The beginning of a new school year is an exciting time. The atmosphere is recharged and reenergized. We have ideas to set our classrooms up in ways that get our new students excited to learn and grow in our new community. The start of the year is also a great time to begin thinking about ways to build our students’ social and emotional learning (SEL) skills.
This is something you can work on well before students arrive through the way you design your classroom—the physical layout of your room can help foster SEL.
Room for Circle Time
One way is to have a meeting space large enough to accommodate your students and yourself when you have circle time. Circles represent a power dynamic where everyone in the learning community has an equal say and part. There is not a clear authoritative point when we’re in our circle. I sit side by side with the students. My favorite ways to use this space are for morning meetings, restorative circles, and closing circles. We also use this area for whole group instruction by forming rows and partnerships.
Another important area to set up in your classroom is a calm-down corner. This is a way for you to give students space to regulate themselves in times of big feelings. This should be in a semiprivate area of the classroom, but not exclusionary. We want students to have the privacy they need to work through their big emotions, but not in an ostracizing way. I set up my calm-down corner with noise-canceling headphones, sensory items, and paper for students to write or draw.
You should also consider the location of your desk. This can be a representation of the power dynamic between students and their teacher. Is your desk isolated from them? Where you place your desk sends an important message. Being certain that your materials and data are private as needed, you want to make sure that your desk doesn’t generate teacher-versus-student power standoffs.
Routines that Support SEL
Routines are also a wonderful way to foster SEL development. We know that routines are the solid ground on which our classroom stands. So intentionality behind them is key.
Morning meetings are great routines to introduce the very first day of school. Having students check in with themselves helps them adjust to coming in and getting their day started. In my morning meetings, we have four components: greetings, sharing, announcements, and a game. Morning meetings help focus on building relationships with one another.
Also, we implement self-regulation by allowing students to pass during any morning-meeting activity. The beginning of the year starts with me modeling the structure of the morning meeting, and eventually students take it over. They become the facilitators, and I am a participant. Having a student-led morning meeting fosters self-confidence, collaboration, and the vulnerability to take risks and try something new.
Before our closing circle, we work on another daily ritual, resetting our classroom. Giving students time to reorganize, regroup, and get the space ready helps with closure for the day and encourages self-management for the learning community. Tasks include cleaning desks, returning supplies, organizing the library, and checking to make sure their laptops are charging.
These tasks help students to take responsibility for the physical environment of their learning community. In my classroom, we do this the last five minutes before our closing circle, and everyone has a job. Having them take on these initiatives helps them to value the space we are in.
We finish each day with our closing circle. This is a time to celebrate each other and reflect on the day before we go home.
This routine also starts with me building the foundation in the beginning of the year and eventually becomes student-led. We do shout-outs and celebrations where we celebrate who did something awesome that day. Then, we do apologies and redos, which give students an opportunity to take ownership of any mistakes or set a goal to do better tomorrow. This routine drives home that each day we come to school we start fresh.
Community Building Through SEL
Outside of daily rituals, there are also community-building activities we can incorporate at the beginning of the year to set students up for success. Being intentional about activities you plan for the first days of school can help foster the growth of students’ SEL skills.
I like to begin the year with science, technology, engineering, arts, and math, or STEAM, challenges. These activities are some of my favorites. They get students working together and problem-solving, and they teach skills about perseverance and being in a group. In these challenges, it’s important to drive home the SEL lessons you want to promote.
For example, in my fourth-grade classroom we focus on collaboration as part of one STEAM challenge every year. As students are working, I chart the actions of students that show collaboration. Afterward, we talk about compromise, combining ideas, and effective communication. Throughout the school year, we refer back to these skills as we work in groups. The best part is that they are student generated.
Read-alouds are also a big part of the beginning of the school year. In order to focus on SEL during this time, I like to incorporate lots of books about risk taking. Sharing stories with students about risk taking and talking about what it means to take a risk at school makes the concept more accessible.
Finally, play-based learning is a great way to foster the social and emotional well-being of your students at the beginning of the year.
Having students play has many benefits. You get to see student interactions and which social skills you may want to target right away in the classroom community. This also is a great way to introduce kid-sized problems. Teaching students that they are able to solve problems on their own will help with conflict resolution. This also allows you to support students in determining when and how to ask trusted adults for help with conflict.