Back to school time can be a time of mixed emotions for everyone. Some kids are happy, excited and wait with anticipation. Other kids are nervous and filled with anxiety. Most often I have found, kids have a mix of emotions. One thing that really stands out for me though, is that no matter what set of emotions anyone feels, feeling a sense of belonging is the most important thing that kids need to feel when going back to school.
Building Classroom Climate
Teachers are very in tune to this need. Building classroom climate is #1 on mosts teachers’ lists these days as the rise in awareness of the importance of social and emotional learning climbs. Some ways teachers build a positive classroom climate can include:
- greetings at the door
- morning meetings
- explicit SEL lessons
- flexible seating
- voice and choice
These are all GREAT ways to build classroom climate! I am a big believer in social and emotional learning. I have written about it a fair bit. Click here to read more posts on social emotional learning and mindfulness activities in the classroom. Doing these things really helps many children to adjust to the new classroom setting.
Deepening the Engagement
I’ve been thinking more about the transition to a new school year and I think it involves much more than the above. As a result, I think that feeling a sense of belonging may start with some of these things but I think it goes deeper. Recently I read The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson. It’s a beautifully written and illustrated (Rafael López) children’s book about walking into a room (like a classroom) where no one is quite like you. It showcases all the differences children feel when they just don’t feel like they belong. They are different. Their hair is different, they eat different foods. So, in my true fashion…it got me thinking.
Feeling like you belong involves feeling good in “the skin you are in”. It’s difficult for kids to understand such complex things such as racism and inclusion. For the kids experiencing this though, it is vitally important for teachers to understand and to be aware in their teaching.
The New Back to School Work
The more I learn about racism and inclusion, the more I want to learn. Having compassion alone is important but not enough. Inclusion has been much easier and natural for me but educating myself on racism has been nothing short of eye-opening. I highly recommend reading White Fragility to learn more.
With this new lens on back to school, I decided that having a back to school resource that aligned with this thinking was important. Keeping in mind that 2nd and 3rd grade kids are still so young, how could we introduce fun activities in the first week back but also explicitly address these needs? I thought about whether doing this a few weeks in was better and may be for you. I decided I wanted to begin like the book title “the DAY you begin”.
Creating a Sense of Belonging from Day 1
The new back to school work has 5 important elements that you are important to begin creating a sense of belonging from day 1:
- Build trust Acknowledge many ways of doing things such as saying hello. Learn about different names and name origins. Play games that require kids to be part of a team.
- Normalize what makes us who we are. Have images of all kinds of people, all kinds of families, all kinds of homes. Carry on discussions about this because there is no “normal” standard. (Or, there should not be.) Who your family is, where you live etc. is your reality, and who someone else is is their reality. If we focus so much on same and different then this sets kids up to believe that being different is not okay.
- Highlight strengths. This is a big one these days. If we do this within the trust and normalizing, then it is POWERFUL, believable and comforting. For a child to know that they may not be strong in reading or math yet, but that they have strength in creating, building, music etc. is reassuring. It must be celebrated and built upon just as much. This helps to develop and/or increase self-esteem and therefore, increases motivation to learn!
- Create norms. With your class, create “norms”. How would you like to be treated? What good listening looks like etc.. This kind of thing, when co-created with the students helps to build trust and kids feel great being a part of it. This is different than “classroom rules”.
- Celebrate! Celebrating with the kids on a regular basis is important. It helps to build community – and who doesn’t love a good celebration? You can celebrate things kids share – like someone got a new pet – or things kids achieve. You can celebrate your students’ new friendships that they have made, or reaching a goal. Celebrating the little things brings joy.
I hope these tips have helped you to wrap your head around just a few ideas that take back to school activities out of the usual comfort zone and into new thinking, new interacting and supportive of the wide variety of children that enter your classroom each year. I’ve only just begun learning some of these things. Where are you at in your journey? Do you have any additional tips for readers?
If you would like a back to school set already designed with a few activities that highlight these aspects, click to see a First Week of School mini-unit.