went through this as a kid, moving school districts. One move was disastrous; one went really well.

A lot depends on the culture of the place you are moving to: extracurricular activities, achievement, what people value, what the school emphasizes, and how much the values of the new community mesh with your values. That will determine a great deal about how smoothly the transition goes. It's much easier for a shy person to make friends among 30 kids as opposed to 1,000, but it's also hard to come into a bunch of established friendships and cliques where it matters if your family owns a Jaguar (for example). 

In your place I'd investigate the kind of group activities that might work for your kids (music, horseback riding, scouts, 4H, science club, swimming, ballet, etc.) and get them into a SUMMER camp or program before the school year in the new district. That way they'd come into the school year having met other kids and feeling more confident. And then continue them during the school year with some sort of extra-curricular activity. I'd also suggest you and your husband join the PTA, join bookclubs, go to YMCA classes, join a church/synagogue/etc., do whatever you can to meet other parents and start to get a feel for the community.

If there is a local youth organization unit (scouting etc) that your kids can join before starting school, then there could be a few familiar faces upon entering middle school and you might get to know some of the parents too.  Some middle schools host a short boot camp (small day camp) before 6th grade begins and that allows for some potential new friendships or at least familiar faces.  We went through this process recently and our older daughter has been very lucky in meeting same-aged kids who live around us through the boot camp, who then introduced her to other kids, some of whom ended up in her classes.  At the elementary level, some schools will arrange for a play date before the start of school, one-on-one, with a child who will be in the same class as your own.  This is the ideal scenario but I hear of plenty of kids doing the school shuffle a week or more into the school year, including myself as a child.  While it is disorienting and one might not get one's first choice (or any choice) of a band instrument, plenty of kids go through this process every academic year and I personally have no scars to show for it.  I was really happy with the new school and glad that we moved... then and now.  YMMV, especially if a particular cohort in a given year is less friendly, but I think that is the exception and out of one's control regardless of when you make the move.

Speaking as a former shy kid myself who changed schools pretty much every year during elementary school, I would rather have finished out 5th grade with my friends and then started a new school for 6th, when everyone else was also new and mixing and looking for friends - 6th grade is kind of like freshman year of college, when everyone gets reshuffled and is open to meeting new people. Coming in at the end of elementary school (which I did) meant encountering a whole ecosystem of kids who'd known each other since kindergarten and all their ingrained friendships and cliques and baggage and trying to find a place for myself there - as well as leaving all my own friends behind at my old school. I would much rather have waited until 6th grade to move if it had been an option. Bonus advice: Find an activity in middle school that comes a built-in peer group - sports, student council, school newspaper, scouting, band, knitting club, whatever moves her and it will go a long way towards helping a shy kid meet people and settle in.

As you say, it might not make too much of a difference, but I would say the sooner you can do it the better. Speaking from my own experience, we moved across the country after 5th grade in a district where elementary went through 6th grade, to a district where 6th grade was the first year of middle school. It was an extremely traumatic move. I'll never know if it would have been easier had we done it the year before, but I would think that having made a few friends at the elementary school would have helped. That said, it was a long time ago and it was across the country.  And you do just never know. We have friends who moved before 6th and 3rd grade, and the 3rd grader had a much harder time adjusting than the middle schooler -- so it also depends on the peer group you're moving into and how different the two schools are. I wish you the best of luck. We moved 2+ plus years ago before 3rd and 1st from SF to Berkeley and the kids now say they are happy we live here (after about 1.5 years of saying they wished we still lived in SF).

I would suggest timing your move so your child is joining her new school in 6th grade. Middle school is a time of huge transition anyway, and from my observation, it is a lot easier to make new friends in 6th grade (when lots of the 6th grade friend groups are changing/transitioning anyway), than to try to infiltrate a well-established friend group in 5th grade, where many of the kids have known each other since Kindergarten. If the class is 30 kids that means only 15 or so of them will be girls and that can be tough.

We moved when kids entered 6th and 1st grades.  Our middle school is 6th-8th.  For sure it is easier to move in 5th grade because the teachers are still willing to do some social integration then, and there is only one main teacher in 5th grade.  Our older went into 6th not knowing anyone at all, but the teachers had no idea that he didn't know anyone at all.  Because it was 3 elementary schools funneling into the school, no one knew he was new.  It was not fun.  Also if you move in 5th grade and you play any sports, then you get a chance to meet a dozen families and kids on each team, and it is at least someone to say 'hi' to in middle school.  Or anything, summer camps, church, etc.  That's actually how my 6th grade kid met some people, on his soccer team.