The first day of school often arrives with a mixture of anticipation, excitement, and dread. It’s natural to worry a bit and take a mental inventory of every possible scenario that could transpire over the course of a year in your classroom. While planning for that pivotal first day, consider setting aside the lesson plan, forgoing homework, and dropping the lecture on rules and policies. Your time and energy are better spent making a strong first impression, laying the groundwork for positive relationships with your students, and designing your classroom to be welcoming and inclusive.
“Creating a ‘just right’ classroom environment where all students feel they belong is key to a successful school year,” writes former elementary school teacher Cheryl Abla. “The first five days can set you and your students up for a joyful and successful year or semester.”
Here are six tips to help get the school year off to a fantastic start.
1. Start With a Clean Slate
Teacher expectations exert a powerful force on how students behave in the future, a recent study indicates, and starting the school year labeling some as “troublemakers” can undermine relationships from the get-go and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
On the first day of school, give every student a chance to start with a clean slate. It’s a crucial step in establishing—and repairing—relationships, researchers explain in a 2020 study, and ignoring it can cause relationships to quickly deteriorate, the researchers warn.
“No matter what, give that student a clean slate, a chance to start fresh,” suggests fifth-grade teacher Lisa Mims. She recalls getting a note from one student who thanked her for sticking by him despite getting on her nerves. “If I had treated this child according to the behavior he had exhibited in previous years, he would have never have had the amazing year he ended up having.”
2. Tackle the First-Day Jitters Head-On
If you skip the emotional work at the start of the year, you’ll pay for it down the line, especially if your students are in the midst of crucial transitions. In a 2019 study, researchers from University of Wisconsin–Madison and Stanford asked incoming middle school students—who face circumstances marked by “decreased social belonging, waning academic performance, and increased risk of dropping out”—to read stories from older students describing their own struggles to fit in during middle school.
In one example, a former student wrote that they were “scared of taking big tests” but then discovered that it’s a normal—even common—feeling. In another example, a sixth grader described how they didn’t feel like they fit in at first but then made an effort to talk to other students. “It took time, but I ended up making some close friends.”
The incoming middle school students then participated in short writing exercises, reflecting on what they had read and thinking about how they could manage and even overcome their own challenges. By the end of the school year, these students were absent 12 percent less of the time, had 34 percent fewer behavioral referrals, and received 18 percent fewer Ds or Fs, compared with their peers.
Consider setting aside time early in the year to allow students to journal or talk about the stresses inherent to the start of a year: How will they handle busy schedules? Do they have good study habits—and if not, how might they improve them? What plans do they have for making friends?
3. Mind Your Visuals
Are your classroom walls warm and inviting? Do they reflect your students’ backgrounds and interests? A strong first impression often starts with the visual elements of your classroom—the posters, decorations, and learning aids that make students feel welcome while sparking their curiosity.
Putting up images, short stories, and quotes that feature heroes and leaders from all walks of life can signal to students that they’re “valued learners and belong within the classroom, with far-reaching consequences for students’ educational choices and achievement,” researchers explain in a 2014 study. Curricular material should also reflect the student body. For example, researchers discovered that adjusting images and examples to mirror students’ own cultures boosted course grades by nine percentage points, according to a 2019 study.
Meanwhile, make an effort in the first few weeks of school to showcase student work—doing so can “create a sense of ownership” that’s “significantly correlated with learning progress,” according to a 2015 study.
4. Bank Relationship Time
Students will go the extra mile academically if you invest time into building trust and establishing a supportive environment, suggests a comprehensive 2022 study. The most effective teachers, the researchers concluded, strike a balance between relationships and rigor, resulting in productive classrooms filled with students who “engage in more challenging academic activities, behave more appropriately for the school environment, are genuinely happy to see their teacher, and meet or exceed their teacher’s expectations.”
On the first day of school, start with classic relationship-building strategies: positive greetings at the door, playing the name game, and planning get-to-know-you activities. After breaking the ice, invest in activities that promote a sense of belonging for all students. You can start by asking students to share a rose and thorn about their summer vacation, set aside a few minutes every day to check in on students or conduct surveys to learn more about their interests, or have them create identity portraits, which can be displayed on the walls and can significantly improve a sense of belonging and acceptance in your classroom.
5. CoCreate a Social Contract
You may be tempted to start the school year by taking the reins of the classroom and setting firm rules and policies—but a heavy-handed approach can backfire, leading to constant power struggles for the rest of the year. Be careful that you don’t “unwittingly engage in a negative reinforcement pattern,” researchers caution in a 2016 study, since frequently reprimanding students in front of their peers can cause them to withdraw, creating a cold or even combative environment.
Instead, share the space: Invite students to take responsibility for how the classroom is run. It’s often more effective when “classroom rules are negotiated instead of imposed,” researchers explain in a 2016 meta-analysis of effective classroom management strategies, arguing for an approach that invites students to cocreate classroom rules.
It doesn’t have to be a free-for-all. At the beginning of the year, Bobby Shaddox, a seventh-grade social studies teacher in Portland, Maine, invites students to identify 10 adjectives that describe a smooth-running classroom. Students offer words like “focused,” “considerate,” and “resourceful,” which Shaddox then displays on the board to refer to throughout the school year. “It helps us own the behavior in the classroom,” Shaddox says. “Instead of a top-down list of rules that a teacher gives a class, these are words that we generated together. These are words that we believe in.”
6. Be the Calmness They Need
There will be a few students whose mission is to get under your skin. But escalating tense situations and reacting to every provocation is more often than not a mistake, according to a 2021 study. That’s because “emotions are contagious,” say researchers, and negative emotions displayed by the teacher can have long-lasting, pass-along effects.
When students push your buttons, try your best to tap into your reservoir of compassion and empathy, suggests Amanda Morin, an educator and director of thought leadership at Understood.org. Take a moment to catch your breath, regroup, and then try to look for the reason behind the student’s behavior by asking questions like “Is something bothering you?” and “Are you OK?” Doing so shows that you care about them personally and can look past the choices they make.
It’s not easy, of course, and it helps to come mentally prepared for conflict avoidance on the first day of school. “Think through scenarios that might happen in your classroom and how you want to respond before the start of the year,” suggests high school teacher and instructional coach Emily Terwilliger. The internal role-playing will pay dividends, providing you with a script to rely on when the going gets tough—and giving you a chance to ”make those first redirects and interventions less intimidating.”