Class community building is important throughout the whole school year, but it is arguably most important at the very start of it. When educators talk about setting the tone and building a foundation for the rest of the year, they are often speaking in terms of classroom management. But this same concept of setting a precedent applies to class culture as well.
In fact, effective classroom management AND academic success directly depend on the relationships that students have with their teacher, and with each other.
I’ve compiled a list of class community building ideas to help foster positive relationships from the very beginning of the school year. Hopefully these might help spark some inspiration, or just make it easy for you to give any of them a try!
Send Snail Mail
You can start building connections before you even see your students on the first day of school! Going the extra mile of making phone calls and home visits prior to school starting has amazing benefits.
Since that may not be an option for all teachers though, here is another way of reaching out. It requires less time, and is still super effective. Mail your students a post card saying how excited you are to have them in your class!
In the increasingly digital times we’re living in, it may be a rare, special occasion for a child to receive something in the mail at home that is specifically addressed to him/her. And the thoughtful gesture is not lost on parents either. It’s a great way to make a first impression as their child’s new teacher and welcome them to your class.
If you’re thinking of sending postcards and might like a specific theme for them, click here or on the image below for all kinds of designs to choose from.
Find a Connection, Follow Up
This may seem totally obvious. But one of the most powerful ways to build positive relationships right off the bat is to simply find a unique connection with each student.
These types of connections can come in various forms:
- Give a student a special nickname (making sure it’s something they like being called, of course). I had a student named Claire who always gave me the biggest grin when I called her Claire Bear.
- Find something you have in common (“You have a dog? So do I! What kind of dog do you have?”)
- When kids tell you something about their life outside of school, remember to ask about it again later (“How was your soccer game?”)
Things like this seem natural to most teachers. But it’s easy to forget how great of an impact these seemingly small interactions can have. Being intentional about making these sorts of connections with every individual student, especially at the beginning of the year, can make all the difference.
Early on, you could make it part of your morning routine to start off each day with a quick, personal greeting. As they are lined up to enter the classroom in the morning, greet every student individually. It takes only a couple minutes total at most. And giving each student that individual attention helps get their school day started on a positive note!
It can be as quick and simple as a, “Good morning” or other verbal greeting, or a physical gesture such as a high-five or secret handshake. If you’d like to see an example of this in action, you can click on this post from my Instagram page below. Swipe to the second frame to view the video.
The little circles you see taped to the door can be switched out every week or so, so that students can have fun in choosing different ways to greet you throughout the school year. The resource is from I Love First Grade on Teachers Pay Teachers.
First Day Read Aloud
A read aloud is always a powerful way to communicate messages to kids, so choosing meaningful books during back to school time can have a lasting effect.
One book in particular that helps set a positive foundation for the teacher/student connection is A Letter From Your Teacher: On the First Day of School.
The book is written in the form of a letter from the teacher’s point of view. In hearing you read it to them, students will see that you are someone they will get to form a special bond with. They’ll be assured that you are not only there to help them academically, but as their teacher, you will also be there to cheer them on, and to provide a caring, safe environment for them to learn and grow.
As an extension activity after reading the book, students can write their own letter back to you in response. The resource below (also in the form of a “book”) is filled with writing prompts and sentence frames that align with the mentor text. Not only do the kids love filling these out to share with their teacher, but it is a super insightful way to you get to know a lot about your students from the get go.
If you’d like to know more about this extension activity, you can check out this blog post for more details.
Follow-Up Read Aloud
The book I shared above helps build the connection between teacher and student. You could build upon that further by reading Our Class is a Family as a a follow up. This book extends toward building students’ connections with each other, their peers.
There’s an extension activity for this book as well. It’s a Class Family Album, which can be implemented during those first few weeks and then continue to be utilized throughout the entire school year.
After first creating the album during back to school time, students can add pages to the collective album throughout the school year to document all of their class family memories. This works great as a writing center (use real photographs or have students illustrate their own picture, and have them write a caption for the picture).
More details about this extension activity can be found by visiting this blog post.
Make a Class Mission Statement
A mission statement is an effective way to strongly unify your class and establish your classroom culture. Rather than providing them with a set mission statement, kids will have more buy-in when they are the ones who create it.
After establishing class values with your students during those first few weeks, have them brainstorm ideas and work on drafting one together. Once you have a final product, have the kids write it on chart paper (I’ve used sentence strips in the example pictured below, for multiple students to write the different parts).
The kids can sign their names around it to show their unity in agreement. Display your mission statement prominently in the classroom.
You could also choose to read it together as a class each morning to set a positive tone at the start of each day. Students also enjoy coming up with hand motions to do along with it.
If you’d like to see a video of one of my past classes reciting their mission statement in the morning, you can click here to view one from my Instagram page.
Any teacher who has had to participate in any sort of get-to-know you-activity during many a staff meeting might cringe when they hear the word “icebreaker.” But the fact of the matter is that kids love them! Icebreakers are a great way of team building in the classroom during back to school time.
Here are just a couple of simple icebreaker activities (with little or no prep) for the first day or first few weeks of school:
Sit in a circle, and pass around a bowl of candy. Tell students that they can choose how many pieces of candy from the bowl to take (they must take at least 1 piece, and 5 pieces at the most).
Once each student has candy in hand, go around the circle and each person shares something about themselves for each piece of candy they took. For example, if someone took 2 pieces of candy, then they share 2 things about themselves.
At the end, you could choose whether to let them eat a piece, save them to take home, share with a friend, etc.
Line It Up!
This icebreaker can be done with the whole class, or in smaller teams. Call out different ways of having them line up as quickly as possible. For example, “Line up in order of…”
- ABC order by first name (great for learning each other’s names on the first day)
- Youngest to oldest
- Tallest to shortest
For a greater challenge, you could tell them to see if they can do that last one (tallest to shortest) without talking or making any sound.
Small Group Get-to-Know-You Games
Students can also play icebreaker-type games in partners or small groups during the 1st week of school (great as a choice for early finishers, etc.)
This one in particular has always worked well with my own classes in past years:
A student rolls the color dice, draws a matching color card, and everyone writes their response onto the recording sheet. Then, they take turns sharing their responses aloud. It’s a fun, engaging way for students to get to know each other AND it’s a sneaky way to already start practicing an important writing skill (answering questions in complete sentences).
STEM team building
STEM activities are especially ideal for community building at the beginning of the year. They encourage students to work together to create, problem-solve, and collaborate in a fun, hands-on way.
A quick Google search of “Back to School STEM Activities” can take you down a rabbit hole filled with all kinds of fun ideas. But I’ve found that simple, low-prep challenges work just as great as the more elaborate ones! For example, partners or small groups could work together to:
- Build a structure out of toothpicks & marshmallows
- Build a card tower
- Create the longest paper chain (each team is given only one piece of the same size paper, scissors, and a glue stick)
Make sure to save time at the end for groups to share their successes, challenges, and funny moments with the whole class. It can help students connect even further, and it also sets a foundation for open class discussions in the future.
First Day Photo Booth
Ever had fun in a photo booth at a wedding, party, etc.? Kids enjoy photos booths just as much as grown-ups do!
Set up a little station or just have some festive props handy. Easy as that! You can start photo-documenting your class’ back to school memories together.
If you like these same photo props, you can get more info about them in this blog post.
Many teachers even like to have a photo booth prior to the first day, at events like Meet the Teacher. It’s a great way to start building that positive sense of community right from the start.
Star of the Week
This has always been one of my favorite things to start implementing at the beginning of the year, and then continuing as the weeks go on!
Spotlighting individual students on a weekly basis helps to consistently build community throughout the whole school year. Having a “Star of the Week” helps students continue to get to know each of their classmates better. It also helps build student self-esteem and feelings of inclusivity among their peers.
I’ve shared all kinds of Star of the Week ideas in another blog post. But one particular thing that kids love most is to have the class make a compliment book.
Every Friday, you could have the whole class brainstorm and share compliments about the Star of the Week. Each student is then given a writing page to write a compliment and illustrate a picture for the star. All of the pages can be put together in a book for that student to take home.
It’s a nice and light activity to do at the end of each week. Plus, the kids are still getting writing practice! I always took it as an opportunity to review the parts of a sentence: capital, punctuation, subject, and predicate. And aside from the academics, the social emotional benefits can’t be denied either!
Another ongoing way to foster community throughout the whole year is to spread some positiviTEE! To help promote a happy class environment, have students wear T-shirts with positive messages on a designated day of the week.
Here’s an editable parent letter that can be used to easily implement this with your own class:
The kids love seeing and reading each other’s shirts each week!
You can get more details about this (and the link for the free template of the parent letter above) right here.
I know firsthand that recess is a sacred time. Teachers need a little break, just as much as the kids do. That being said, I recommend finding even just ONE day during the year to do this single thing. It can have the most incredible impact on your relationship with your kids. Bonus points if you can do it more often, but just one day will still have a great effect.
And it couldn’t be simpler…just go play! Spend only 10-15 minutes on the playground, playing with your students. Not just standing around like you’re on recess duty, but getting directly involved. You could jump in on a game of tetherball, run around with them on the field, etc.
Here’s a photo and caption I shared about this, way back when I first started my Instagram page.
At the end of that school year, we reflected back on what our favorite memories were. And I was surprised to hear more than one student say, “When Mrs. Olsen played with us on the playground.” Years from now, a student might not remember a particular math lesson you taught. But they might hang on to a feel-good memory of having fun with their teacher and classmates.
Sharing is Caring!
Any additional ideas that you might add to this list? If you have any favorite class community building activities for back to school time, feel free to share in the comments below.
And if you try out any of the ones that I’ve shared, I’d love to hear how it goes! Wishing you a positive start to each new school year with your class family 🙂