Welcome Diverse Students on the First Day of School

by Elise White Diaz

There is something deep inside each person that makes them want to be wanted, invited, and chosen. I saw it on my daughter’s face as she lit up when her new teacher leaned down and whispered in her ear: “I wanted you too…” This was an easy thing to communicate to a nine-year-old. They spoke the same language and were from the same culture, and my daughter has a healthy attachment to me, her mother (so far at least—fingers crossed). She is accustomed to an adult woman leaning down to whisper in her ear, and to her, it means a healthy intimacy. But what if this was not the case? What if my daughter and her new teacher did not speak the same language? What if there was a cultural disconnect between the teacher and the student’s greetings and use of personal space? What if the student had experienced trauma from their mother figure, and a whisper in the ear was reminiscent of abuse instead of healthy intimacy? How do we welcome diverse students on the first day of school in a way that will help them to receive the message that they are wanted, chosen, and accepted? 

Follow the Child’s Lead and Their Signals

If they bow, you bow—no  need to offer your hand in a handshake if they have just arrived in the country. A newcomer may already be flooded with a new language, new customs, new norms, and new sights and smells… Perhaps the first day of school is not the time to introduce American traditions. Instead, move into their “normal” to lower their affective filter and build connection. 

Yet, what if moving into their “normal” causes the student to shrink back? This may be indicative of an unconscious fear response. No matter how great of a communicator we strive to be or how sweet our intentions are, the message will not be received if the student does not feel safe and secure. If the child withdraws into themselves, the teacher can follow the child’s signals by giving them space, moving down to their level, or enlisting a form of play with the whole group. Even teenagers like to play in their own way! It is very difficult for play and anxiety to coexist in the same space.

Welcome Newcomers in Their Home Language, and Encourage the Rest of the Class to Do So as Well

Lacey Scalf, from Fowler Middle School, wrote the greetings from her students’ languages phonetically so that English-speaking students could welcome their classmates in their home languages. Teach your class about cultural greetings and that what may be appropriate in one culture may not be so in another. The start of school is a great time to begin creating your multi-cultural tribe within the classroom! 

Use QSSSA to Build Connections Between Students and to Get to Know the Child Personally

QSSSA (Question, Signal, Stem, Share, Assess) is a high-yield strategy for building academic vocabulary, creating wait time, and engaging every student. It is often used for our most important inquiries, and the start of school is a great time to teach students the routine in a low-stakes environment. It can also be leveraged as a tool for gathering information about the students’ likes, interests, and strengths, which will become important later when it is time to tailor instruction. 

In this example, a teacher would pose the question: “What is one good thing from the summer?” and then ask all students to stand until they are ready to answer using the stem. This opposite signal builds in wait time. The “good thing” the teacher asks students to recall gives their brains a little dopamine hit from the practice of gratitude and creates fertile soil for both learning and connecting. Students sit down to show they are ready to answer with their stem. They then share with the classmates sitting next to them, creating a sense of belonging in the classroom. The teacher “assesses” this activity by walking around and listening to the conversation. Now the teacher knows something about the students and what is important to them. 

These three tactics are small tweaks designed to enhance what teachers are already doing and doing well: greeting students, teaching classroom routines, and making students feel welcome in the arrangement of their classroom. Sometimes it takes a little more effort to reach across barriers to help students from diverse backgrounds feel welcome; yet, the time and energy invested will certainly pay beautiful dividends! 

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