It was the very first day for my newcomer student, César. He and his mom had just arrived in our small community in the Midwest from their home in Mexico.
At the forefront of my mind was ensuring that I created a safe and welcoming space for César. I wanted to set my students up for success to receive him with warmth and friendship. More than anything, I wanted César’s first days to assure him he had a special place of belonging in our class.
As a Spanish and English dual language teacher, I had quite a few newcomer students over the years – students who were new to the country, recent immigrants or refugees. When we had new students, they typically arrived from Spanish-speaking countries. And fortunately, we were often already a diverse group representing many cultures and countries. Embracing different languages and cultures is a vital piece of dual language instruction!
Each newcomer student gave our class a special gift – the opportunity to make a new friend and learn about their unique background.
Do you have a newcomer student this school year? These five key steps will help you navigate welcoming and celebrating newcomer students into your own classroom.
1. Connect with their Family
Create a welcoming environment for the whole family by meeting with the parents and getting to know them. If possible, meet with them at the school to give them a tour of the school and the child’s new classroom. Having already seen the new classroom may alleviate some first day jitters for the child.
Ask the caregivers if they’d like to share background information on the child, their home language or culture. Furthermore, share any helpful information you might have for the family – how to access school information in their language, for example. If your school has resources to help the family make connections in the local community, share those as well.
According to Leah Shafer from Harvard Graduate School of Education, “When teachers and families partner, children excel: Attendance and grades go up, discipline challenges go down, and high school graduation rates improve. And these relationships are especially important for immigrant students.”
- Meet the student’s family
- Show them the school and classroom
- Connect them with a home-to-school liason if possible
- Ask about how you might value and support the child’s home language(s)
- Connect with the child individually to get to know them – what they like to do, hobbies, hope and dreams, etc.
2. Pick a Partner
Partner the newcomer student with a friendly, responsible classmate. If possible, pick someone who knows some of the child’s language. Or, in a dual language class, someone who can be a strong language partner. Let the partner feel proud and important that they can be the child’s partner and first friend. Instruct them on specific ways they can be a helpful partner – like playing with the newcomer at recess, sitting by them at lunch, and modeling following directions throughout the day.
A partner will help the newcomer student feel included and a part of the group right away. They’ll have a buddy to sit with at lunch and play with at recess, and someone to turn to with any questions.
- Chooose a friendly, responsible partner
- Pick a child who can communicate in their home language if possible
- Give specific ways you expect the partner to help the new student
- Check in to make sure things are going as planned
3. Learn through Books
Children’s literature is an incredibly powerful tool to use with the whole class when a newcomer student starts. Before the child arrives, prepare your class by reading some books about the newcomer’s home country, language, or culture. Get them excited to meet a new friend with literature that celebrates diversity.
Furthermore, utilize books that help all students see the perspective of being a newcomer. You might choose books on immigration, being a refugee, or being the new kid at school. Your class will develop empathy and the new student will feel seen and valued.
I absolutely love this quote from Colorín Colorado‘s article on using books about immigration in the classroom: “Books can be a powerful doorway into a topic that is complex and highly personal, such as immigration. They can serve as mirrors for students who see their experiences reflected and validated; they can also serve as windows for other students (and adults) who gain a new perspective, some background knowledge, and perhaps a new level of empathy as well.”
- Read books about the newcomer’s home country, language, or culture
- Learn through books telling of immigration stories
- Select stories highlighting inclusion, belonging, and friendship
Our top picks are in this post: 15+ Spanish Books to Welcome Newcomer Students
4. Value their Culture and Language
Learn about the child’s home country, culture, and language. If possible, involve the child and the family in teaching the class about these topics. Perhaps the child could bring in some cultural items to show the class. Or, invite the parents or caregivers to come in and read a book or share a bit of information. Give them an opportunity to share about the richness of their family background.
If the child speaks a language you don’t, learn a few key phrases like “Good morning” or “How are you?” This small effort can go a long way in building rapport and helping the child feel at ease. More than anything, remember that the child’s home language is an essential part of who they are. Choose to be positive and supportive of the family’s multilingual journey.
- Allow the child to share an item (or more!) that represents where they’re from – a book, a toy, an item from a celebration, a small flag, etc.
- Invite the parent in to share a children’s book from their home language or country
- Invite the parent or child to tell about important traditions
- Encourage the child’s home language and preservation of their heritage – multilingualism is at the heart of who we are and our connection to our family and culture!
5. Make Content & Language Comprehensible
Provide support for all students to learn the class content and language in a variety of ways. All students benefit from clear learning targets for both content and language. Setting a clear language learning target for each lesson will help you focus on the necessary academic vocabulary and helpful language frames for the lesson. These may be simpler for your newest student.
Furthermore, scaffold students’ productive language by giving a great variety of ways to show their learning by physically responding, speaking, and writing.
- Keep directions clear and simple
- Use gestures and modeling, pointing to things and acting out instructions
- Incorporate easy-to-see visuals, realia (real objects), and labels
- Provide extra wait time, extra support, and time for adjustment
- Incorporate Total Physical Response (allowing students to physically show their learning) – thumbs up/thumbs down, touch your head if ___, role playing, drawing, etc.
These five key steps will set a strong foundation for helping your newcomer student and their family feel welcome. They’ll set up your class for success in being kind and respectful to newcomers. And hopefully they’ll help your newcomer feel a sense of safety and belonging in their new school!