Quick Tip Tuesday: Making ELL students feel safe

February 17th, 2009

Many ELL tudents in Tess Pardini and Emelie Parker’s elementary classroom arrive midway through the school year, unfamiliar with American schools and the English language. Even simple things like the bustle of the cafeteria line can be stressful for these students. In this week’s tip, Emelie and Tess, authors of The Words Came Down!” offer ways to comfort these students and help them get used to their new school environment.

Nonverbal Ways to Help Children Feel Safe, Secure, and Welcome

When children come to our school, we have to know that they may never have seen a water fountain, ridden on a school bus, walked down a cafeteria line, eaten a pizza or hot dog, seen a fire alarm box, heard a fire alarm, or encountered a jack o’lantern. During all these new experiences, we have to be there gently for children in case they need us. This awareness and meeting of unspoken needs is the way a strong classroom community wraps its arms around newcomers.

Making sure children that have just arrived in our country are not the first in line at the water fountain on the first day and making sure they find something that is appealing to eat in the cafeteria is part of helping children learn to trust us and know that they are safe. During the first fire drill, we stand close to the newest children and are ready to comfort them. We warn them with hand signs what is coming. As we hold their hands, touch their shoulders, or stand next to them in line, the children will know we will protect them.

Children often come in late in the year. We greet new students with their names already written at a table, their own coat hooks, book boxes, and journals. We sit them next to a child who speaks their language if possible. The class practices pronouncing new students’ names correctly. Two students give a tour of the room. The rest of the day children squabble over who will get to take them through the lunch line, eat with them at lunch, be their friend at recess, introduce them to the music teacher, or buddy read with them. Having a language buddy or another student buddy can help children through their first days.

A new student is like a breath of fresh air coming into the class. During the first day the teacher will make informal assessments as the child interacts with children, uses books, and participates in workshops. We will observe what he or she knows about books, reading, writing, math, and oral language. This helps us know where to start when planning for the child’s instruction on the next day.

Some children experience a very rough beginning as they join our school community, and we have to work extra hard for them to feel safe and secure. Antony arrived at Tess’s door one morning, midway through first grade. He was terrified and his fearful crying made it difficult to continue teaching that morning. Thankfully, the other children were deeply concerned and patiently tried to help in any way they could. Antony survived lunch because Tess stayed at his side throughout the lunch period. A large cafeteria like ours has to move children quickly through the lines and out into a large seating area in order to operate efficiently, so it can be an overwhelming experience for young children, especially children new to our school culture.

Later that afternoon when Tess took the class to the gym for their PE lesson, Antony broke down again and clung to her as she tried to leave. Tess took him back to the classroom with her. They were both exhausted. She would need to come up with a plan to help both of them.

Tess remembered another student who had arrived under similar circumstances several years before. Julio was now in fifth grade. After school, Tess caught Julio and asked him if he would be willing to help her with Antony since he had been through a similar experience. Naturally, he said he would. Tess went to ask Julio’s teacher if she could borrow Julio for some brief blocks of time over the next two or three days. She also checked with the PE and music teachers to make sure that they would not object to Julio accompanying the class to their lessons.

Julio waited with Tess the next morning to greet Antony, and he sat next to him in the circle as the class held their morning meeting. He rejoined them at lunchtime, and Antony was willing to sit next to him in the cafeteria. Once Tess knew Antony was calm, she was able to leave. Julio held Antony’s hand as they went to the gym later that afternoon and stayed with him for PE. Because Julio was able to help Tess foster a sense of trust in Antony, the school experience became a little less frightening for him, and he gradually settled into the routine.

Emelie remembers when Huy arrived from Vietnam. At school, he was screaming and crying, kicking his feet on the floor, running away at recess, and pulling out his hair. She solved the problem by inviting his mother to come into the class and stay. For two weeks, Huy and his mother squatted together on the floor and learned about school in America. Later on during a home visit, Emelie discovered that his mother had learned to speak English by practicing the songs and poems on the charts Emelie had sent home. They were hanging on the wall in the living room. Huy, now in high school, gives back to Bailey’s through a service club called Raider Readers. Raider Readers is a club at our neighboring high school for ELLs, sponsored by their ELL teachers. The high school students choose and practice reading picture books for Bailey’s kindergarten. The students walk to Bailey’s once a month to read and discuss the books with two or three children. This club benefits both high school and elementary students.

Entry Filed under: Differentiation & ELLs,Quick Tip Tuesday

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