First Days of School: Establishing Relationships for Improved Learning

Female elementary school teacher and student interacting

Most educators recognize that the first days of school are critical for establishing a culture of learning that will set the right tone for the rest of the year. To promote a positive classroom learning environment, it is important to make these first days the most productive they can be in building relationships. A sense of community in the classroom motivates students to participate and engage, while helping them feel safe to learn and grow both individually and collectively. This sense of community doesn’t just happen, it must be cultivated. Here are some tips to start the year:

Getting to know the students:

One powerful technique is learning all the names of students as soon as possible and helping them learn about each other.

  • On the first day of school, teachers can have students make a name card on heavy cardboard/poster board folded horizontally to make a table tent. The students can decorate the name card while the teacher is doing first day administrative tasks. The teacher can write the names for younger students.
  • Self-contained teachers can take a digital picture of each student while the student is holding their decorated name cards. Digital pictures can be printed quickly and give immediate response.
  • Two copies should be made. One to use to take home and memorize the names and faces of students quickly. Once you know the names of your students, the pictures can be used for Student of the Week, student helper charts, labeling their desks or belongings, or other bulletin board ideas.
  • The second set should be attached to the name card so students can learn each other’s names.
  • Once the teacher and students know each other’s names, the name tents can be stored and used later to identify students when substitute teachers or guests are in the room. Substitutes and special guest instructors appreciate being able to match faces with names instantly when they arrive in the classroom. (Note: Remember to remove student’s cards that have left and take pictures of new students for the folder).
  • For teachers that teach a different group of students each period or see students on a rotating basis, pictures can be taken and placed on seating charts to help you learn and remember names and to use as a reference for substitutes.

Learning more about each other:

  • Design activities to learn more about your students. This will help to make personal connections with your students.
    • Prepare a list of questions favorite/worst subject, sport, band, movie, food, color etc., what they like to do in their free time, how many siblings/pets, what they want to be when they grow up, etc.
    • Draw names and pair students randomly and have them interview each other.
    • Then have each student report on what they learned about the other student. Change the questions and repeat multiple days so students are paired with different partners and learn more about their classmates. Students learn which other students they have traits in common with and appreciate the differences in themselves and others. Students are more comfortable when others talk about them instead of them talking about themselves.
    • At the end of the day you can make a statement about different students that were shared during the day and call on students to recall which student you are talking about.
  • For older students learning is improved if you are aware of their learning styles and preferences. The first days can be a great chance to find out more about how they learn. There are many different learning style inventories available online. Use these inventories to find out the many different ways your students learn and are motivated by having them complete a multiple intelligence assessment. Have students share these results. There are inventories with more pictures than words for younger students.
  • Students, especially older ones, are curious about you. A fun way to tell about yourself is to make a handout or overhead sheet with 20 statements. 15 are true about you, 5 are not. Have the students take the T/F test and then see what percent guessed each one correctly. Share a little more information about each true statement. The students can also make one of these with their own T/F statements to share with a partner and for the teacher to answer.

Creating a sense of community:

Students must be actively engaged in their own learning. Students do best when they feel a purpose and reason for why they are being asked to do a task or assignment.

  • Share your class syllabus or outline with team problem solving activities. Scheduling more team activities increases the level of participation and engagement for all students to work toward a common goal. Teamwork reduces the competitiveness and leads to increased learning about the content and each other.
  • This activity is best done outside. Have each student blow up a balloon and write their names on the balloons. The students have to toss the balloons in the air. The goal is to keep the balloons in the air moving at all times, not letting any of their classmates’ balloons fall. The only way this can be done is to work together as a team. If they do not, the balloons will go everywhere. Time the activity. At different intervals, move the students farther apart to increase the amount of teamwork needed. Talk to the students that as the year goes on, the work will get harder and everyone has to work together and help each other to be successful.
  • Select books or reading passages to share daily that reflect teamwork and collaboration. Let students share their perceptions and how it can relate to the class.

Teaching expectations and rules:

  • Students perform best when they know what is expected. Schedule time daily to teach, model, and practice procedures and rules.
    • Have students role play to demonstrate what is expected. Provide examples of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. You should be very clear about the classroom behavioral expectations. Make sure your rules are visible and directions are clear for procedures.
    • Schedule time to teach, model, and practice acceptable and desirable tone and language for the classroom. Use multiple examples. Use scenarios and let students demonstrate the best way to respond.
    • Take time to tour the building restrooms, library, cafeteria, hallways, auditorium to teach, model, and practice procedures for these locations. This is especially helpful to young students, but even more necessary and appropriate for middle grades to define and establish the expectations for common areas.
  • Older students can be involved with teaching the expectations to the younger/newer students. This can be done in a variety of medias including skits, videos, songs, etc.

To build a positive learning community, contributions should be valued. Teachers need to discover unique abilities and qualities in each child and then capitalize on them. Most importantly, teachers must be the advocate for each student and ensure that each student is treated respectfully, equitably, and fairly.

Be friendly, but not friends with students. Here are some self-reflection questions to think about:

  • Am I open and approachable? Do I act like I am there to help not hurt?
  • Do I practice respectful behavior?
  • Do my actions speak as my words?
  • Do I act excited about my subject/content?
  • Do I search for new material and activities to actively engage students?
  • For returning students, have I removed all grudges or memories of prior infractions/problems?
  • Do I laugh and make learning fun?
  • Do I recognize the problems and challenges many students bring to school through no fault of their own?
  • Do I allow for mistakes and growing?
  • Do I listen not just hear?
  • Am I patient?
  • Am I forgiving?


About the Author
Michelle Botos, Ph.D.

Michelle Botos, Ph.D.

Michelle Botos, Ph.D., is currently an educational diagnostician in a Louisiana school district. Michelle has experience in a wealth of areas across special education as a classroom teacher, researcher, and diagnostician. Before returning to the classroom, she gained such valuable experience working with schools and school districts to implement behavior interventions for at-risk students.  Michelle received her B.A. from Louisiana Tech University, M.A.T from Southeastern Louisiana University, and Ph.D. in Special Education from Louisiana State University.