As students come back to school this fall, some will have been in-person last year, others will be back for the first time in over a year, and others will have done some hybrid of the two. Every year it is important to get started on the right foot with building relationships with students, but never more than this year. As students return to school, they will need explicit focus on relationships to help build a classroom environment where every student feels a deep sense of belonging and safety.

Consider these tips.

Get to know 2-3 things about each student.

You can gather info on students by having them fill out “all about me” pages, asking everyone to share one thing they like to do for fun during circle time, through writing prompts, or any other method. You can even go through your roster and pull one student aside each day for a couple minutes until you’ve worked through the whole list. Find out what they like to do outside of school, who lives in their home with them, whether they have pets or favorite animals, what they’re really good at, or what their favorite after-school activity is. Then, keep a list. Jot down a few key words next to each student’s name so you can recall these details at various times. When something happens that relates to a student’s interest – a team wins a sporting event, you saw a funny video on TikTok – bring it up to the student, like, “I know you love skateboarding, check out this super cool video I saw of this guy doing tricks!”

Find out how students function best in the classroom.

Every student is different, and at the same time, classrooms come with their own little cultures. As a group, classes often have traits that unite them. Pay attention to both – how individual students function best, but also how the class as a unit functions best. Consider:

What challenges students?

When do students have the most fun in the classroom?

When do students seem most frustrated?

What times of day do students perform best? Worst?

What classroom settings seem to affect students (room layout, noise level, lighting)?

Name goals for the year.

Setting goals for the year allows you, as the teacher, to see what students are hoping for which allows you to focus on ways to help students accomplish those goals. Writing your own goals for the class helps students see what is expected of them, what they can hope to achieve by the end of the year, and provides a sense of grounding and stability.

Ask students what their goals are for the school year. Have them write them down and put them in a portfolio or display them on the wall. Have them include academic goals, social goals and personal goals.

Write your goals for the class as well. Make sure the goals include social emotional skills, such as “Our class works together as a team!” and “We persist when things are challenging!”

As this school year starts, don’t worry – learning will happen… but only after students feel safe and secure in their classroom environment. Don’t rush straight to lesson plans or worry about the “Covid slide”. Focus on building relationships first.

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