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The First Weeks of School

The beginning of the school year is a time when teachers focus on establishing safe, caring, and predictable, and engaging learning environments. Teachers plan activities to help their students understand the academic and behavioral expectations that have been set for the class. What teachers put in place for their students during the first few weeks of school will set the stage for the remainder of the year.


What can teachers do to ensure that the new school year begins smoothly?

The first step is to establish predictable classroom routines and procedures and provide students with an understanding of the academic and behavioral expectations that are set for the school year. Students will also need to learn and practice positive social interaction and communication skills they’ll need in order to work effectively with groups of peers throughout the school year. This is key for students in schools that have adopted the 21st Century Learning framework, where learning activities emphasize the “4 Cs” --Creativity, Communication, Collaboration, and Critical Thinking.

One good resource for teachers is the Lansing (MI) school district’s Office of School Culture ‘s 30-page guide full of plans to get the school year off to a great start. Many of the strategies described in the on-line booklet are based on the Responsive Classroom framework. This framework is “a set of well-designed practices intended to create a safe, joyful, and engaging classroom and school community”. Teachers are encouraged to collaborate with their colleagues to ensure that the first week—and beyond, are successful.

The activities fall into the following categories:

  • Creating an academic climate
  • Developing community
  • Fostering relationships
  • Establishing a sense of safety
  • Creating an atmosphere of positive learning

Teachers should keep in mind that effective classrooms focus on developing students’ skills across several domains, not limited to academics. Social-emotional learning activities implemented at the beginning of the school year and embedded in learning activities throughout the school year can go a long way to ensure that all students feel welcomed, encouraged, and motivated to learn.

An article by Elizabeth Mulvahill , in the We Are Teachers blog, provides a wealth of tips, resources, and specific “how-to” directions about ways to implement social-emotional learning in the classroom, with corresponding visuals of how this looks in a classroom setting.

Here are a few highlights:

  • Students identify their feelings through a Feelings Check-in at the beginning of the day and a Feelings Check-out at the end of the day.
  • Teachers provide ample opportunities for students to be heard and to listen to others, through class meetings as well as paired and group discussions. Time is allocated for unstructured conversations.
  • Students are engaged in progress monitoring that involves student reflection and self-monitoring, and teachers provide rubrics for students that incorporate academic and social-interaction expectations.
  • The teacher provides a classroom set of books and stories that support learning about social-emotional and positive behavior skills.
  • Opportunities for role-playing are provided as part of lessons and group activities.
  • Partner work, team projects, team-building games are utilized to develop new skills in a fun way.
  • Planning and attention are given to the classroom arrangement. The room is set up to foster positive social-emotional learning, behavior, and group interaction skills, with a goal of creating a culture of kindness, responsibility, and a sense of a community.
    • Posters that define the positive skills you want to foster in the students, with specific examples
    • A safe and comfortable “Peace” area is designated for problem-solving, self-reflection, or self-calming

Use of Rubrics

The beginning of the school year is a great time to get students accustomed to using rubrics to guide academic work, as well as positive group interactions. Well-crafted rubrics for hands-on group work or long-term projects can be used as examples. The Edutopia website provides many good resources about the use of rubrics. Cait Camarata’s post on this topic discusses tips for creating effective rubrics that are well organized and visually engaging. The post includes links to additional resources about rubrics.

In another Edutopia blog post, Lisa Yokana provides a framework for developing rubrics for students who work on group projects in Maker Spaces. The rubrics outline specific expectations across several dimensions, and the emphasis is not solely on the end product. During the course of the project, students will have experienced opportunity for deep and authentic learning with their peers. As part of this process, students are asked to tell stories of their understandings.

  • Techniques
  • Habits of Mind
  • Reflection and Understanding
  • Craftsmanship
  • Responsibility
  • Effort

Rubrics serve as guides for students and help them become less reliant on the teacher’s verbal directions and prompts. Rubrics can provide structure for students as they engage in projects that require depth of knowledge and higher-level critical thinking and communication skills. They are an effective way for teachers to provide students with expectations for how technology should be used during the course of a project, in addition to academic and social-behavioral expectations.

The following links provide a range of resources such as lesson plans and downloadables that teachers can use during the first few weeks of school. Many of the resources are suitable for use throughout the school year.


Get Ready to Go Back to School - ReadWriteThink

Activities for the First Day of School - Education World

10 Fun Back to School Activities and Icebreakers - Genia Connell, Scholastic Top Teaching Blog, July 5, 2018

First Week of School - Lansing Office of School Culture

Back to School Planning for Primary Classrooms - TES

First Weeks of School Strategies for a Positive School Year - PBIS Blog

This Room Was Made for You and Me - The Responsive Classroom, June 20, 2018

Responsive Classroom Practices

Responsive Classroom Printables

21 Ways to Incorporate Social-Emotional Learning Throughout the Day - Elizabeth Mulvahill, We Are Teachers, August 21, 2016

A Classroom Management Plan for You - Centervention

Downloadable Visual Supports (Elementary) - Centervention

5 Classroom Management Tips for Technology Integration - KQED Professional Learning Blog

Creating an Authentic Maker Education Rubric - Edutopia, Lisa Yokana, January 20, 2015

4 Easy Tips and Tricks for Creating Visually Engaging Rubrics - Edutopia, Cait Camarata, March 23, 2015

New Teachers: Technology Integration Basics - Edutopia, 10/19/16


Positive Behavior Management and Technology Information - NUITEQ Blog, August 15, 2017

Characteristics of Innovative Learning Spaces That You Should Know - NUITEQ Blog, October 17, 2017

Bullying Resources: Learn, Prevent, Stop - NUITEQ Blog, October 14, 2016