Relationships are the key to building a strong classroom community. We ask our students to complete ‘getting to know you’ activities for each other and for us (find examples in our "Hello My Name Is.." blog). The quicker we know what makes our students tick the quicker we can start building trust.
While the classroom community is key, I like to start routines as soon as possible. Part of the challenge of September is learning expectations: the sooner students know what we expect in terms of behaviour and work, the safer they tend to feel.
Sometimes we can struggle to bond with a student. These are the students we often have to work the hardest with at the beginning of the year and as trust is established, the hard work pays off. I try to spend time listening carefully and ensuring students know they are being listened to, building mutual trust. I remind myself many times in September and October to take deep breaths and know the time invested now pays off the later months, and it always does.
I make a big point of talking about explaining the growth mindset, so students know the expectation is that they do their best. Their effort and learning are the priority, not the results. This is made clear through the day as we celebrate individual learning and achievement, however small. This is explained to parents too, so they can use similar language. Developing a growth mindset helps to encourage a student’s intrinsic motivation. When they understand they have to practice and work at something to become better, they tend to take more control and accountability for their own learning. When students are invested in their learning and understand they have choice and control over how they learn behaviour is less of an issue.
I have a few tools I use at this time of year to help new students settle in. I have a multiage classroom (grade 3/4), so my current grade 4 class have mostly returned from last year and know the routines and expectations already. This makes life a great deal easier for me! They are taking on more of a leadership role in the classroom and help to support the new Grade 3’s.
We use some rewards in the classroom. There is some debate over rewards and how they aren't always congruent with the classroom community, but I've found a system that works well for my class. We use tally points, class versus teacher, and points are awarded for listening and working well. The points are reset weekly and either I get free time or they do. I rarely get free time!
Rewards vary depending on the class and what incentivizes them. I also change things if things aren't working; nothing is set in stone and change is often what we need when things feel stale.
The whole concept of time is abstract to many students; the Time-Timer helps by visually demonstrating time passing. Students can see how much time is left on a particular task, learning to pace themselves and time management. Some students can feel anxious about time constraints and I find practicing tasks within timeframes without repercussions can help them gain an understanding of time without the pressure of needing to finish their task.
Some students respond really well to a visual timer and these are perfect to help time activities or breaks. I sometimes use them to help a student refocus. They will bring their work to a quiet zone if they are struggling to work in their groups setting and select the timer they think is appropriate to help them refocus. The selection choice usually works as they have more autonomy, however, if they still cannot focus on work, I select a longer timer and help them find focus on work.
Providing 'Check-In' times with students is a great way to gauge where everyone is at emotionally and prepare for the day. This was designed to be used by teachers to monitor students behaviour but I prefer to use it as a support to the zones of regulation.
Students can share how they're feeling when they enter in the morning and throughout the day. This helps us underhand where a student is at and assess if they need assistance. Being open to conversations or providing areas of the classroom for a brain break or chill-out zone can help. We have a class rabbit and he often provides the company a student needs to self-regulate.
Online opportunities for learning activities, assessment, digital portfolios and parent communication are growing. Options include Remind for quick messages to parents and Seesaw, and Class Dojo for more comprehensive capabilities. Common Sense Education is a great website to check out apps and websites. You are given a quick summary with pros, cons, ratings and reviews from educators.
This year I am embracing Seesaw and am using it to communicate with parents, build digital portfolios and replace the agenda. I found that agenda writing was taking too much time and was not meaningful to many students.
Little things can make all the difference, and I hope these tips help create a more engaging learning space for you and your students.