Welcome students who are newcomers to Canada
The school environment has an important impact on a student’s sense of belonging and overall mental health and well-being. There are many ways staff and students can contribute to a welcoming school environment for students who join our school communities from different countries and cultures.
How to create welcoming school and classroom environments (Tier 1)
A culturally competent school community
- expresses commitment to equity and inclusion
- monitors and addresses intolerance and discrimination
- demonstrates a willingness to learn about the traditions, strengths, and needs of newcomers
Here are some strategies to create a welcoming environment for students who are newcomers.
In the school
- Learn about the newcomer experience from credible information sources (e.g. a local settlement service or Citizenship and Immigration Canada).
- Form a school reception team to assist with welcoming and orientation.
- Dedicate ample time for intake interviews to include parent concerns/hopes for their children.
- Ensure parents and students are involved in orientation activities.
- During initial meetings, inquire about the child’s strengths, interests, and needs.
- Adopt a learning stance and avoid making assumptions about the family’s prior experiences.
- During orientation, include information about safety procedures, routines, and attendance.
- Review aspects of school life that might be frightening for some students (e.g., ringing bells).
- Offer specially trained student helpers to provide full school tours for the whole family.
- Ensure the student and his/her family has access to competent adult interpreters.
- Post multiple signs in the student’s home language and other common languages from your school community.
- Provide translated information about settlement and mental health services in the school and community.
- Connect with families regularly to discuss their child’s transition to school.
In the classroom
- Greet each student by name and with a smile daily.
- Have predictable visual routines in the classroom. Announce changes in advance.
- Make sure students know and understand the roles of school team members.
- Ensure the classroom environment reflects the linguistic and cultural diversity of students.
- Build relaxation breaks into each day, particularly during transitions.
- Encourage and support students’ use of their first/dominant language in the classroom and at home.
- Share information with the class to help students to understand and welcome newcomers.
- Take time to get to know the unique stories and strengths of newcomer students.
- Provide an opportunity for all students to share information about their unique cultural identity.
- Pair each newcomer student with a peer helper to help with orientation and routines.
- Promote compassion and understanding and address instances of intolerance directly.
- Notice and encourage student leadership and kindness.
- Know how to support students and families to access settlement and mental health services.
Notice signs a student may be struggling to adjust
Although most children who are newcomers are resilient and do not develop patterns of emotional distress, some will require additional support because of migration stress, problems with adjustment or the experience of trauma. Educators are in a good position to notice when a student is struggling and to provide caring support in the classroom.
Common signs of difficulty with adjustment
- weak bowel/bladder control
- headaches, nausea
- trouble eating or sleeping
- more vulnerable to illness
- may appear lethargic
- reluctant to join physical activity
- substance use and abuse
- worries when away from family
- sad, depressed, withdrawn
- aggressive, tantrums, defiance
- may appear angry or irritable
- emotional numbness/distancing
- constant discussion of war
- exaggerated startle response
- plays repetitively
- difficulty engaging with classroom material
- may block out new language
- weak concentration, distractible
- easily frustrated
- disengaged from classmates
- increased absenteeism
Provide targeted classroom support (Tier 2 or 3)
- Foster a calm and predictable classroom environment.
- Provide cues to signal transitions and warnings about changes to routines.
- Maintain a high level of physical presence, support, and supervision.
- Use a soothing tone in your interactions with the student.
- Create connections with the student and provide extra support through difficult situations.
- Set academic expectations that encourage motivation and success.
- Offer ways to manage emotions and behaviour in the classroom (e.g., quiet spaces, relaxation).
- Model and help the student to understand the steps for problem-solving, conflict resolution, etc.
- Give the student choices. A sense of control will help him/her to feel safe and confident.
- Set limits, and help the student to comply with requests (e.g., I see you need help with…).
- Language learning can be challenging. Attend to, and reinforce attempts to communicate while supporting the use of primary language.
- Create regular opportunities to share progress and to highlight strengths and concerns with parents.
Extend the circle of support (Tier 2 or 3)
What to do if you’re concerned a student is struggling to adjust
Remember, it’s not your role to diagnose mental health issues. When you notice and document your observations, you can help students to get the support they need.
When to take action
- The student’s struggles are affecting their day-to-day functioning.
- The signs of difficulty seem severe or prolonged.
- The student or their family has expressed concern.
What to do
- Follow your school board’s protocol for accessing mental health support. This may include
- consulting with your principal, vice-principal or member of your school’s mental health leadership team
- discussing your observations with the student and/or their parent/guardian
- a referral for professional mental health support from school board personnel (e.g., school social worker or school psychologist)
- a referral for professional mental health support within the community
You are a critical part of the support process because you help with early identification. You will remain part of the student’s circle of support as they move to, through, and from professional mental health services.
Take care of yourself
It’s essential that you take care of yourself too – for your well-being, and so you’re better able to support the students you serve. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings and try basic self-care strategies . Learn to recognize when you need additional support. Help is available for you through your employee assistance program.