I adjusted my off-the-shoulder sweatshirt covered in splatter paint. Inspired by the movie Flashdance, my top did little to distract from the fact that I was a 5′ 8″ 12-year-old standing alone outside a 7th-grade classroom. It was the first day of school, and I knew no one. My family had just relocated from the East Coast to Arizona.
As I waited for the door to my classroom to open, I saw two girls whispering nearby.
“Smile,” I thought to myself as my lips curled over my teeth, covered in braces. “Make new friends,” I could hear my mother’s voice inside my head coaching me.
They approached with the kind of confidence reserved for tweens who lived in the same place their entire lives.
“Are you the new teacher?” one of them asked.
“No,” I replied. Then I froze. I knew I was taller than the average 12-year-old, but did they just mistake me for an adult? “I’m a new student here,” I told them.
And then they walked away.
Being the new kid is a phenomenon that many middle and high schoolers will experience in their lives. School districts and government agencies officially refer to it as student mobility, defined as any time a student changes school for reasons other than grade promotion. Student mobility can be voluntary, such as changing schools to participate in a magnet program, or involuntary, as was my case, due to a change in my father’s job.
But on that uncomfortable first day, I was not thinking about what kind of statistic I was. All I knew was that I was alone, nervous, and scared.
The experience of being the new kid has encouraged me to teach my tween and teen to look for the new students in their middle and high schools—and be kind to them.
But it doesn’t always come naturally. Sometimes we have to tell our kids specifically what to look for and exactly how to help. Here are ten concrete ways I’m teaching my kids how to reach out and support the new kid in school:
10 Ways to Help the New Kid
1. Look for the new kids.
Recognize that each year there will be new kids at school—kids who do not know anyone. Look for them, not past them. It can be challenging in upper grades when students change classes, but the new students will be the ones not talking to or sitting with anyone. They’ll be the ones trying to figure out where to go.
2. Say hello.
Then, try to start a conversation. Ask where they are from? Do they have pets? Siblings? Play sports? Have some questions handy.
3. Sit with the new kid at lunch.
Oh, my word, just sit with them at lunch.
4. Connect on social media.
Friend the new kid on Snapchat or Instagram. Social media can make many kids feel like outsiders. Simply including them in a group chat or school group can ease the transition.
5. Talk to the new kid.
Did I mention just talk to the new kid, and not only once? It’s okay if you’re not best friends, but if you never even speak to the new kid, then you won’t find out if you have anything in common.
6. Give the new kid tips.
Tell new students about clubs, sports, or other activities. When I was invited to join the basketball team (remember how tall I was?), I gained an entire group of friends.
7. Help the new kid navigate the cafeteria.
When I was the new kid again during my junior year of high school, I ate lunch outside on the front steps because I was too intimidated to use the cafeteria—for an entire month.
8. Hang with the new kid.
Sit with the new kid on the bus, stand with them at the pick-up loop, or give them a ride home if they lives in your neighborhood. Even if it’s just for a day or two.
9. Compliment the new student.
Maybe they have a cool backpack, or they’re wearing a shirt with a music group you love. Remember those girls that walked away from me in 7th grade? Later, one of them told me she liked my watch band. It was a small comment, but it meant so much to me.
10. Be welcoming and inclusive in group work in class.
This may mean that rather than teaming up with your best friend since kindergarten, you reach out to someone new. Remember, the new kid knows no one and things may have run differently at their old school.
Parents, by teaching your children to look for the new students and take any of these concrete steps to be kind and helpful, your teenager could help someone else’s child find their way in a new school. And wouldn’t you want someone else to do the same for your kid?
And if you see any new parents standing alone at back-to-school night or looking lost at the pick-up loop? Then it’s your turn to say hello. Ask where they are from, how many kids do they have, and what grade.
You may find a new friend, too.