Many families start a new routine, a new school, a new language...
End of August and beginning of September means a new beginning for many families and children in the northern hemisphere. Many internationals arrive during the holidays, some only a few days before school starts and it can be quite disorienting for the family and the children to adjust, find a new routine.
I have welcomed hundreds of families in the pasr 18 yearsat our school community and in our international community. Here is what I would recommend to teachers and parents to help families integrate easier and faster.
It is not only about language...
Here are some FAQ from children who start in a new school:
- What do other children wear at school?
- What backpacks do they use?
- How do they travel to and from school?
- Who can help me find out how everything works?
- What about after-school activities? ("Can I do the same I did in my former school, is there anything new I want to try out?")
- What do other children eat for snack and lunch?
- What is expected from me with regards to homework etc.?
- Are we going to have field-trips soon, where are we going, what do I need for this?
- What can I do if I don't find friends quickly?
- Is there a buddy-system at school?
- What do other children like to read, what music do they listen to, what sports are "in" (or "out"...)...?
- Where do other children hang out after school?
Parents have similar questions:
- How do we/does my child get to and from school? Is it very different from what my child was used to so far?
- What routine should my child learn before starting school (walking to school, taking public transportation, cycling (safely!)...)?
- Where can I get the information about how to best support my child settle in quickly?
- Who is responsible for the wellbeing of my child at school (eg. school counsellor, nurse)?
- What is expected from my child reg social skills, practical skills etc.?
- How can I help my child settle in easier?
- Where can I meet other parents to have a chat, integrate into the school community? etc.
When the routine is a new one...
What teachers, staff and parents should support new families with:
- Organize regular get togethers in the first months (yes, not days, not weeks: months!)
- Provide information and be prepared to repeat your tips and advice. New families have so much to deal with and not every parent is fluent in the school language! What is clear and natural for you is new and unusual for others...!
- Take every question and concern seriously: you never know where someone comes from, what experience they made! What seems easy for you can be a big issue for the family!
- Ask questions about where the family comes from, where they have lived, when they arrived and what a normal day looked like, what they expect in all domains of life. We all have clear expectations and when these are not met we feel lost... Knowing what someone expects helps us to understand how to support them.
- Learn about the family's cultural and linguistic background! Even if a family speaks Germna at home, this doesn't mean that they have lived in a German speaking country before, or that the children's strongest language is German! they might know more about other cultures and languages...
- Listen. The new family is still adjusting, which also means that they are grieving the life they had in the other place, and they might not feel comfortable and confident in their "new life" (yet).
When the school language is a new one...
More and more schools have systems in place that help new children integrate and become proficient in the new language, whilst allowing them to use their home languages or other languages they are fluent in (please check if your new school is language friendlylanguage friendly).
Teachers, staff and educators in general should know that :
- Every child is different and needs time to get used not only to the new language but to the new class-culture.
- Children don't soak up new languages like sponges: this is a myth! Some of them may sound "almost like natives" in no time, but this is only phonetics: they imitate the new sounds but there is a long way to gain a nearly-native fluency! In order to obtain Basic Interpersonal Conversational language Skills (BICS) it will take a while, and reaching CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency) level takes years...
- Parents might need to help their children learn their school language by bridging the school language and family language! Teachers and parents should work together on this! I have seen many parents delegate this huge responsibility to the school only, but teachers can only do half of the job! And this is the dilemma that many (most!) multilingual families face: parents need to foster their home languages too, how can they possibly juggle 2-5 languages (or more)?
Parents of bilingual children need to cooperate with the school and
support their children's languages at home!
- Teachers should provide lists of topics and vocabulary children learn at school so that parents can foster the same vocabulary at home with their family language. – Books, recordings, all kind or resources should be provided by the school in the school language. Parents then sit down with the children and repeat what they did at school. With younger children parents can go through picture (or easy readers) books and let them tell the story in their family language. Then repeat the story by using the school language. With older children parents can help their children explain the concepts in their family language. By doing so, children slowly build connections between the two languages with the result that they will make steady progress in the school language – and the family language!
- Teachers and parents need to be aware that in order to gain Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) children need constant support for 3 to 7 years! They have to understand the concepts taught in school and the way things are taught in school. I know that many families struggle with the way maths are taught in the other language and here it is essential that school provides workshops for parents to update them on the different approaches! – At a gathering we once discussed 5 (!) different ways to write and do subtractions, additions, multiplications and divisions: it can be incredibly confusing for children if parents force their own way of "doing it" and ignore how children are asked to do it at school!
By supporting the family language, you foster the school language!
- It might seem strange, but the more the family language is fostered during the acquisition and learning of the school language, the better the child will do in school! Especially when the family language is their dominant language. What helps is not only to keep on reading in the family language too. When the children are still acquiring their family language this means that parents have to provide enough visual and auditive input in order to foster also the family language!
This is what my clients struggle the most with: the double work to support the school and the family language! For parents: don't stop speaking your family language with your children! And if a teacher, medical doctor or any other person advises you to "drop your family language" and only talk the school language with your child: tell them that this would be detrimental for your children's academical performance! – I am also a mediator between schools and parents, and can help you with this!
- For parents and teachers: be patient! Trust the child and their natural need to fit in, belong to a new group of friends. Every child can turn silent for some time: they are taking everything in, trying to understand the language and all that comes with the new situation. If this happens, make sure to support the understanding of cultural cues, language etc. so that this silent period doesn't last longer than a month! Even if the child doesn't speak, involve them in the conversations by using their other languages, gestures, pictures etc. and praise the little steps! Translanguaging practices are very effective during the adaptation period at school (and at home)!
The more competent we feel, the more confident we become!
For teachers and educators
In order for students to develop identities of competence and confidence is for educators to examine implicit and explicit policies and instructional practices within their own schools. (...) (Jim Cummins, Rethinking the Education of Multilingual Learners, Multilingual Matters, 2021, 51)
This is why I suggest you ask the following questions:
- To what extent does the school view itself as a multilingual space in which students' language are positioned as intellectual and educational resources?
- To what extent does instruction connect with students' multilingual and multicultural lives and extend their intellectual and personal horizons?
- To what extent is students' multilingual writing (e.g. dual language books) displayed prominently around the school?
- To what extent does instruction affirm the legitimacy of the language varieties that students bring to school and enable students to use these varieties as resources for learning? To what extent does instruction actively engage multilingual and new-comer students in higher-order thinking and creative inquiry into social issues? (Jim Cummins, Rethinking the Education of Multilingual Learners, Multilingual Matters, 2021, 51-52)
If you have any further questions or need help with this, please contact me for a free consultation.