Welcoming New Families: How to Grow Your Classroom Community in the Middle of the School Year
As a career-long educator who spent many years working in schools, I will probably always think of January 1st as “the other new year,” since “the real new year” (the one that matters!) begins somewhere around the end of August. So many of the events that occur and changes we (hope to) implement as the calendar turns to January—a time that many people associate with new beginnings and fresh starts—actually occur mid-year when you work in a school.
Last fall, as I was working with colleagues from ReadyRosie to create our online professional development course Transforming Family Engagement, we discussed creating a tutorial to explicitly address the unique needs of children and families who move into a school mid-year. We talked about the fact that, for these families—whenever they join you—it’s their “new year” with you and the children in your class.
As I began writing the tutorial, I felt like I had plenty of experience to draw from.
From the time I started kindergarten until the day I graduated from high school, I attended eleven different schools. Sometimes going to a new school was simply a function of moving from one level to another, such as from elementary school to middle school. Four of those changes were the result of my family moving to a different town.
Three of my family’s moves were because my father’s job was changing, but once we moved simply because our family was outgrowing our house! When I was in first grade and again when I was in eighth grade, the moves occurred over Thanksgiving weekend. And when I was heading into both third grade and tenth grade, my family moved during the summer, just before those school years began.
A mid-year move can be a challenging transition for children, families and teachers
Years later, as a teacher, I learned a couple of things that I hadn’t realized when I was a student. First, I learned that the children are almost always excited about the arrival of a new classmate. But I also quickly realized that, for school personnel, a mid-year addition means an increased workload. Additionally, I learned that many times when families move, the circumstances surrounding the move are difficult ones. Divorce, the death of a parent, a change of primary caretakers, a family member’s job change or job loss, and loss of housing are just a few of the more challenging reasons that families move mid-year.
Because of my experiences—both as a child who had four times entered new schools knowing no one there and as an adult who received mid-year additions to my class list—I felt like I had a fairly comprehensive understanding of what it meant to make a mid-year move.
But as I worked on the online tutorial about welcoming children and families mid-year, I wanted to be able to represent some perspectives other than just my own, so I put out a call to my colleagues here at Teaching Strategies. I wanted to hear, I told them, from anyone who had moved during the middle of the school year, either as an adult with school-aged children or as a child themselves.
The stories I heard ranged from heartbreaking to inspirational, but they were—without exception—extremely emotional, even though they were all accounts of events long past.
A couple of things became clear.
- Life can seem very arbitrary to a child. Relocating—changing homes, neighborhoods, schools, friends—is a difficult process for the whole family, certainly for the adult making the decision to move, but especially for a child who has no say in the matter.
- You as a teacher hold the key to helping children and their families feel welcomed and valued, regardless of when they join your class or the circumstances that brought them there. The structures you put in place—and the steps you take—to welcome new children and their families into your classroom community will help both them and you enjoy a smoother transition.
Even when a child joins your class only a few weeks after the school year begins, you and the other children will already have shared many experiences. Expectations will already have been established, routines will already have been internalized, and friendships will already have been formed.
Here a just a few tips to help children and families know you are glad they are joining your classroom community.
- Ask the new child about her interests and favorite parts of the school day and introduce the new child to classmates who share those interests.
- Make sure the new family receives copies of important information you’ve already shared with the other families. If you or your school’s parents’ organization has a Welcome Committee, make sure you arrange an introduction between them and the new family.
- Have the children help you create name labels for the new child for every place in your classroom you use them, such as marking attendance, ordering lunch, and storing their personal belongings.
- Teach the new child about any gestures and signals you use in the classroom and take the time to introduce him to the children’s favorite songs, rhymes, and stories. Ask if he or she has any favorites to add to your list.
- Remember that even simple gestures—such as lending the new family any class books you’ve already made, particularly if they include photos of class members or offer insight into the content and experiences you have already shared—can help children and families feel welcomed.
- Remember, too, to draw on your own experiences and feelings. Even if you’ve never moved to a new city or a new school, the fact is, each of us has moments in life when we feel like “the new kid in town.” A litmus test for deciding what to share with new children and families can always be this: If I were new here, what would I want to know about the school and classroom norms, expectations, rules, culture, and history that could help me feel more at ease, more valued, and more successful?
Children and families who speak a different language, arrive from a different place, or who have special learning needs can all benefit from these insights and guidance, and none more so than those who join you mid-year.
All of us here at Teaching Strategies want to thank you for the many ways you seek to provide a warm, welcoming, inclusive classroom community, regardless of all other factors and circumstances, all year long. And to all of you whose “new year” actually started several months ago, we wish you a very happy, prosperous, and successful mid-year.