The Importance of Belonging: How to Welcome New Students Into Your Classroom

Students come and go throughout the year. Some move mid-year while others get pulled from one school and added to another one. This can be frustrating for teachers who need not only to welcome new students but also figure out where in the curriculum these new students are. Moves are emotionally taxing on the students too. These children are trying to learn a new building and culture, keep up with their lessons, and navigate the social pressure of being the new kid.

You can make this transition easier for the students, yourself and the rest of your classroom. This guide will help you cover the mental and emotional hurdles your new student faces.

Develop New Student Resources

You can actively take steps to welcome students mid-year before the new school year even starts. Consider developing resources for your new students to make their first days easier.

For example, a new student binder is similar to a substitute teacher binder. It provides an overview of the classroom experience and onboards the new student to your policies, rules, and opportunities.

Emma McDonald at Teach Starter encourages educators to create a welcome flipbook for students as their new student binder. She provides a template you can use to make sure you include all of the necessary information. Your student can keep this flipbook or you can keep it in a designated place for new students to access for their first few weeks at school.

If possible, take time to introduce yourself to your new student — even if you only have a few minutes to meet them before they join the rest of the class. Jill Staake at We Are Teachers created a list of ways for your new student to get to know you. These range from a basic welcome video to a mini notebook with everything students need to know about you. The student might not know their peers, but they will know that they can count on you for help.

You can develop these new student resources before the fall semester starts and make adjustments as needed throughout the year.

Somber young person behind chain link fence; welcome new students concept

Welcome New Students by Introducing Them to Their Classmates

Of all the fears that a new student has when they enter your classroom, making friends is one of the most common. You can reduce these fears by setting aside time for students to get to know each other.

“There are tons of fun activities and games that allow a student to introduce themselves to the class and let everyone around them know what they like and dislike,” says Shelly Rees at Appletastic Learning. “It also lets students get familiar with each other and creates comfort in the classroom.”

These activities don’t have to take long. You can go around the room and ask each student to share their least favorite food with the newcomer. This is sure to break the ice as students fight to come up with the grossest items possible.

The team at TeacherVision has examples of icebreakers for different grades. In one activity, students select a colored candy, like a jelly bean or M&M. Each color represents a question. With a green one, the question might be if the student has any pets while a red choice can be a question about siblings. This also makes your class excited for new classmates if each new peer means they are getting a sweet treat.

You can continue to help new students get to know their peers throughout the year by creating a classroom culture of celebration. Christopher Olson at Education to the Core gives several examples of celebrating students, from creating a dance to acknowledge hard work to making a fun tradition when a student loses a tooth.

Not only can new students get to know their peers through these celebrations (or at least learn how many teeth they have left) but the celebration also takes the spotlight off the new student, who might feel shy and overwhelmed in your classroom at first.

Know That Students Move for a Variety of Reasons

While your new student packets and activities will often focus on helping kids find the bathroom and meet friends, it helps to keep in mind that your student might not be in a good place emotionally. Moving schools can be traumatic — even in the best situations.

Lauren DiMaria, a certified clinical research professional with expertise in child psychology, highlights how moving can trigger depression in children. Research has found that moving schools can be particularly difficult for elementary and middle school students. Additionally, if a student is in your classroom because of a move caused by divorce, they may have several emotions churning just below the surface.

Even if a student is moved to your school to have a better learning experience, they will face an adjustment period as they acclimate to this new environment.

“Parents want the best for their children, and moving to a different school might look like the best option,” says Kori Stroub at the Houston Education Research Consortium. “What we’re seeing is that when these moves take place during the school year, no matter how good a new school may seem, the move is often bad for students’ learning. There are a lot of reasons students might change schools, but doing so during the school year can carry lasting consequences for kids.”

Some students might face multiple forms of trauma inside and outside of the classroom. The Covid-19 pandemic negatively affected many students, who may have lost relatives and experienced changes in their family’s financial situations in addition to the isolation of at-home schooling and the loss of their social lives.

Returning to school after the pandemic calls for “a prolonged adjustment period,” says child clinical psychologist Tali Raviv, associate director at the Center for Childhood Resilience in Chicago. “There’s much more interaction, there’s much less downtime to recharge, there’s much less flexibility.”

Kids show trauma and anxiety in a variety of ways. Some will break things and start fights. Others will refuse to engage in the classroom. Educators are seeing an increase in these behaviors because of the pandemic.

Moving and changing schools on top of pandemic-related trauma is a lot to handle, and the behavior of some students might reflect what they are feeling.

Young boy with book smiling at adult woman; welcome new students concept

Help Students Identify and Express Their Emotions

While you can’t alleviate the trauma your students have suffered, you can create spaces for them to express themselves. Setting aside a few minutes to discuss emotions and feelings can help all students in your classroom, not just new ones.

Hank Pellissier, the director of Humanist Global Charity, shared his experience about how negative emotions affected him in the classroom. On the first day of school in 9th grade, his French teacher insisted that his name was pronounced “Honk,” which earned him that nickname with his peers for more than two years. He hated French class, refused to study, and dreaded setting foot in the classroom.

“Research indicates my pitiful French performance was a predictable response,” says Pellissier. “Monstrously bad feelings like I experienced can overwhelm a student’s ability to pay attention, memorize, and process information. Negative emotions like anxiety, rage, sadness, and shame often become mental roadblocks to success.”

By helping students name their emotions, you can give them tools to communicate how they feel and why. Whether a student is experiencing family trauma or adjusting poorly to the move, they are more likely to speak up if they know how and have a safe place to do it.

Teacher Julia Richardson highlights how important it is to increase the vocabulary to describe emotions and have check-ins on how students are feeling. Without descriptive words, students can think they either feel good or bad — and might act out if they can’t express themselves.

Richardson takes time to help students understand if they are sad, worried, angry, jealous, lonely, or intimidated. She uses colors to help students identify how they feel, even if they don’t have words for their emotions yet. These tools make check-ins more productive as students can use words and colors to describe how they feel.

As a teacher, you can start the day with simple emotion check-ins to see how your students are doing. These check-ins might be silly at first (one student feels excited about a new movie coming out, another student is amused by a meme) but they can progress into other emotions over time.

“Building relevance between learning objectives and students’ lives outside of the classroom is critical,” says Participate Learning’s Paula Rock. “Showing your students that you understand even a small part of what’s going on in their lives will go a long way to developing their trust.”

Understand How Your Students View Your Relationship

By making emotion-sharing an activity for the whole class, your new students won’t feel singled out. You can set a precedent where any student can reach out to you if they have negative feelings.

“A strong teacher/student relationship will put students in the best position to grow and flourish,” writes elementary school principal Richard Lawrence. “Students need to trust and follow their teachers, especially at younger ages where they do not yet possess a strong internal sense of self-confidence.”

As a teacher, it is hard balancing your emotional support of students with the authority figure you are expected to be. This is why facing students with new school or pandemic-related stress can be so frustrating. You know students are acting out because of their emotions, but you still need to prevent these negative behaviors.

“For many young people, school is anything but a warm, supportive, nurturing environment,” says Steven Mintz, a professor of history at The University of Texas at Austin. “Rather, it’s a highly stratified place characterized by intense competition, arbitrary authority and boredom. It is children’s first encounter with bureaucracy: with rigid rules, impersonal structures and an imposed course of study that doesn’t reflect their interests.”

There isn’t an easy answer to strike a balance. While you can try to help your students convey emotions in a healthful manner, you may still experience behavioral problems in the classroom.

Student at desk with tablet; welcome new students concept

Keep an Eye on Your New Students

After the first week or so, your new students might start to settle in. While this is a good sign, keep an eye on how they are adjusting and whether they are having any problems in the school. Your keen eye might allow you to intervene before there is a serious problem.

“Keeping your students safe from bullying, threatening, name-calling, violence, and the like is a critical part of your job,” says Michael Linsin, founder of Smart Classroom Management. “You must supervise vigilantly and protect your students’ right to learn and enjoy being in your classroom. You must anticipate and read body language. You must keep your classroom peaceful and devoid of excitability.”

A new student is more likely to be bullied if they don’t immediately develop a friend group. They might not know which students to avoid or seem vulnerable to bullies in your classroom. Research shows that existing relationships affect bullying rates.

“Our findings confirm that students do not defend random classmates; instead, defending choices (or motivations) likely depend on positive (liking or a friendship) and negative (disliking) relationships with the victim as well as with other classmates within the peer network,” says Ashwin Rambaran, a research fellow at the University of Michigan Department of Psychology.

Essentially, a student likely won’t stand up for a peer just because it’s the right thing to do. Instead, they will do it if they like the student who is bullied. Similarly, if they like the bully more than the victim, a student is less likely to defend the victim.

Some new students will enter your classroom and immediately settle in. They will make friends and stay on top of your lessons. Others will need more help. They will need tutoring, emotional support, and opportunities to make friends. With the right toolkit, you can welcome new students, address thier needs and help them adjust to your classroom.

Images by: Joseph Gonzalez, Siviwe Kapteyn, stockbroker/©, instaphotos/©