Your classroom can be a place where students (and you!) enjoy being and learning. Building community while creating a safe learning environment helps keep students engaged in learning with each other. Here are a few ideas on fostering positive relationships that have worked well for me.
Before Students Arrive
Learn as much as you can about your students ahead of time. Have a system that allows you quick access to educational plans along with a place to log communication, and write notes about what helps particular students find success.
Open the door of communication. Send a note to students and parents welcoming them to your class, giving any necessary information, and sharing your excitement for the year. Keep it short and straightforward. This also means that your first communication home is positive!
Label your classroom. Write your name, classroom number, and subject next to the door, and post it in the front of the room. I found a Bitmoji template online and used it to create a poster with pictures about my interests, which sparked conversations with students.
Create a seating system. I have found that having a seating chart on the first day of school eases students’ anxiety about where to sit and allows me to start to learn names right away. Having numbers on the desks creates a way to easily group students, assign roles, and allow for students to move around the room, to get supplies and/or work in small groups.
First Day of School
Greet your students at the door. Smiling is highly encouraged.
Hand students a personal survey. This is a key step to getting to know each student.
Introduce yourself. Share pictures and go over any essential information about your class and expectations.
Play a name game. Students must learn each other‘s names to build community and have everyone feel seen in the classroom. Whatever game you pick, remember to have clear instructions visible and to model the game while students are all still seated.
One idea is to put students in small groups (again, the numbered seating system can be helpful) and have each group stand in a circle, tossing a soft object around. They need to list everyone who has had the object and call out the name of the next person before tossing it to them. The game continues until everyone has been named. If groups finish quickly, you can add another object to toss or have students add their favorite animal to their name. Eventually, you can start combining groups to learn more names.
First Week of School
Balance community-building activities with subject matter. This keeps the focus on creating an engaged, positive learning environment.
Have a brief conversation with each student. This creates a positive connection and helps set the tone for the year. Use their survey from the first day as a conversation starter. Check in on how students are doing and acknowledge any education plans in place or ways you can support them.
Remember to take your cues from students and never force communication. Let them know you care about their success, are here for them, and are happy they’re in your class. This is paramount for having a strong base when/if behaviors come up throughout the year. (For more information about this strategy, check out “The Power of a 45-Second Investment in Relationship Building.”)
Establish norms and class expectations. As a classroom community, think through what you want the learning environment to look and feel like. There are many different ways to do this, and whatever you come up with, be sure to clearly post, reinforce, and revisit these norms and expectations.
Be proactive. Teach and review procedures, guidelines, and expectations for every activity. It may feel redundant, but giving simple, straightforward instructions (verbal and written) can alleviate disruptive behaviors. If everyone knows what’s going on, what to expect, and what to do, students feel safer, are more engaged, and become positive contributing members to the classroom community.
Play 4 Corners. Use labeled corners (1–4) in your classroom to give students four options to choose from, discuss, and share out. To organize this, I use a Google slideshow with a diagram of the corners and choices with a timer embedded in the slide.
For example, I ask students to choose a season they enjoy (1: Winter; 2: Spring; 3: Summer; 4: Autumn), go to that corner, find an elbow partner (or group of 3), and ask each person to give their name and share their reason. After one minute of discussion, I pick a student from each corner to share what they said or heard (or they can pick a volunteer from their group to speak).
Play “How Well Do You Know Your Teacher?.” This could be in the form of a Kahoot, a Jeopardy-type game, a worksheet, or any game you can think of. It’s fun for students to get to know who you are as a person, and the more interesting, school-appropriate facts they know, the easier it is to connect with a wider range of students over shared interests.
One suggestion for this and other activities is to consistently use random groupings. This helps students learn each other’s names more quickly and get comfortable working with others.
Use a people match activity. Using a people match activity gets students out of their seats, talking to each other and making connections over similarities. Encourage students to have conversations with each other while doing this activity. Students can keep the paper to remember what they had in common.
After the excitement of the first weeks of school winds down, remember that it’s never too late for students to learn names and make connections with each other. Building in brief icebreaker activities will keep students engaged in learning and growing. The purpose of all these activities is to humanize each member of the classroom community (including you), which makes the overall learning experience safer, kinder, and more positively engaging.