When children enter school for the first time it takes a while for them to adjust to the unfamiliar culture and environment which pertains only to school. They need to settle in, get used to the new routines, and understand what is and is not allowed. A supportive classroom environment with established procedures for welcoming new students makes for a smoother transition.
Children also need to be familiarised with the physical surroundings so that they are able to confidently navigate their way to, from and between their classroom and places like the amenities block, the office, the canteen, the library, and the playground.
Students moving from one school, or even one class within the same school, to another, also require a period of adjustment. While some understandings of the culture from the previous situation may be transferrable, there will be some aspects which are unfamiliar. No two classes or schools are identical or have the same set of rules and expectations.
I saw the difficulty experienced by each of my children when the newcomer in an established group. While both were confident and resilient children, verbally able to express themselves, both struggled initially to find their place within already established friendship groups that were comfortable and confident in their familiar surroundings.
My son changed schools at the beginning of his second year at school and was the only addition to an existing class. A more sensitive teacher with established procedures for welcoming new students may have eased his transition. Although, due to delivery delays, he was wearing his previous school’s uniform, his teacher failed to realise that he was new to the school and class and did nothing to help him integrate into the group or to familiarise him with school procedures and facilities.
The situation for my daughter was a little different. Her first experience of school was at age nine when she entered year four. Although I had explained what she might expect, everything about the culture and the environment was unfamiliar. While her teacher was a little more sensitive and did what she could to help her settle in, there was much about the established culture and environment that others took for granted.
When we are familiar with and comfortable in a situation it can be easy to forgot how unfamiliar and daunting it can be to someone new to an environment in which nothing can be taken for granted, nothing is known for sure.
I always established a welcoming classroom but the experiences of my own children confirmed its importance. If they, as members of the majority culture, found it difficult, how much more difficult would it be for those from minority groups. I suggest that every teacher should have in place procedures for welcoming new students.
Here are just a few suggestions:
Welcoming a new class of students at the beginning of the year:
- Provide many opportunities for students to get to know each other through group activities, discussion circles and paired work with many different combinations of children
- Explain expectations and rules. It is no fun being chastised for a misdemeanour that resulted from lack of knowledge as opposed to poor choice
- Take students on a walk around the school showing them places they will need to visit (as well as any places they are not allowed); for example:
- The office
- The library
- The playground
- The canteen
- Where to eat lunch, and to dispose of their rubbish
- Where to line up
- Where to place bags and other belongings
Procedures for welcoming new students throughout the year may differ slightly. It is not always practical to repeat the same procedures that were used when familiarising an entire class.
However, students still need to have the expectations explained to them, as some may differ from what has already been experienced, for example: are they required to put up their hands for individual release when the play bell rings or are they dismissed for play en masse; do they keep their water bottles on their desks or are they stored somewhere else; do they line up with a row of boys and a row of girls or are the rows mixed?
I always found it a useful practice to include newcomers when messages were sent to the office, the canteen or the library, for example. This would help children get to know and be known by other school personnel, as well as get to know their way around the school.
Until their own friendship groups were established I ensured there was a friend to “look after” them at break time, showing them where to sit, where to play, where to line up and, especially, to play with them. There were always plenty of willing friends.
I have been thinking about the importance of showing students around the classroom and school this week in response to the flash fiction challenge at the Carrot Ranch. Anne Goodwin, author of Sugar and Snails, took over the reins from Charli Mills this week, prompting writers to compose a 99-word flash on the theme of showing someone around a property. As usual the prompt allows for a variety of interpretations and Anne suggests that we not let out imaginations be confined by four walls.
I decided to play with loose parts this week, and include a welcoming environment. It occurs in a home, rather than a school. I hope you enjoy it.
Thinking it much too quiet, Sally excused herself from the conversation.
She peeked through the door. A sheet was draped from the top bunk to the curtain rail. The drawers were stacked staircase-like, their contents piled high in the corner. Emily, adorned in crown and cape, watched Jessica, in cowboy boots, fossick in the overturned toy box. Max sat nearby reading to assorted stuffed animals. All three sensed Sally’s presence simultaneously.
“Mum! Look what we made!” beamed Jessica. Sally suppressed her initial reaction: mess.
“Come in. We’ll show you! This is our cave. This is our mountain …”
Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts.