Here it comes…the first day of school! Walking through the doors, you can feel the exhilarating mixture of excitement and nervousness in the air. Kids will be meeting new teachers, seeing old friends, and showing off their stylin’ new clothes. It’s fantastic fun for some, but for students with high geographic mobility, the prospect of yet another new school, filled with unfamiliar faces isn’t exciting—it’s scary. How can teachers help these kids feel welcome, and make their transition into another new environment a little easier?
Students with high geographic mobility are those who have attended many schools during their K-12 years due to frequent moves. For some families, moving more than once in the course of a single school year is common. Usually these moves are associated with employment, housing, or relationship problems, and can be a contributing factor in low academic achievement (http://www.edweek.org/ew/issues/student-mobility/).
Every child is different, and deals with change in his or her own way. I spoke with several friends who moved around a lot, attending as many as 11 schools during their K-12 years. They were all affected differently.
One friend simply stated that he “hated” moving to 4 high schools in 3 years. My friend Brandy said that she learned to “adapt to different environments very quickly, make friends easier and accept change.” But she also said it took away from her feeling of belonging to something. She can’t return to her childhood home and say, “This is where I grew up.” Now, she feels restless if she lives in any one place very long.
Another friend, Mark, spoke about his frustrations with changing schools mid-term in middle and high school. For instance, he started Spanish at one school, but when he moved to a new school, there was no room for him in their Spanish class so he had to wait until the next year to start over from the beginning. He also found that with core subjects, he was totally disconnected due to varying curriculums. Mark also agreed that the social dynamics are very difficult for a child who is highly mobile. For example, sometimes a new school, with good intentions, would pair him up with a student “buddy.” Mark said they clearly used his ethnic last name as a guide when choosing this mentor. Rather than making him feel welcome, he felt that they’d made an inaccurate assumption about his social preferences based on his last name.
I am a school-wide teacher and see over 600 students a week. One of the worst things about my unique position is when I suddenly realize months into the school year that a student I really liked must have moved over the summer because he or she isn’t there anymore. It makes me realize that I should do the best I can with every kid every day, because tomorrow they could be gone.
How can we make sure that we welcome our highly mobile students, and make them feel at home while we have them? Here are some ideas for the first days of school:
- When you get your class list(s), if possible, find out ahead of time which of your students are new to the school. Make sure they know right away where the important things are: bathrooms, drinking fountains, cafeteria, playground, hallways and wings, library, computer lab, etc.
- Don’t hesitate to call the child’s previous school or schools and speak with his/her former teachers, principals or guidance counselors.
- Whenever possible, reach out to the student’s parents or guardians. Building a strong connection between school and home is always a good idea.
- Middle and high school teachers could have a brief survey for new students to find out what subjects and units they covered at their previous school. This way you can provide them with handouts, chapters or materials of things they have missed, and possibly create modified assignments for areas they may have already studied.
Reserve Your Judgement
- Observe the student with his or her peers as much as possible before making permanent seating placements.
- Avoid making assumptions based on names or appearance. For example, a student who “looks” like they speak Spanish or has a Hispanic last name may be a native English speaker, or of a totally different ethnic background (I have made this mistake several times!).
- Keep in mind that students who are highly mobile will adjust in their own way. Some have a honeymoon phase, in which their behavior is angelic for the first few days or weeks, but then deteriorates. Other students may test you to find your limits by misbehaving quite a bit. It is also common for new students to “show off” for their new friends—often at the teacher’s expense. All of these behaviors are part of their adjustment into a new school; try to be patient but firm.
- Offer as much help as you can but try not to be overbearing. A highly mobile student will be accustomed to making adjustments. Depending on how introverted or extroverted a child is, he or she may not need your help at all.
Make Yourself Available
- Take a personal interest and be a good listener when you can. For elementary teachers, an interactive or dialogue journal provides an opportunity for you to get to know them on a personal level in a way that is often more comfortable for the child.
- Middle and high school teachers may wish to make themselves available for student conferences once a week after school or during any other plan time.
- When a student moves away, obtain their new postal or email address if you can. You and their classmates can keep in touch via email or snail mail.
Do some first day of school icebreakers; these are fun to do throughout the year as well, especially after winter or spring breaks, when highly mobile students often arrive. Here are a few websites I found with icebreaker suggestions:
- For middle school teachers: http://www.educationworld.com/a_lesson/lesson/lesson131.shtml
- For lower elementary teachers: http://www.kinderart.com/across/icebreakers.shtml
- For upper elementary teachers (require proficient reading and writing skills): http://k6educators.about.com/od/lessonplanheadquarters/qt/btsicebr.htm
- For high school teachers: http://www2.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=3747030
- A large variety of icebreakers: http://www.educationworld.com/back_to_school/index.shtml
Working with children who are highly mobile can be frustrating because we have to accept that it is a factor we simply cannot control. Enjoy the time you have with these kids. You never know how your short time with them may impact their lives. I know colleagues who, years later, received personal letters from a former student they had for only a few months. Be warm and welcoming without making a spectacle of a new student and you might make another first day of school a little less scary.