Social and Emotional Learning

Helping Students Start the School Year With a Positive Mindset

Three activities teachers can use to help students -- especially those who had a rough summer or struggle academically -- get the school year off to a fresh start.
August 19, 2014         Updated August 9, 2016
Boy happily running with his backpack

For students who have had trouble in school, or who have had a negative summer, it is especially important to get the school year off to a fresh start. And for all students, having a positive mindset makes learning much more likely. Here are four activities to help accomplish these goals.

Identity and Purpose: Who Am I?

Now that students are back in school, it's a good time to help them refocus on learning, their strengths, and the personal and other resources that will help them succeed. Students can individually fill out the grid below, and then pair-share, discuss in small groups, and finally share with the class some of their responses. (Students tend to be most comfortable sharing numbers 2, 4, and 6 below when in larger groups.)

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You may also wish to use other creative forms of sharing, such as having students create a collage or chart with all of their answers to each question or the top three answers to each question. Consider integrating this activity into any journal writing your students do.

  1. What motivates me?
  2. What are my best abilities?
  3. How do peers influence me?
  4. When and with whom am I at my best?
  5. Who are my best sources of help?
  6. How can I do more of what will best help me to succeed?

A Living Poll

Read each statement and, based on students’ opinions, have them move to a part of the room that you designate to represent each of the answers below. The three areas of the room are for those who believe any of these three answers:

  • It's mostly true for me.
  • It's partly true and not true.
  • It's mostly not true for me.

You can choose to present the following questions positively or negatively:

  1. “I think school is pointless.” OR “I think school is important, and I need to learn so that I can succeed.”
  2. “I can be violent in some situations.” OR “I am more peaceful and would only use violence where there is a real danger.”
  3. “I think that trying doesn’t matter.” OR “I believe that the more I try, the more I can succeed.”
  4. “I do what makes me popular with others in school.” OR “I do what I want and what I think is the right thing to do.”
  5. “I come to class to pass the time.” OR “I am someone who wants to be involved in school and learn.”

After each statement (or others that you may wish to add), ask students in each area of the room to share why they believe as they do. There is great value in students hearing peers' views about why they have turned to a more positive mindset. And it's instructive for the teacher to get a sense of students' views. Note that students may move to an area where they "think" that the teacher wants them to be.

Asking them to articulate why they believe as they do is your check -- and their reality check -- on whether they really do have the belief that they’ve endorsed. You may want to end with a discussion of the challenges of sharing honest opinions.

Journaling About Beliefs and Mindset

As a supplement to the above or as an activity in its own right, have students respond in their journals to at least one of each stem:

  • I used to be _______ but now I am _______
  • I used to think _______ but now I think _______
  • I used to do _______ but now I do _______

There is added benefit to revisiting these activities mid-year, or even after each marking period, to see how ideas are changing (positively or negatively).

Make a Good First Impression

First impressions matter. Teachers have told me the importance of decorating classrooms in ways that catch students' attention and gives them something to think about at the same time. Give your students clipboards and a questionnaire asking them to notice different aspects of how the room is decorated. Come together to discuss what differences students noticed, why they think you made those choices, and what they would add if they were you. You can adapt this for younger children, as well.

Share with us in the comments section below your experiences with these activities and especially your more effective adaptations.