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The Challenges of Being the New Kid

The Challenges of Being the New Kid: SEL Can Help Ramona Trevino and the Committee for Children

Benji, a second-grader, lay face down on the floor, refusing to move, despite his teacher’s encouragement to join the class. “Nobody likes me! I don’t like it here!” he cried, throwing math counters across the room and further disrupting the class. Even though Benji was accustomed to international schools, he was obviously frustrated with the unfamiliarity around him—new teacher, new classmates, new routine, and a new culture – now that he was at Graded, the American School of São Paolo, Brazil.

Supporting the social integration of new students is a unique priority for principals at international schools. I removed Benji from his classroom and coaxed him to my office, from where we called his mother. Benji’s father had recently been transferred from Shanghai, China to São Paulo. His mother came here before her husband’s arrival to make sure Benji was enrolled in a good school. Benji was not only upset over the loss of his friends and favorite teacher, he also missed his dad.

Benji fits the profile of a Third Culture Kid or TCK, common to international school communities. His parents are American, he was born and raised in China, and now he is integrating into a school in Brazil. For some, this unique social upbringing promotes resiliency and ease in adapting to new situations, yet others isolate themselves while trying to find a sense of identity and belonging. These internationally mobile children often experience grief in leaving behind the people and places they care for dearly.

All children express grief when transitions or change occur, but for TCKs there can be repetitive cycles of loss and grief. Benji was especially sensitive to separation and his inability to connect to a new group, especially the local children, who had been together since preschool and shared a common language and culture. Benji shared his frustration: “Why should I be a friend? I am just going to leave.”

Like most international schools, Graded ensures students receive a comprehensive academic experience and expects students to acquire the attributes in the International Baccalaureate (IB) learner profile. This profile sets a standard of world citizenship that includes moral and ethical responsibilities to all humanity. As a school, we looked at this commitment to global citizenship and the unique profile of international learners and TCKs and decided to adopt an evidence-based social- emotional learning curriculum. The program we chose, the Second Step program, has been demonstrated to be effective in helping students learn to manage emotions, develop empathy and concern for others, establish positive relationships, make responsible decisions, and handle challenging situations effectively—all skills that help international students manage their unique school experiences.

The attributes of the IB Profile are now regularly taught with the Second Step program throughout our preprimary and elementary schools. All students learn social-emotional skills as part of their class schedule. They learn, practice, and apply the skills taught in the Second Step program, both inside and outside the classroom.

Now that Benji’s classroom has been using the Second Step program, his classmates have greater empathy toward him, and he has acquired self-talk strategies and calming-down techniques. Benji’s teacher joyfully expressed her gratitude for having the resources to teach what Benji needed to be successful. “This is why I became a teacher, to experience the development of the whole child.”

Byline: Ramona Trevino most recently worked as co-principal of Graded’s Preprimary and Elementary Division. She is also the former chief academic officer for the Austin Independent School District, and created the first social-emotional learning department for that district. The Second Step program is developed by the not-for-profit organization Committee for Children, whose mission is to foster the social and emotional development, safety, and well-being of children through education and advocacy.


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