What's a teacher's number one goal for first day of school activities? I can't speak for others, but my goal is simple: I want the children to buy into me completely as their teacher/leader by the end of the day.
It starts before the first bell rings. By the end of the day my new group of students will think their new teacher is very special, that she's someone they want to know more about, and that she's someone they want to follow… and obey.
By the end of the first week, I want each and every child to know deep in their hearts that I am personally thrilled to see them every day. By then, every one of them will be firmly in my pocket and happy to be there for the rest of the year.
That's how great classroom management starts in elementary school: With community. And communities happen because teachers take a leadership role… and add a bit of sparkle!
Our first day of school activities include building our classroom community, setting expectations and having a little fun. Every one of these objectives allows you a chance to showcase your “teacher personality.”
Video tips: Getting kids to buy in on the first day of school
How to win friends and influence children
These are young elementary children and they can be captivated by engaging personalities.
I call the personality that I show my children during first day of school activities (and every day after that) “sparkly.” This means that I'm somewhat different from what they expect from a teacher and a little bit larger than life. In their eyes, I'm certainly different from what they're used to experiencing with their parents.
Just like a great actor, though, an effective teacher has a range of emotions that her students need to see. It's a balancing act and they need to experience a little taste of everything on the first day in school.
Usually, kids behave pretty well on the first day of school. That may not be true in all instances. In general, however, the students are nervous because they are facing unknown situations. Because they're a little off balance they tend to be on their best behavior.
Video tips: minimizing student stress on the first day
Understanding student stress
Do you remember your own first-day-of-school anxiety? We tend to forget what it's like to feel nervous and alone.
Anxiety is all too real for our students during their first day, and it's our job to help them get over it as quickly as possible so they can de-stress and start to learn.
Remember: personalities under stress are not true personalities.
Think about your wedding day. You were faced with some of the greatest stresses of your life:
- A lifetime commitment
- Expectations of family and friends
- Uncertainty that your wedding planning would work
Were you really “yourself” on that day? I wasn't!
Those kinds of stresses are equivalent to what a child may feel on the first day of school, and that can tend to warp their personalities temporarily.
It's never a good idea to judge students by first impressions and this is particularly true when first day of school anxiety is upon them. It can take a week or two for them to become comfortable enough with your classroom and school so they can calm down and settle in.
What's going on in those little heads?
The worries of children will be as unique as each child. It's a good idea to keep all of these in mind as you plan your first week of school:
“Will my teacher be nice or mean?”
Are the rumors they've heard true? Even if they know of you from being in the same school, you are still a largely unknown quantity since they have only seen you in passing before.
“Will I have any friends?”
Will their best friends be in the same class? Will they make any new friends this year?
Even more fundamentally, there are children who have not easily made friends in the past, or perhaps never made any. They are wondering if this may be the year when they will truly be accepted by one or more of their peers.
“Am I dressed OK?”
Depending upon the grade level, there are social pressures to conform. Worries about the perceptions of their peers are part of first day of school anxiety.
“I'm not going to know anyone in this school!”
Kids who are changing buildings have another layer of stress. They don't know anybody and are particularly nervous about all the new situations they're facing.
“I can't even speak English… or can't speak it very well!”
Your English language learners and recent immigrants are in an understandably stressful situation.
Imagine visiting a new country for the first time, even as an adult, and having to interact with people speaking gibberish at you all day long.
“Will I still be dumb?”
There are children who have been made to feel dumb in prior grades. Perhaps they've had an IEP assigned and have found school to be very hard. Perhaps they have not been well-nurtured in their quest for understanding. This year they are wondering if they are going to be made to feel dumb again.
First day of school anxiety is not the only “first day” emotion… there is also nervous excitement over getting a new desk, handling all of their brand-new school supplies (markers, pencils and glue – oh my!) and also, of course, reuniting with friends whom they haven't seen in two or three months.
Calming the troubled waters
How do we help our children through these wide-ranging emotions?
- Captivate them from the beginning: quickly become a trusted adult
- Keep them busy: idle time makes room for worries
- Get your routines in place: routines eliminate “what's next” worries
- Be understanding: walk in their shoes – you were a child once, too!