This time of year means Back-To-School for most kids, but for internationally mobile children it often means Start-A-New-School. A transition to a new school, country, language, and culture can be overwhelming, and children need time to adjust. Teachers and administrators can contribute to a smooth transition in many meaningful ways. The ten points outlined below can make a significant difference in the emotional and academic well-being of a child who is already dealing with all the challenges of a move. Although these points are meant for primary age children, they can be adjusted as you see fit for older children.
1. Show them where the bathroom is and give them a tour
Show them where the bathroom is within the first ten minutes of meeting them. For obvious reasons, I cannot stress how important this. When we do forget, this can be a huge source of stress for a child the first day of school! On the first day, classmates can give the new students a tour or the school. If you teach the early primary years, some older students could do this. Feeling lost emotionally on your first day at school is one thing, but to be lost literally adds a whole lot of unnecessary anxiety.
2. Find a way for them to express themselves if there is a language barrier
If the new student does not speak English or any other language that you speak, try to find another teacher or student who does. If a student is able to type, you can use Google translate or something similar, but finding a way to communicate with them is key. Also, make sure they immediately receive EAL/ESL. When new students have no previous knowledge of English whatsoever, receiving additional English support from the start provides them with the necessary foundation to begin communicating with those around them.
3. Get to know your new students
Make sure to ask questions about their family, previous home(s), school(s), and how they are experiencing their move. Sometimes the days are over before we know it, so a good alternative to conversing with new students is to give them a small journal they can take home. Every day you can jot down a few questions which they can respond to, in writing or using illustrations, at home. Not only will their responses give you insight to each new student as a person, it will also provide you with some immediate feedback on (some of) their academic strengths/weaknesses. It might also indicate if the move is causing stress. Acknowledge their emotions in a supportive way, but also make sure to communicate any concerns through the appropriate support channels within your school.
4. Learn about their academic background
Should they need learning and/or EAL/ESL support, inform all necessary parties promptly. If nothing is mentioned on their transcript, it never hurts to check with the administration and the parents in the first week of school. Parents with children with special needs may have very useful ideas and tools for modifications that worked well in a previous school. A transition can be challenging for any student, but when a student falls between the cracks academically, it will be even more difficult.
5. Make sure the other kids get to know the new students
A new school year usually means a round of get-to-know-you games. In a bigger school, classes might get mixed around and even though the students already know of each other, many of them do not necessarily know all of their classmates. Finding out they’re not the only one who doesn’t know their classmates can be a relief for a new student. Nevertheless, don’t underestimate how much more a new student needs to adjust in those first days. If a new student is willing to share, encourage them to do a Show & Tell/ or PowerPoint presentation with pictures or other items that help explain where they are from, what their background is, and what their interests are. This will not only give them an opportunity to connect with their classmates, but it could also contribute to the global awareness of all the students, foster open-mindedness, and mutual appreciation.
6. Give the other students a chance to help them
In turn, have the other students make a list of things a new student should know about the school/area/after-school activities. Also, put a buddy system in place. Assign a couple of classmates to each new student and ask them to involve them during playtime at recess, sit with them during lunch, and walk with them to any other classes. Try to gauge if the students you paired up connect in any way. If not, match them with some others the next day. This will also give the new student the opportunity to get to know other classmates a little faster.
7. Explain school rules, procedures, routines, and expectations
Most of the time, these will be reviewed with the whole class at the beginning of the school year. However, some rules, procedures, routines, and expectations that may seem clear to your school culture might not be so obvious to a new student. This could cause some serious misunderstandings, so make sure to be patient with them the first couple of weeks. Also, go over emergency and lock-down procedures early on in the year. Given the change and/or lack of many daily routines during a transition, new students will most likely be grateful for a classroom routines. However, they need to be given clear explanations of what is expected of them and possibly additional time to get used to them.
8. Put up a wall of fame
Create a wall of pictures in your classroom of other people they will be seeing often. For example, the principal, vice-principal, their PE/art/music/drama teachers, the school librarian, the school nurse, and any other support staff they might interact with. So many faces, so many names! A visual reminder without having to ask can be helpful for everyone, even returning students.
9. Connect with the parents
Most likely, the parents are super busy trying to settle in. Should you not see them during the first orientation days or a parent information meeting at the beginning of the year, a friendly line from their child’s teacher usually is very much appreciated. Also, an ‘Open House’ at the beginning of the year gives new parents an opportunity to meet the other parents and often triggers many first play-dates. Should they express any concern about their transition, make them aware of any in-school counseling available.
10. Give new students a story to identify with
It is absolutely wonderful to see a growing list of resources about third culture kids (TCKs) available for parents and educators (please click here for a list). With B at Home: Emma Moves Again, I hope to give younger TCKs (in particular 8-11 age group) a story they can identify with while they experience their own move and search for ‘home’ and ‘belonging’. Also, I would like to encourage them to enjoy a passage in life that can be such a rewarding and enriching journey. By giving your students a story they can identify with and relate to, you can make it easier for them to express themselves about their own experience.
Over the past nine years, Valérie has been a primary school teacher at five different international schools on four different continents. Valérie is also the author of the recently published children’s book B at Home: Emma Moves Again. It is a fictional “memoir” about the experiences of a ten-year-old girl and her teddy bear who have to move yet again. During the different stages of another relocation, Emma’s search for home takes root. As the chapters alternate between Emma’s and her bear’s point of view, Emma is emotionally torn whereas B serves as the wiser and more experienced voice of reason. For more information on her book and the topic of Third Culture Kids, please visit her website.
This article was first published in International School Community.