The first few weeks of the new school year provide a great opportunity to begin developing a sense of community in your classroom. Establishing a strong classroom community promotes belonging, collaboration, positive social interactions, and a growth mindset. It helps provide students with a safe environment to learn, play, and grow. Here are a few suggestions to start your year off on the right foot and develop a sense of community in your classroom:
Get to Know Each Other
Provide your students with opportunities to get to know each other. You will also want to get to know them and your students will love learning more about you. There are many ways to accomplish this and you may want to incorporate a few different activities into the coming weeks. Some classrooms have a “Special Me,” where each child takes a turn bringing in three special objects and sharing with the class why they’re important to him. For example, a student may bring in a photo taken on a trip and share with the class where he and his family went. A student who loves to play baseball could bring in her glove and talk about her team.
A simple activity is to have students mill around the room to music, then stop and find a partner near them when the music stops. Pose a question for each partner to answer like, “Do you have any pets?” or “What’s your favorite thing to eat?” Encourage students to find a new partner each time the music stops.
Having a family tree is a great way for students to share who is in their family. You can create one by having a large tree on a bulletin board or wall and asking each student to bring in a family photo to add to the tree. As an added bonus, if students are feeling homesick, they can look at the picture of their family as you remind them that home time is soon.
If your classroom is completely set up before the students even arrive, it will be difficult to provide them with a sense of ownership and belonging. It’s okay to have some blank canvases in the room, waiting for the children’s input. Consider leaving spaces to display student work, such as artwork or writing. You may also wish to have an area that will be dedicated to students’ interests. If a few weeks into the year you discover that your students are very interested in bugs, use a bulletin board to display their learning about insects.
Another way to encourage a sense of ownership in your classroom community is to give students responsibilities. This may be a set of roles that rotate on a weekly basis. For example, students may be responsible for jobs like emptying the recycling, sweeping around the sand table, or bringing materials to the office.
The first few weeks are the ideal time to encourage students to work with a variety of classmates. You can accomplish this by leading them in team-building games. Check out Tom Wujec’s “Marshmallow Challenge” for an effective activity that is quick and easy to set up. It’s a great challenge for a variety of ages, with results showing that young children achieve even greater success than adult participants.
There are many other games you can play, whether in the gym or outside, to promote skills like cooperation and problem-solving. A simple idea is to ask small groups of students to work together to form different letters or numbers using their bodies. Another activity that requires no materials or set-up is to ask students to line up in certain ways, like by height, without speaking. To encourage students to work with different classmates, have them mill around the room then call out a number. Students must get into a group with that many members. It’s great to hear children inviting others to come and join their group.
A key ingredient to creating a safe learning environment is the knowledge that mistakes are okay. From the onset of the school year, it’s important to teach students that mistakes are a part of our learning. If students believe that they need to always be right, they will be afraid to take chances and may even pass on participating in activities.
Read-alouds are a great way to begin teaching young students about the “Power of Yet” – something you can’t do…yet. Books like “Giraffes Can’t Dance” and “Making a Splash” lend themselves to conversations about growth mindsets. You can further the discussion by having children brainstorm things they would like to learn how to do and perhaps even have their goals on display in the classroom. Make sure you chime in as well. Share with your students that you’d love to learn how to skate or how to decorate a cake.
It will be important throughout the year to model that it’s okay to make mistakes. When you find yourself without an answer to a question, admit it and tell students that you need to look that one up! When you do something like forget your water bottle in the car, make a point of sharing your silly little mistake with your students. These small gestures can go a long way in shaping your students’ attitudes towards mistakes.
Set a goal for yourself to work with intentionally at creating a positive classroom community this year. You and your students will reap the many benefits of spending the year in a safe, supportive, collaborative learning environment.
Written by: Erin Agnello
Edited & Designed by: Jamie Schmalenberger
My name is John Haber. I’m a Pediatric Occupational Therapist and the founder of Nogginsland. I became a COTA in 2003, and then went back to school much later, receiving my Master’s Degree in OT from Mercy College in New York in 2016.
Over the years, I’ve worked with a variety of populations in different settings, from school districts, to developmental disability centers, to children’s hospitals.