Mid-year transitions: Supporting new arrivals

Written by: Fiona Aubrey-Smith | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

How do you welcome children who join your school mid-way through the school year or mid-way through their primary education? Fiona Aubrey-Smith looks at some of the simple strategies that schools use to help children settle in to already established classes and year groups

When children start in your youngest year group you will have established practice that enables children to settle into the new environment and for all the adults and children involved to form strong relationships with each other. But what happens when a child joins mid-phase or mid-year?

How much attention do we give to the needs of children who join a class that’s already well established, and how much do we consider the impact that a successful transition into your school can have on the child’s learning?

Many schools share examples of the child and parents/carers meeting with the headteacher, being taken on a tour of the school or a “meet and greet” with the class teacher. Where children joining mid-phase or mid-year are often doing so as a result of moving house, it’s also familiar to most school leaders that the child’s records from their previous school will arrive with the child or shortly after, and that the parents will be given some kind of welcome pack with details about school uniform, school meals and holiday dates. All standard stuff.

In addition to these actions, many schools have thought deeply about the emotional and practical needs of children starting at their school, and have set in place some great practice, such as the following:

Sending a “we’re looking forward to you joining us” postcard to the new child – scheduled to arrive a few days before they start, so that their sense of belonging to a new community starts before they come to your school.
Scheduling a meeting with the child and parents on the second day – so that parents can tell you about their child.

Buddying the new child (and their family) with an established peer – consider the buddy making contact before the new child starts, and/or the buddy’s family making contact with the child’s family. For families moving to your area this can be a vital lifeline as it supports both child and family to form new friendships. Your PTA group and year-group reps can play a vital role in this. A settled family is more likely to mean a settled child...

Spending three minutes reading with the child each day of the first week – just being next to them, providing some consistent one-to-one, and helping them form an attachment to their main teacher.

Ensure peg and drawer labels, new books and so on are ready before the child needs them. This sounds simple, but makes a big difference to how much a child feels thought-about and valued.

Consistent support through the flow of the day – for a new child the changes between class, assembly, class, playtime, PE in the hall, class, lunchtime, playtime, class and so on can be very disorientating. Who ensures the new child has a friend throughout playtime or enough to eat at lunchtime in a way that is sensitive to it being their first week? Each of these requires the child to learn about a new place, new rules, new people, new expectations, and there is rarely one consistent adult throughout.

Ensuring close communication between all those involved in supporting your new child, as well as taking time to explain each transition to the child, will make a big difference.

Remember the basics: Water, food, the toilet and who to ask for help – giving children explicit instructions on when and how to meet their basic needs on the first day and across the first week (drinking water, playtime snack, toilet) can set in place good habits, but more importantly set strong foundations for being able to focus on learning. Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs!

Family-centred support for new children

With children regularly joining his schools across all year groups, Garry Ratcliffe, executive headteacher of the Galaxy Trust in Kent, incorporating Oakfield Primary, Temple Hill Primary and West Hill Primary Academies, told me about how important it is to extend good practice from Reception and to think about the child in context of their family.

He explained: “We do a home visit for any new child starting the school. This is conducted by a senior teacher as well as the school’s family liaison officer and we ensure these are non-threatening and a chance for the school to find out about the child and the family, but also a chance for parents to ask any questions they may feel uncomfortable asking in a group situation.”

Understanding the child in context of their family, and providing the family unit with tools to support the child are vital components in a successful transition.

Mr Ratcliffe continued: “We have a story book that we send home to all children starting in Reception, and we have similar books for older year group transitions too. The books are a more complex form of a social story, sharing with children what to expect, what the routines are, and how things might be different to their previous school or year group experiences. They are absolutely focused on empowering the child and personalising their transition experience.

“These are complemented by a full range of typical transition activities planned for children, children with their parents, and parents on their own, such as a teddy bear picnic, uniform shop and parent information sessions. We ensure that events take place during the school day and in the evening, supporting parents from diverse backgrounds.”

New Child, New Country, New Culture

With 30 per cent mobility across the school, Raynham Primary in Enfield constantly experiences children joining from across this country as well as from abroad. Many arrive as refugees with highly traumatic experiences, and little or no English. With temporary housing in the area Raynham also has children who might only stay for weeks or months at a time. Remembering name labels and finding a buddy doesn’t scratch the surface of providing for children in this context.

Marva Rollins, the headteacher at Raynham, explained: “Our admissions officer is crucial in the process of transition for the families. The initial information we receive includes which country or countries a child has lived in prior to arriving in England. We find that several children each year have lived in a country other than their country of birth with very real issues of migration and being a refugee.

“For many children they may have arrived in England speaking no English and coming from the most traumatic experiences to then attend one or more schools in this country before finally arriving with us. That initial information also includes the level of schooling that the child might have received in their previous country. For example, if a child has had age-appropriate schooling their progress with English can be quicker than others who arrive in key stage 2 with no prior schooling and it’s important to know this as we can then consider what resources will best meet individual needs.”

Such a range of needs demands a vast set of professionals with an equally vast set of skills. At Raynham the admissions officer draws together a team for each child including the assistant headteacher responsible for the relevant phase, year group leaders, the beginners-in-English HLTA, leadership team, attendance officers, English coordinator and pastoral officer.

Each person has a role to play in enabling the calm settling for the child. The first day is a largely visual day. The teacher meets and greets the child and their parent/s, with visits to the classroom and a tour of the school with a special friend. Visual timetables are used to explain routines of the day and week and the child is welcomed during circle time with support through translator and visual cards where they have little or no English.

Ms Rollins explained that oracy is central to what then follows: “Children new to English are immersed in English in the mornings within their classrooms, and then for four afternoons a week they join our mixed age beginners-in-English group where they are led by a trained HLTA for between one to four terms. The afternoons are heavily focused on oracy through practical activities – making, labelling, rehearsing related language and then when ready writing a sentence, sentences, or short stories. When the child has moved to independently writing short stories they are ready to leave the beginners group.”

The children also benefit from fieldwork, making use of the school’s farm as some children will have come from rural areas in their home country and can quickly identify with the animals, which becomes a springboard to language.

Children who are competent first language learners will usually spend much less time in the group, and those children who have already learnt a second language in their movement across different countries can find it easier to learn a third language. In just one week, new arrivals included:

  • A year 6 girl arriving from Mongolia speaking only Bulgarian, having had just four years of schooling.
  • Twins without any English arriving into year 6.
  • An August-born boy coming into year 5 fluent in two languages, but not English.
  • A year 1 child who has not attended any prior education.
  • A year 4 child who speaks three languages fluently, but coming from Italy with all incoming reports in Italian.

While this is just a snapshot, it’s representative of what Raynham faces all year round, and their inspiring work means that despite these huge challenges the children at Raynham are consistently in the top 10 per cent nationally for attainment and progress results at the end of key stage 2.

So what’s the secret to success? Three themes according to Ms Rollins – a focus on oracy and language development, a visual curriculum, and a passion and commitment across the school that despite the challenges facing each child, they will succeed and leave Raynham with the best possible start to their future education, careers and lives.

  • Fiona Aubrey-Smith is director of One Life Learning, sits on the board of a number of MATs, and is vice-chair of governors for a maintained primary school. Email her via fionaaubreysmith@googlemail.com

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