New school, new routine, new language

Many families start a new routine, a new school, a new language...

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. I have welcomed hundreds of families in the past years at our school community and our international community. Here is what I would recommend to teachers and parents to help families integrate easier and faster. 

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 reg 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"...)...?

Parents have similar questions:

  • How do we/does my child get to and from school?
  • Where can I get the information about how to best support my child settle in quickly?
  • How can I help my child to 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...

Teachers, staff and parents can offer their support in many different ways:

  • Organize regular get togethers in the first month (yes, not days, not weeks: month!)
  • 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 and 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 they expect: 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.

When the school language is a new one...

Many international schools have systems in place that help new children integrate and become proficient in the new language.

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 1-2 years of constant input and support
  • Parents 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!

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 many of 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 your child and his or her natural need to fit in, be like the peers. Your child can turn silent for some time: she/he is taking everything in, trying to understand the language and all that comes with the new situation. Even if he/she doesn't speak, involve him/her in the conversations and activities and praise the little steps! The more competent we feel, the more confident we become!

If you need any help with this, I'm a language consultant for parents and schools. Contact me for a free consultation!

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