Ways to start orienting your New Au Pair: Some advice for the first two days

by cv harquail on June 30, 2008

The first two or three days can be really overwhelming– not just for your new Au Pair, but for you. It’s like drinking from the proverbial fire hose — Where do you possibly begin? How can you get it all done? How much will she actually understand? Should you spend the first few days sightseeing together? What does she really need to know before you leave her alone with the kids on Monday? Should you hand her the kids and run upstairs to hide?

Take a deep breath. You’ll get to everything (or most things) eventually.

Start with the goal of orienting her to your home– not the house or the appliances per se — but to your home, the social /physical /work space she’s joining with you.

It helps to imagine ‘home orientation’ as a process that takes two weeks…so you have about 14 days just to make it the first time through most of the procedures, policies and personalities. As long as you make it around all the bases once, in the first 2 weeks or so, you’re doing a good job.

Whatever you start with will be fine.

There is no possible way to cover everything you need to think about for orienting your new Au Pair, but we can at least address different ways to approach the start of your new Au Pair’s work in your home. Here are 5 strategies for orienting your new Au Pair.

1. Start with the typical day’s tasks.
2. Start with the most common tasks she’s responsible for.
3. Start with the easiest tasks she’s responsible for.
4. Start with safety basics.
5. Just have her follow you around.

1. Start with the typical day’s tasks.

What does your new Au Pair need to know to make it through the first day that she will be alone with the kids?

Assuming new Au Pair’s first day with you is Friday– and that you or your partner will be home to orient her (as required by law) — you can walk your new Au Pair through the typical week day. Then, the following day, you might have her on duty to practice the tougher parts (like driving to day camp).

Make a list/ take out your list of the ‘daily routine’. Go step by step through what happens on Monday. Take her to the kids’ bus stop. Show her where the day camp is on a map, drive with her there, and then drive back.

2. Start with the most common tasks that your new Au Pair is responsible for.

If you start by showing your new Au Pair how to do the tasks that she’ll do most often, she’s able to start being a help to you (and feeling useful) right away. Will she be changing someone’s diapers? That’s a 4-8x a day job. As soon as you show her how to do that, she can start helping.

3. Start with the easiest tasks she’s responsible for.

Starting with easier tasks lets her feel competent right away– a sure confidence builder. Let’s make breakfast! (cereal + bowl + milk + spoon) Now, she can feed the kids tomorrow morning, and herself tonight if she’s hungry.

4. Start with safety basics.

This strategy is pretty important to me, because safety is a priority in our household.

Starting with safety, you might show your new Au Pair how to lock & unlock the doors, use your alarm system, understand what a smoke alarm is and what it sounds like, buckle kids into car seats, turn the stove on & off, use the escape ladder in her bedroom, and all the rest of the stuff on your safety list. It may sound like overkill (no pun intended), but one thing I do the very first day is talk with my new Au Pair about what to do if there were a fire in the house…we go to different parts of the house and I ask her to tell me “If the house were on fire, and you and the girls were here, what would you do?”

The nice thing about starting with safety issues is that your new Au Pair can feel safe and secure in her new home.

5. Do what you’d be doing anyway, and have your Au Pair help out.

The orientation strategy that takes the least amount of forethought is to have your new Au Pair follow you around the house as you go about your activities (random and/or scheduled) and teach her as you go.

— Do you have lots of laundry to do? Does she have lots of laundry from orientation? Explain to her how to use the washer, stand there & advise or help out as she sorts & pretreats her own stuff, show her how to push the buttons and voila. Laundry Lesson #1 and clean undies for her.

— Is you kids’ room a mess? Have her help you help the kids tidy up their toys. Show her, do it along with her, and get her actively doing.

— Going to the grocery store? Take her with you. Let her wander the aisles, pick out a cereal that looks familiar, and let her choose some fruit.

Other thoughts:

1. Keep a list of what you think you need to tell your new Au Pair, and keep track of what you’ve already shown her. That way, your partner/spouse knows what’s been covered and where to help, and you get a nice feeling of accomplishment.

2. My Au Pair agency suggests that you have your Au Pair be ‘on duty’ right away-– not only does this keep you from treating her for too long as a guest, but it also gives your Au Pair something to do. When she has something to do, it’s easier for your new Au Pair to feel part of things and to feel needed.

3. For the very first two days, I think you should make sure that the Au Pair’s basic needs are met (e.g., food, sleep, contacting her parents) and that she and the kids get to spend some easy & fun time together.

Read and consider the advice that your Au Pair agency has given you. My agency gives us a nice little booklet of Guidelines for a successful year… and when I remember to look at them they are always useful.

5. Ask your new Au Pair what she most wants to learn right away — it might be most important to her to spend some one on one time with each of the kids, or to learn how to make your dog sit & stay… who knows? Ask her, and you’ll start to learn about her, too.

There are many paths to the one goal of a successful and fun year. Don’t obsess, don’t worry too much. Just start, with enthusiasm.

Host Moms: What have been successful (or not successful) starting strategies for you? Share your advice in the comments, below….

Also, if you know a new Host Mom, or a Host Mom who is welcoming a new Au Pair right now, send her this post using the Share This button, below.

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Maggie July 1, 2008 at 3:27 pm

Wondering how people feel about having one au pair overlap with another, as opposed to having to do all the orienting yourself.

Taking a Computer Lunch June 26, 2010 at 10:51 pm

We did it once, and we will try not to do it again. Departing AP was outgoing, had tons of friends, goodbye parties, played with the kids, incoming AP was extremely shy and held back with the kids. (We doubled this mistake by heading to a cabin without TV or Internet for a week – incoming AP felt isolated, especially since her culture was so different and finding foods to which she was accustomed was hard. She didn’t know how to swim, so staying across the street from a lake was not so much fun for her.) We’re taking a three-week break this year while the kids go to sleep-away camp and then we have a family holiday (without any APs). I have a feeling that the departing AP will not tolerate the conditions that our previous departing AP did – sleeping on a futon in our playroom – so I don’t forsee her sticking around until the new AP arrives.

I find that APs make peace with The Camel on their own terms (The Camel is a bit touchy until she gets used to the new person – unfortunately for her the new AP arrives four days before she starts “Middle School,” so she has to get used to a new teacher and aides too.) One thing we make clear to incoming APs that there is no one “right way” to handle The Camel, and as long as they are not actively harming her, then we try not to correct. (Although DH, who quit his job and took care of her for 21 months, will always tell me that he takes the best care of her – and he always shocks people by taking her for a diaper change when we’re out – some people have never seen a Dad take charge.)

Peg July 30, 2008 at 7:03 pm

I agree with this advice. We are about to welcome our 5th au pair and while “refreshing” our Host Family Handbook – I realized that my very first one was 4 pages long – it is now 9 pages long. I touch on everything from childcare, responsibilities, safety, car use, gas policy, curfews, home sickness, their time off, sick time, expectations, etc. I also learned from my au pairs that the “Schedule of the first days” that I leave in their bedroom was very helpful. The au pairs arrive to your home pretty excited, tired, homesick and nervous. You may have a few hours of talking and a nice dinner – but then they close their door in their room and take a breath — I always have a schedule for the first few days – written out — so they know if they have to rise early the next day, what is in store for them, etc. They have all made a point to thank me. And for me, it was just an afterthought originally – so I’m pleased.

We choose not to crossover au pairs although in theory it would help train and relieve the host parents — but having a person who is 12 months into it be with someone new – doesn’t really work – especially at their age. They will pass along either bad, or just “OK” habits, and likely opinions. Each au pair that we’ve had – has been great – but there was always something or two that we didn’t want replicated. They are your kids – train your own childcare provider.

You also need to make a connection with them – they need to know your expectations – there’s a whole lot of dynamics going on — so it’s best that you do it yourself.

cvh August 4, 2008 at 5:40 pm

Thanks for sharing your feelings about overlap– isn’t it funny that with even the greatest Au Pairs, there’s always something maybe you wouldn’t want the next time?
I wonder if there are some good ways to help us “make a connection” with our new Au Pairs, beyond the ‘training’ part… any ideas?

cvh August 5, 2008 at 4:45 pm

Here are some additional thoughts from Marguerite, a community counselor. I moved them over from another spot so that the comments are closer to the topic of “welcoming”..

From Marguerite:
As a counselor , I have a couple of thoughts.

Before your aupair arrives, your counselor can give ( the arriving aupair ) the names and email addresses of other aupairs who have a similiar schedule. There are only a certain number of plots to the novel and there is not that great a variation in the lives most Americans live. Somebody out there has a similiar life.
Your counselor knows who they are.
Once the aupair arrives, the counselor can put the aupair in touch with other aupairs whose lifestyle is somewhat like hers. Sometimes schedule is a greater bond than age or nationality.
I try to write to my aupairs before they arrive.
Lately, a number of aupairs have told me that they have , thanks to the internet , already made contacts and feel socially secure. The advantage of adult input into the networking process is that the counselor thinks of issues just like this one. She is looking at the process from an adult point of view.
Very few host parents have teenage children. At some point in your lives, you will be confronted with the fact that your own children’s friends have vastly different family cultures in terms of assets and priorities. That’s life. Consider this practice.

Taking a Computer Lunch June 26, 2010 at 10:57 pm

Our counselor assigns incoming APs a buddy – usually someone who has already been living in the country for 6-8 months. Some buddies are fantastic, and some are lousy. Their basic job is to meet the AP with whom they have been matched for coffee, show her around, introduce her to people. Our extroverted APs usually have sufficient friends that befriend the incoming APs and take them out, and gossip about us. Our current AP is so introverted that we haven’t met a friend of hers in months, so our new AP will be starting from scratch – although she has made friends with several APs in her country who will be arriving about the same time as she.

NewAPMom October 6, 2009 at 5:55 pm

Peg, thanks for the idea to write a “schedule of the first days”. That’s a great idea and I wouldn’t have thought of it.

Sota Gal June 26, 2010 at 9:47 pm

I love the schedule of the first days, I am going to steal that for sure!

Our AP’s also arrive on Thursday night and the agency always seems to find the dinner time arrivals so it is just me that greets our AP at the airport. We have a chance for our kids to meet our AP right before bed which seems to help with everyone’s nervous energy, so we can all play and act silly together.

The next day is spent with me and we work together on taking care of the kids and making sure she has a chance to call home. Unfortunately with two toddlers/now preschoolers it is difficult to have much of a conversation to show where things are (outside of the need it now realm) and cover much of the safety stuff except for the obvious toddler safety – gates, cabinet latches, keeping things out of their reach, door locks/door and window chimes. Fire safety and alarm use comes later when they are asleep and will not interrupt us. And our oldest is still in show off mode and is vying for the attention of his new captive audience.

On the weekend we’ll do a little outing, maybe the park, farmers market, super market or pool as a family and one of us will also take our AP out for a driving assessment and give her a tour of our community. With all but our in-country au pair we have had to offer lots of extra driving practice and state law reviews and whatnot. We also have to have our AP get her state license to be covered by our insurance policy so we try to get her started on that right away.

The rest of the weekend is spent hanging out at home. We don’t have our AP’s do any full long work days, rather spend time with us and learning what they can about our family, kids schedules, habits and routines. Often one of us will entertain all of the kids while the other shows her how the other stuff works. Then come Monday, they will often feel confident with meal preparation, laundry and a general sense of where to find things. At some point over the weekend we’ll go over the real important stuff from the handbook; safety, contact info (including making sure we have emergency contact info for her) and how to handle emergencies.

Our AD is great about getting au pairs in touch with one another, and the group has always been welcoming of the incoming au pairs which really seems to help. I think I’ll mention the idea of similar schedules or even ages of host kids as a commonality. She always seems to treat it as a country thing. Apparently any 2 people from the same country MUST be the best of friends right? Yes, that may draw some people together and perhaps help with homesickness, but not to the degree that she seems to push it.

Our first AP arrived in the evening and I barely made it home from the airport with her. Our twins then 1, and myself all came down with a stomach virus within minutes of her getting to our home. It was amazing to have her jump in, take care of our son who was 5 then and help us with vomit and diarrhea covered babies after she got him settled. She even stayed up late with my DH to help because I was so sick and was no longer physically able to hold the girls. The next day I lay on the couch helping her when I could by pointing her in the right direction to find things though she really took charge of it all (I guess I wasn’t as helpful or even coherent as I thought I was! :) ) but thankfully DH was able to take some of the day off to really help her. I still tell her to this day how much she impressed us those first days. If it were me, I would have been on the phone to my mom crying hysterically, begging to come home!!! And we made sure she had lots of opportunity to call home, I can’t even imagine the need to vent, cry, express fears and concerns walking into what she did.

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