I recently experienced just a small taste of the frustration that my students must go through when they first arrive in Canada and are trying to navigate the many implicit rules of their new classrooms (as well as the many routines and transitions that happen in a typical school day).


Our five-year-old daughter had been engaging in some dramatic play with her daddy, and wanted to include me in their play. She asked me, “Do you want some blueberries, Momma?”  Not skipping a beat, I said “Yes please”, and put out my hand to receive some imaginary blueberries. She began to make “pew pew” noises then suddenly said, “NO! That’s not how you do it!”.  I tried again, this time pretending to chew imaginary blueberries and making loud smacking sounds with my lips. “NO! That’s not how you play!” Her frustration level was mounting, and my own patience was waning with this game.  “Okay, so what am I supposed to do?” I finally asked. Her daddy patiently explained that I was supposed to wait with my mouth open while our daughter used her magic bracelet to propel imaginary blueberries into my mouth. Our daughter chimed in, “…and you have to wait for the DING sound. You can’t eat them until you hear the DING sound, because that means they are ready to eat!”  Once I knew the rules of the game, I could play along.

Just as there are in our classrooms, there were unspoken rules in the blueberry game.  There was no earthly way that I could have inferred these rules without them being explicitly explained to me or modelled for me.  Similarly, students with beginner English language proficiency, especially those with limited or no prior schooling arriving in our classrooms may have no idea what we expect of them when we instruct the class to “line up”, “take out your social studies duotangs” , “get ready for music class”, or “get changed for gym class”.  The level of frustration that my daughter and I experienced happened as a result of a simple lack of communication. I could have asked my daughter how to play the game as soon as she asked me to play, or she could have explained how to play before we even started. This would have completely removed the frustration on both sides, and would have been easy for us to do, considering that we both speak the same language.  


When classroom teachers use familiar cues to signal upcoming transitions, post visual schedules depicting the activities or subjects that are happening in a day, use common command picture symbols on a ring or lanyard showing words such as sit, line up, bathroom, etc., it can make a world of difference for our newly arrived English Language Learners, and can drastically reduce frustration and miscommunication.  When teachers act out or mime instructions, or have students model for each other, they are making instructions comprehensible and reducing the chances that their newcomers will feel overwhelmed. When teachers physically show kids which tools they need to gather to do a project (i.e. holding up or placing a glue stick, scissors, markers, etc. in a highly visible location), they can cut down on off-task behaviour and increase the time that kids are actually working in a classroom.  


It can be easy to take these little things that we can do to increase comprehension and decrease stress behaviour in our kids for granted, but the little things really do add up.  I am thankful for all that our classroom teachers are doing to help our newcomer students and ALL kids to understand the sometimes confusing and overwhelming rules, routines, and transitions that are part of our school days.