From Addressing Barriers to Learning,
Vol. 2 (4), Fall 1997

Easing the Impact of Student Mobility:
Welcoming & Social Support

Youngsters entering a new school and neighborhood are confronted with multiple transition challenges. The challenges are compounded when the transition also involves recent arrival to a new country and culture. In the short run, failure to cope effectively with these challenges can result in major learning and behavior problems; in the long run, the psychological and social impacts may be devastating.

Cardenas, Taylor, Adelman, 1993

From the perspective of addressing barriers to learning, welcoming and social support are essential facets of every school's transition programs. Estimates suggest 20-25% of students change schools each year. The figures are greater in school districts with large immigrant populations. While some make the transition easily, many find themselves alienated or "out-of-touch" in new surroundings. Youngsters entering a new school and neighborhood are confronted with multiple transition challenges. The challenges are compounded when the transition also involves recent arrival in a new country and culture.

Youngsters vary in capability and motivation with respect to dealing with psychological transition into new settings. Students entering late in a school year often find it especially hard to connect and adjust. Making friends means finding ways to be accepted into a complex social milieu. School-wide strategies to ensure school adjustment of newly entering students and their families can reduce adjustment problems, ease bicultural development, enhance student performance, and establish a psychological sense of community throughout the school.

Welcoming and Social Support
as Indicators of School Reform

Welcoming new students and their families is part of the broader reform goal of creating schools where staff, students and families interact positively and identify with the school and its goals. Programs and related mechanisms and processes are needed to

How well a school welcomes and involves new students and families are basic signs of program quality and staff attitudes. As such, these indicators probably are good predictors of a school's overall impact.

Of course, for efforts to make welcoming and social support at schools more than another desired but unachieved set of reform aims, policy makers at all levels must take action. It is patently unfair to hold specific schools accountable for yet another major systemic change if they are not given the backing necessary to accomplish it. In an era when new sources of funding are unlikely, it is clear that such programs must be assigned a high priority, and funds must be reallocated in keeping with the level of priority. To do less is to guarantee the status quo.

Phases of Intervention

Interventions for welcoming and involving new students and families are as complex as any other psychological and educational intervention. This is especially so since the focus must not only be on those entering at the beginning of a term but on all who enter throughout the year. Clearly, the activity requires considerable time, space, materials, and competence. Specific strategies evolve over three overlapping phases:

(1) The first phase is broadly focused -- using general procedures to welcome and facilitate adjustment and participation of all who are ready, willing, and able.

(2) Some people need just a bit more personalized assistance. Such assistance may include personal invitations, ongoing support for interacting with others and becoming involved in activities, aid in overcoming minor barriers to successful adjustment, a few more options to enable effective functioning and make participation more attractive, and so forth.

(3) More is needed for those who have not made an effective adjustment or who remain uninvolved (e.g., due to major barriers, an intense lack of interest, or negative attitudes). This phase requires continued use of personalized contacts, as well as addition of cost intensive outreach procedures as feasible.

In pursuing each phase, a major concern is overcoming barriers that make it hard for newcomers to function in the new community and school. Research points to a variety of familial, cultural, job, social class, communication, and school personnel attitude factors that hinder transitions. Barriers can be categorized as institutional, personal, or impersonal. Each type includes negative attitudes, lack of mechanisms and skills, or practical deterrents. For instance, institutional barriers encompass a lack of policy commitment to welcoming, inadequate resources (money, space, time), lack of interest or hostile attitudes on the part of staff, administration, and community, and failure to establish and maintain necessary mechanisms and skills to ensure program success.

Key Intervention Tasks

In pursuing each intervention phase, there are four major intervention tasks:

  1. Establishing a mechanism for planning, imple-menting, and evolving programmatic activity

  2. Creating welcoming and initial home involvement strategies (e.g., information and outreach to new students and families; a school-wide welcoming atmosphere; a series of specific "New Student/New Parent Orientation" processes)

  3. Providing social supports and facilitating involvement (e.g., peer buddies; personal invitations to join relevant ongoing activities)

  4. Maintaining support and involvement--including provision of special help for an extended period of time if necessary

Task 1: A Program Mechanism

Like any other progam, efforts to welcome and involve new students and families require institutional commitment, organization, and ongoing involvement. That is, the program must be school-owned, and there must be a mechanism dedicated to effective program planning, implemention, and long-term evolution.

One useful mechanism is a Welcoming Steering Committee. Such a committee is designed to (a) adopt new strategies that fit in with what a school already is doing and (b) provide leadership for evolving and maintaining a welcoming program. The group usually consists of a school administrator (e.g., principal or AP), a support service person (e.g., a dropout counselor, Title I coordinator, school psychologist), one or more interested teachers, the staff member who coordinates volunteers, an office staff representative, and hopefully a few dedicated parents.

Task 2: Creating Welcoming and Initial Home Involvement Strategies

It is not uncommon for students and parents to feel unwelcome at school. The problem may begin with their first contacts. Efforts to enhance welcoming and facilitate involvement must counter factors that make the setting uninviting and develop ways to make it attractive. This can be viewed as the welcoming or invitation problem.

From a psychological perspective, welcoming is enmeshed with attitudes school staff, students, and parents hold about involving new students and families. Welcoming is facilitated when attitudes are positive. And, positive attitudes seem most likely when those concerned perceive personal benefits as outweighing potential costs (e.g., psychological and tangible).

A prime focus in addressing welcoming is on ensuring that most communications and interactions between the school and students and families convey a welcoming tone. This is conveyed through formal communications to students and families, procedures for reaching out to individuals, and informal interactions.

An early emphasis in addressing the welcoming problem should be on establishing formal processes that:

  1. convey a general sense of welcome to all

  2. extend a personalized invitation to those who appear to need something more.

Communications and invitations to students and their families can be done in two forms:

  1. general communications (e.g., oral and written communications when a new student registers, classroom announcements, mass distribution of flyers, newsletters)

  2. special, personalized contacts (e.g., personal conferences and notes from the teacher).

For those who are not responsive to general invitations, the next logical step is to extend special invitations and increase personalized contact. Special invitations are directed at designated individuals and are intended to overcome personal attitudinal barriers and can be used to elicit information about other persisting barriers.

Task 3: Providing Social Supports and Facilitating Involvement

Social supports and specific processes to facilitate involvement are necessary to:

(a) address barriers
(b) sanction participation of new students/families in any option and to the degree each finds feasible (e.g., initially legitimizing minimal involvement and frequent changes in area of involvement)
(c) account for cultural and individual diversity
(d) enable those with minimal skills to participate
(e) provide social and academic supports to improve participation skills.

In all these facilitative efforts, established peers (students and parents) can play a major role as peer welcomers and mentors.

If a new student or family is extremely negative, exceptional efforts may be required. In cases where the negative attitude stems from skill deficits (e.g., doesn't speak English, lacks social or functional skills), providing special assistance with skills is a logical and relatively direct approach. However, all such interventions must be pursued in ways that minimize stigma and maximize positive attitudes.

Some reluctant new arrivals may be reached, initially, by offering them an activity designed to give them additional personal support. For example, newcomers can be offered a mutual interest group composed of others with the same cultural background or a mutual support group (e.g., a bicultural transition group for students or parents -- C�rdenas, Taylor, & Adelman, 1993; a parent self-help group -- Simoni & Adelman, 1990). Parent groups might even meet away from the school at a time when working parents can participate. (The school's role would be to help initiate the groups and provide consultation as needed.) Relatedly, it is important to provide regular opportunities for students, families, and staff to share their heritage and interests and celebrate the cultural and individual diversity of the school community.

Task 4: Maintaining Involvement

As difficult as it is to involve some newcomers initially, maintaining their involvement may be even a more difficult matter. Maintaining involvement can be seen as a problem of:

(a) providing continuous support for learning, growth, and success (including feedback about how involvement is personally beneficial)

(b) minimizing feelings of incompetence and being blamed, censured, or coerced.

A critical element in establishing a positive sense of community at a school and of facilitating students school adjustment and performance is involvement of families in schooling. This is why parent involvement in schools is a prominent item on the education reform agenda. It is, of course, not a new concern. As Davies (1987) reminds us, the "questions and conflict about parent and community relationships to schools began in this country when schools began" (p. 147). Reviews of the literature on parents and schooling indicates wide endorsement of parent involvement.

With respect to students with school problems, parent involvement has been mostly discussed in legal terms (e.g., participation in the IEP process). There has been little systematic attention paid to the value of and ways to involve the home in the efforts to improve student achievement. (The term, parent involvement, and even family involvement is too limiting. Given extended families, the variety of child caretakers, and the influence of older siblings, the concern would seem minimally one of involving the home.)

To involve the home, a staff must reach out to parents and others in the home and encourage them to drop in, be volunteers, go on field trips, participate in creating a community newsletter, organize social events, plan and attend learning workshops, meet with the teacher to learn more about their child's curriculum and interests, and establish family social networks. It is imperative that the only contact not be when they are called in to discuss their child's learning and/or behavior problems. When those in the home feel unwelcome or "called on the carpet," they cannot be expected to view the school as an inviting setting.

Steps in Welcoming: Key Elements and Activities

In pursuing strategies for enhancing welcoming and home involvement a first concern is to ensure a positive welcome at the various initial encounters school staff have with a new student and family.

Each point of contact represents an opportunity and a challenge with respect to welcoming new students and families, linking them with social supports, assisting them to make a successful transition, and identifying those who do not so that individual school adjustment needs can be addressed.

Click here to view a Table outlining steps that can be taken at various points of contact.(a new page will open)


C�rdenas, J., Taylor, L., & Adelman, H. S. (1993). Transition support for immigrant students. J. of

Multicultural Counseling and Development, 21, 203-210.

Davies, D. (1987). Parent involvement in the public schools: Opportunities for administrators. Education and Urban Society,

19, 147-163.

Epstein, J. L. (1987). Parent involvement: What research says to administrators. Education and Urban Society, 19, 119-136.

Simoni, J., & Adelman, H. S. (1993). School-based mutual support groups for low income parents. The Urban

Review, 25, 335-350.

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