The beginning stages of the school year are important—positive experiences create good first impressions, support classroom expectations, and set the tone for the rest of the year.
While some schools encourage activities like bingo or scavenger hunts, research shows that these types of icebreakers become boring to students by fourth grade. This means that we need to think outside the box to create powerful interactions and joyful moments in our classrooms.
Arts strategies are one way to do this, as they offer an upbeat start to the semester. Dance, visual arts, performing arts, and music engage students while creating opportunities to review classroom rules and expectations. Here are four strategies that integrate arts education into norm-setting and community-building activities.
USE DANCE TO PRACTICE SAFE WALKING
Students need to practice following directions. These directions—part of your classroom expectations—might include walking in line and moving safely in the classroom. However, following directions takes time; learning to complete movements via auditory command takes continuous routine as well as self-regulation, a concept from social and emotional learning (SEL). By combining two common dance games—conga line and freeze dance—you can help students practice these skills.
Begin by playing upbeat music. Then, invite students to dance, walk, and skip but remain in a conga line. When you say “Freeze,” stop the music and have all students freeze. Say “Go” to unfreeze the class, or say a new movement name to keep things flowing. You might offer props, or allow students to choose music and costumes. At the end of the lesson, congratulate them on their listening skills and cooperation.
An important part of this activity is facilitating a post-dance discussion. The class should reflect that walking was the safest and is expected in the classroom. This allows the art strategy to connect back to your objectives for setting classroom expectations. You might invite students to redo this exercise as a reward or for a special occasion.
LEVERAGE VISUAL ARTS TO PROMOTE ORGANIZATION
Visual arts practices teach time-management and cultivate disciplined habits of the mind. One year, my students transformed their folders into beautiful art projects. As a result, students valued them more and remembered to bring their materials and stayed organized.
To implement this practice, explain to students that physical class materials are valuable and help them succeed; then show the class a finished sample (e.g., a notebook, folder cover, or label). Provide markers, crayons, colored pencils, and online resources for finding works of art (you might also invite students to bring in pictures from home). Using these materials, invite students to engage in visual journaling to customize their school materials in or after class.
Another way to promote visual arts and literacy, alongside organization, is visual journaling, which offers students space for artistic self-expression, ownership, and confidence building. Practice visual journaling during curricular units to help students learn how to organize not only their belongings but their thinking, too.
TEACH COMMUNICATION THROUGH THE PERFORMING ARTS
Appropriate communication is crucial in the classroom. Rather than reading rules to the class about how to take turns when speaking, teach these skills via “playacting,” or drama pedagogy training (DPT). DPT strategies use role-play, oral narration, and storytelling, which enhance student-teacher relationships.
Through creative drama, students can reflect on their actions and motivations while doing character study. Neither teachers nor students need theater experience to try these strategies. Plenty of traditional party games, like charades, Mad Libs (or similar build-a-phrase activities), or a class skit or play, offer fun ways to dramatize class rules.
Previously, many of my students talked out of turn. We used our existing SEL curriculum to model desired behavior, but it was teacher-directed. For some students, like dual language learners or those with attention deficit difficulties, direct instruction is not as effective as play-based instruction. To facilitate the lesson in ways that supported nonverbal communication and creativity, I instructed students to work together to create their own social story, which they shared with the class using the Frozen Picture DPT activity.
The class was split half and half. I took one half, and my aide took the other. They came up with a class situation, using three pictures, about how unwanted behavior could be corrected. They showed their frozen pictures—using their bodies as human statues—to the student audience as we (teachers) narrated. We then modified the activity by turning it into a guessing game, the audience guessing what was happening in the tableau.
REINFORCE SCHEDULES THROUGH SONGWRITING
As the popular children’s song goes, “The more we get together, the happier we will be!” In education, quality scheduling makes for happier students. Well-timed activities help children get together in small or large groups while also providing room for independent work. These good habits should begin early in the year; music is a great way to reinforce them, and it is accessible and beneficial for students of diverse neurotypes.
Children have an uncanny ability to remember song lyrics. Modified song lyrics help them remember schedules, expectations, and transitions. Educator Jean Feldman often changed song lyrics to teach basic concepts—for example, through her “Days of the Week” song. I use this strategy with students in K–12. Together to the tune of “Frère Jacques,” we sing, “Hold the railing, hold the railing, do not push, do not push! Everybody’s walking, everybody’s walking, do not push, do not push.”
You can spice up the strategy by using Voicify AI to sing your creations. First, create, with students, an audio sample by singing, recording, and downloading an MP3. Next, let students pick a voice style. (Note: You should pick three age-appropriate characters ahead of time.) After you pick a character voice and use the merge tool, the song will be ready! My students would have loved to hear Plankton from Spongebob sing our daily schedule or a cleanup song—these shared experiences build community.
Repeat these strategies to support student engagement, keep the momentum going, and modify existing lessons. The arts are for everyone, and “all the world’s a stage”—the classroom included.