Welcoming Hannah

One November morning, I learned that Hannah, a transfer student, would join my third grade class the very next day. Feeling fortunate to have a little notice, I shared the news with the children and then led them in discussing how they could help their new classmate feel comfortable in our class and school.

I structured the discussion around teaching Hannah the daily routines we’d been practicing since September. Because the children knew the routines so well, we needed just a fifteen-minute morning discussion, forty-five minutes of planning, and a fifteen-minute review before dismissal. The time spent was well worthwhile—for all the children.

Sharing the News

“We’re so lucky,” I told the children gathered in our meeting spot. “We have a new classmate joining us! Her name is Hannah. How can we welcome her?”

As the children brainstormed excitedly, I helped them focus on Hannah’s needs. “Remember how we’ve talked about empathy—imagining how another person might feel.” I asked, “Think about going to a new school. What would you want to know?”

The children’s suggestions covered most of our basic routines, such as doing morning tasks, using bathrooms, and gathering belongings before dismissal. I charted their ideas, added a few, and then posed another question: “What should Hannah know about how we’ve agreed to treat one another in our classroom?”

Another flurry of suggestions. I guided the children in describing how we look, sound, and feel as we follow our classroom rules:

  1. Be safe.
  2. Use time responsibly.
  3. Be kind to each other.
  4. Use materials in the way they’re meant to be used.

With a good list of ideas, we began brainstorming how to teach Hannah in a comfortable way. “We could have welcoming committees,” suggested Juan. “One committee for each thing Hannah needs to learn, and just those people could teach her.”

The idea caught fire with the class, and the children sorted themselves into committees—Recess and Lunch, Meetings, Getting around the School, and Inside the Classroom.

Planning

Each committee decided what to teach Hannah. At recess, for example, she’d need to know how safe play on the structures looks and sounds. At lunch, she’d need to know how to invite someone to sit with her. Every child took on a role, so the whole class felt invested, and Hannah would have contact with each new classmate.

To avoid overwhelming Hannah, the children decided that for the first week, only committee members would guide her. After that, anyone could step in.

Reviewing and Doing

Before dismissal, we gathered for brief reminders. We would greet Hannah as we greet each other each morning: with eye contact, a cheerful “Hello,” and a smile or wave. Then we’d introduce ourselves, giving Hannah the same physical space we give each other: No more than three children would gather around her at one time.

Next morning, Hannah’s arrival went very smoothly. Guiding just enough to keep everyone on track, I watched the children carry out their roles with care, clearly relishing the real-world opportunity of working together to help someone.

Such a thoughtful, practical introduction let Hannah settle in quickly. Within two weeks, she told us, “I’m glad I came to this school. Everyone has been so nice to me. I feel safe here.”

Growing in Skills and Empathy

We had no other transfer students that year, but we did have visitors. I noticed the children’s increasing confidence, competence, and empathy as they welcomed each person and explained any routines the visitor needed to know.

Relying on our daily routines to welcome Hannah taught me an important lesson: Those routines can help stretch children beyond knowing what to do themselves to empathetically teaching someone else—with positive results for everyone.

Tracy Mercier teaches third graders at Broad Brook Elementary School in Broad Brook, Connecticut. She is a Responsive Classroom consulting teacher.

Tags: Classroom Visitors, Empathy, New Student

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