Shock of the new

13th September 1996 at 01:00
It's the start of term and your new class comes in all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Everyone knows everybody else and they're full of chat, excitedly making up for lost time. Then in walks a little boy or girl with eyes that bear an uncomfortable resemblance to those of a rabbit frozen in car headlights. Their accompanying mum or dad are only marginally less petrified. Suddenly, everyone stops what they're doing to look. To stare. To check them out.

Starting at a new school is a tricky business for everybody. Just think about the first time you entered your present staffroom and multiply it by a million. No matter how popular or confident the child, to be the odd one out, not knowing anyone else or your way around, is a misery you never forget - even if it lasts for only a few hours or days.

While the new child carries their own burden of difference on their sleeve, the teacher of the new child has to work out how best to help. Do you welcome them with a flourish, asking the rest of the class to be kind and helpful? Or do you downplay the whole affair and let things fall into place by themselves?

And how do you deal with a child who has little or no English, perhaps an asylum seeker or someone whose experience of school - let alone life - is very different to the rest of the class's? What about a job lot entering at one time or a steady trickle of children whose parents move them from one school to another as frequently as they wear out their trainers? How do you communicate warmth and understanding and show the ropes to frightened, disoriented, nervous kids when you've got 29 others clamouring for your attention?

Professor Ted Wragg of Exeter University, who was involved in a Department of Education and Science-funded teacher education project in the late Eighties, observed different styles of dealing with new children wherever he went. While all the reception teachers he watched were "great", other teachers he came into contact with "always felt they were in a dilemma: do you focus on the new child or ignore it until a problem arises? More often than not, the teacher assumes that the child will blend in quickly." In the end, he believes, it's impossible to generalise about good practice on this issue. "You have to adjust what you do to fit the context: the type of class the child is entering, the age, whether bullying is a problem."

And who the child is. Take Emile. He was nine when he changed schools. A vibrant, attractive, bright child who had always been a bit of a leader of the pack at his old school, he found himself standing in the playground watching the world go by for a half a term before he settled in. "I liked some of the kids, but there were different rules that I didn't understand, like not being able to play football and girls-only areas, that I didn't have at my old school." Nobody had thought to explain the way the new school worked to the new kid on the block.

Iram Siraj-Blatchford, senior lecturer in early childhood education at the University of London's Institute of Education, believes that it is vital for schools in general and teachers in particular to take the time and effort to understand what it is like for a child to move schools - and to do something about it. "Teachers are so caught up with class organisation and the curriculum that they're not always aware of what children think about. Coming into a new school, a child is going to worry about a range of things, including whether they'll make new friends and where the toilets are." She advocates the idea of schools having induction policies for new children. "How new children are welcomed into the school is usually a very ad hoc affair left to individual teachers, which it shouldn't be. The school should formulate procedures that become part of its personal and social education policy. What happens when there's a newcomer is something that all children should deal with in the context of empathy, moral and social development."

A lot of schools have taken on the idea of peer mentoring as an informal induction procedure. While choosing a responsible child to take on the role of mentor can be a good way of integrating a child, the mentor shouldn't be asked to fulfill this role for more than a week or two. It can be enormously ego-boosting to begin with, but after a while even the most philanthropic child can feel well and truly put upon. Better to rotate the job around the class and always avoid dumping responsibility that should be yours onto small, even if wonderfully capable, shoulders.

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