The alarming impact that moving school frequently can have on students

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Research involving 6,500 children discovers a link between frequent school moves and "psychotic-like symptoms" and recommends strategies such as ‘mobility support workers’ to better protect pupils from these effects. Pete Henshaw takes a look.

Targeted strategies to support students who regularly move school could help to prevent the development of “psychotic-like symptoms” as they grow up.

A study has found that children who have moved school three times or more before the age of 12 are 60 per cent more likely to display “at least one psychotic symptom”.

These symptoms can include delusions and hallucinations and can be a pre-warning sign of psychotic disorders in adulthood.

The authors of the study suggest that moving schools often may also lead to feelings of low self-esteem and “a sense of social defeat”. They also warn that feelings of being excluded, which often come with moving school frequently, can heighten the risk of psychotic-like symptoms in vulnerable individuals.

Students who move school regularly could also be more prone to being involved with bullying, another factor that is linked to these symptoms.

The research, undertaken by a team from the University of Warwick, analysed data from almost 6,500 children, who were interviewed regularly up to the age of 12 to assess for the presence of these kind of symptoms.

It suggests that given teachers’ limited time and resources, schools may consider employing “mobility support workers” to better support these students.

Psychiatrist Professor Swaran Singh, who led the study, explained: “Changing schools can be very stressful for students. Our study found that the process of moving schools may itself increase the risk of psychotic symptoms – independent of other factors.

“But additionally, being involved in bullying, sometimes as a consequence of repeated school moves, may exacerbate risk for the individual.”

The study found that school mobility led to a 1.5 times increased risk of symptoms, while being both a bully and victim of bullying led to an 2.5 times increased risk.

As well as frequent school moves, the study also found links between psychotic symptoms and living in urban areas and with family adversity.

The paper, entitled School Mobility and Prospective Pathways to Psychotic-Like Symptoms in Early Adolescence: A Prospective Birth Cohort Study, states: “Mobility, especially when linked to school change, may hinder key developmental outcomes. The inevitable breaking of social ties may create psychosocial stress and increase the risk of antisocial behaviour, friendship problems and bully victimisation. 

“Further, children who are residentially mobile are more likely to experience a range of social adversities, including family dysfunction and financial problems, and are more likely to belong to ethnic minority groups.”

The research concludes that school mobility therefore has direct and indirect links to an increased risk of psychotic-like symptoms. It emphasises the “potential benefit of strategies to help mobile students establish themselves within new school environments”.

The report continues: “Our study demonstrates that school mobility is independently and also indirectly associated with psychotic-like symptoms via bullying involvement. While school moves may be unavoidable, involvement in bullying and isolation from peers are amenable to psychosocial interventions and may be a focus of attention for mobile students.

“Strategies to help mobile students establish themselves within new school environments may help to reduce peer difficulties, and diminish the risk of psychotic-like symptoms. Pilot schemes indicate that the addition of dedicated ‘mobility support workers’ may help mobile students successfully establish themselves within new school environments, reducing the risk of bullying involvement and other social difficulties.”

The report also recommends that awareness of mobile students as a possible high-risk population and routine inquiry regarding school changes and bullying experiences may be advisable in mental health care settings.

Dr Cath Winsper, senior research fellow at Warwick Medical School and part of the study group, added: “It’s clear that we need to keep school mobility in mind when clinically assessing young people with psychotic disorders. It should be explored as a matter of course as the impact can be both serious and potentially long-lasting. Schools should develop strategies to help these students to establish themselves in their new environment.”

The study, published in American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, used data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), popularly known as Children of the 90s cohort, a birth cohort study based in South West England. The paper can be read online at