The start of the school year brings bright bulletin board displays, new school supplies, shiny floors, and clean desks. The set-up of a classroom is pretty, but for the best learning environment, the first six weeks of school are a time to slowly weave social-emotional learning into the day, establish connections with students, build a classroom or school community, create a sense of belonging, and develop strong relationships.
Studies show that when students feel like they don’t belong, it impacts their well-being, they show more unexpected behaviours, and do not engage with learning. If children don’t feel a connection to their teacher, classmates, or their school, they are less likely to be positively engaged. Connections determine the level of engagement.
I remember telling new teachers that the most important thing they could do in the first month of school wasn’t to dive into the curriculum, but to create a community and connection with their students. I have worked with many students who have displayed intensive, aggressive, verbal or physical behaviours. I have found the key to shifting those behaviours has always been connection.
One year I was working with a student who was in grade 2 and was not reading or writing. They had spent kindergarten and grade 1 showing very disruptive behaviours: running up and down the hallways, making loud noises, hiding, refusing to participate in class, and not responding to any adult. They entered grade 2 the same way.
When I first started working with them in September, they would often say to me, “I am bad”. Their teacher and I were dedicated to establishing a caring, supportive environment where this student came to understand that they were cared about, that they weren’t bad, and that they were a learner. We connected over their interests, discussed social behaviours, taught social-emotional learning lessons, spent time together every morning to review the shape of the day and expectations, and little by little this student became engaged in their learning.
The end of the year came around and this student was engaged in their classroom, reading books, writing journal entries, participating in class discussions, and completing work. They no longer said "I am bad", but recognized that if they did show unexpected behaviour, they could "turn it around'. We were so proud of them and they had become proud of themselves for all they had learned and accomplished. I get teary just writing about it.
It was an amazing transformation accomplished through connection!
I have learned from this student and others that the key to improving learning behaviours is found in social-emotional learning, specifically, establishing a relationship and connection. When we care, connect, and teach students to do the same, they will engage and a classroom environment conducive to learning, sharing, and growing will be created. Learning will not happen without a positive relationship. Think back to your own educational experience. Do you remember the content or the relationships with your teachers? Students will always remember the relationship they had over any educational content.
Some strategies that I have used to build connections are: listening, conversations, and checking in.
Listening - As educators, we are used to being the voice in the classroom. Listening requires you to keep your mouth shut. It is a time when we ask a question, find out what is bothering them, making them smile, or causing them to lose it. Take time to hear what they need to say. My favorite question to students is “What’s up?” It tends to be a question that students have an easier time responding to.
Conversations - Genuine conversations with students indicate to them that you care and are sincerely interested in them. One strategy is the “2 x 10 method”. Choose a student you would like to build a connection with, and for 10 days, talk for 2 minutes about anything other than school. You will be amazed at the relationship that will develop. These genuine conversations lead to chats about Minecraft, soccer, video games, and pets, and will give you so many joyful moments! Chats with my students always make me smile!
Checking in - Checking in daily allows you to connect with students and for students to connect with each other. Morning meetings or check-in circles are a valuable part of the day that allow students to share how they are feeling (if they choose), offer compliments to classmates, or discuss favorite things. Another favorite check-in strategy that I love is the Morning Greeting. Morning greetings are a great way to deepen relationships, develop interpersonal skills, and build a sense of community. Students feel welcomed, seen, acknowledged, and valued by their teacher and other adults in the building.
Meaningful morning greetings are also a way to give children a fresh start. If they went home the day before feeling defeated or frustrated, when they are greeted kindly the next day they arrive at school, it gives them a new perspective.
A "Hello!" followed by a child's name is an easy greeting to start with. It shows you know them by name and you know who they are. A traditional handshake is another great morning greeting because it’s something students are familiar with in society, and it is a greeting they’ll use throughout their lives. Other ideas include a high 5, thumbs up, fist bump, wave, hug, or a dance move!
You can find many “Morning Greetings” choice boards on the internet, or print off the examples under "Free Resources" at www.kindnessandstories.com. Hang the posters outside your classroom, on the door, or on the wall by your morning meeting area. As children arrive, they can review the morning greeting ideas and choose the one they want to do that morning.
Social-emotional learning is a powerful component of the development of caring, kind, inclusive classrooms and schools. It helps establish common language, learning environments, and trusting relationships. SEL programs can empower students and staff to create thriving, safe, healthy school communities.
Remember to start your school year off slow and strong with social emotional activities. They can be woven into your day, show your students that they are cared for, build connections, foster a strong classroom community, and instill in students that they are learners. You and your students will benefit from it by creating powerful connections and skills that last way beyond the school year.