7 Tips for Starting the School Year Strong
At a Glance
Establishing a Strong Classroom Foundation: The first week of school plays a crucial role in setting the tone for the entire year. By creating clear expectations, routines, and collaborative efforts, teachers can build a foundation that supports a positive learning environment.
Clear Expectations and Collaboration: Set clear expectations for students' behavior and academic goals, fostering a collaborative classroom environment where both teachers and students are accountable to each other. Collaboration with support staff, including specialists, enhances overall student well-being.
Effective Transition Management and Individualized Assessments: Plan for transition times by incorporating visual supports and tools, acknowledging that these periods require time and support. Informal assessments help identify students' skills and interests, guiding instructional planning. Monitoring progress with flexible strategies and maintaining patience ensures an adaptable and effective learning experience.
For better or worse, the first week of school plays a major role in how the rest of the school year plays out. It can set the tone for the relationship a teacher has with all of their students, the types of routines that everyone becomes accustomed to, and the comfort level of everyone involved.
Of course that does not mean that everything that happens in the first week is suddenly set in stone and can never be changed, but coming into the school year with a strong game plan is a great way to set the foundation for everything else that will happen during the year.
In this blog post, we will be focusing on tips for teachers to build out what the day-to-day classroom picture will look like and we will be following up next week with additional tips on ensuring that your classroom is a comfortable space for your new students to feel safe to learn and grow.
This post is written with special educators in mind, however, general educators can always benefit from incorporating these ideas too!
If you would like to share your own experiences or want to hear more about topics related to the start of the school year we would love to hear from you! Just drop us a line as firstname.lastname@example.org and in the meantime, we will dive into ways we can set the tone for the new year with our new students.
1. Set Clear Expectations
One crucial component of creating a positive and productive special education environment is making clear what you expect of your students, both from a standpoint of working toward academic goals and from a standpoint of contributing to a positive learning environment.
While sharing such expectations can sometimes feel a bit negative, it is much better than the alternative of having a vague set of expectations where students find themselves getting in trouble and not understanding why! It’s worth remembering that expectations do not have to be a list of rigid behavioral rules (and in fact that’s something we’d advocate against doing!) and can instead focus on setting clear boundaries for respecting others and for showing that we are using class time to try to reach our educational or life goals.
We should also be clear that expectations are a two-way street. It is of course important to be clear about your expectations for students, but you should also make it clear that students should hold certain expectations of you as a teacher and give students space to share their thoughts! This helps to establish your classroom as a truly collaborative environment where we are accountable to each other, and not just a system where you are the unimpeachable authority figure who must be obeyed at all times.
It’s also worth remembering that setting expectations does not mean that everyone will get it right away, and visual cues and social stories can be helpful tools both for introducing concepts and as reminders or practice when a given student or students has trouble with a particular expectation. As always it is okay if there is a learning process, the most important thing is that you have a clear understanding of expectations that you can explain (and in some cases explain why) as needed!
2. Create and Establish Routines
Keeping with the theme that sometimes the things we introduce early in the year require some practice, the first week is a great time to have routines ready for handling various day to day situations. Some routines might relate to things we do as a class every day, while others might be related to checking our schedules or determining what we do during various transition periods such as going to lunch or to gym.
Visual schedules and consistent routines can provide a sense of predictability and reduce anxiety, but they can also take some time and practice to establish as a regular part of the day.
One thing worth considering in establishing a routine with your class is the ways in which your class might be able to put its own individualized spin on a given routine without compromising the core purpose of having the routine in the first place.
For example, if you like the idea of singing a song in the morning to get everyone’s energy up, that’s a great opportunity for students to take turns picking their favorites and perhaps even lead the class!
3. Plan for Transition Times
When we suggest planning for transition times, we mean it in a couple of ways. The first is to be mindful when creating a packed, enriching schedule for the day to remember that transitions do take time and aren’t really something you can force just because there’s a lot to take care of on a given day.
When creating an ambitious schedule, make sure you are asking yourself if you are including enough time (plus a little extra just in case!) for comfortable transitions that don’t put too much pressure on your or your students!
The other way we plan for transition times, made much less stressful when we have plenty of transition time to work with, is to incorporate visual supports, timers, or countdowns. The specific tool may vary from student to student but the crucial component is that they help student navigate transitions more smoothly.
As we implied above, there can be a lot of unknowns around transition times even day-to-day, so the sooner you can explain and incorporate these tools into the routine, the clearer student expectations will be and the easier time they will have incorporating those tools into their own routine as the year goes on.
While no amount of preparation will guarantee that every single transition time will go smoothly, preparing for the reality that transition does take time and that some students may need supports to navigate that time effectively will go a long way toward making transition periods as smooth as possible.
4. Collaborate with Service Providers and Support Staff
One reality of teaching special education is that you are simply not equipped to manage every single aspect of a student’s learning or well-being. Paraprofessionals, speech therapists, occupational therapists, and other related service providers or support staff are there to fill in gaps in your expertise or availability, and the more coordinated your collective approach, the better those efforts will be reflected in a student’s overall well-being.
One small detail to keep in mind is that the word “collaborate” is extremely important in this context. These professionals are here to support your efforts, but that does not mean you should just be issuing commands and expecting perfect compliance!
Some of the professions listed include people with very specialized expertise, while other professionals on the list may have a better understanding of a specific component of a given student’s needs based on the work they do day-to-day. In that spirit, collaboration means taking in everyone’s input and coming to an agreement about the best course of action moving forward!
Treating any of these professionals like subordinates is not only bad for relationship-building, it runs the risk of missing out on crucial details about students that subsequently lead to gaps in their support. With that in mind, it is crucial to listen and take those voices seriously, even if you are ultimately in charge of the final decision about a given course of action!
5. Assess Skills and Abilities
The beginning of the school year is a great time to informally assess your students’ current skills, interests, and areas for growth. While it isn’t possible to get a complete picture of any given student in just a week, such informal assessments can help guide your instructional planning and help you go a step beyond what you may have gathered from IEPs or what you remember about your student if you had them a previous year (after all, a lot can change over the summer!).
Informal assessments are great guideposts but they should not place an undue burden on your students, nor should they be seen as a definitive picture of any given student. They are a quick snapshot that can help to inform next steps as you continue to develop a deeper understanding of and connection with your students!
6. Establish Means of Monitoring Progress
One thing we should make clear when we talk about monitoring progress is that we are not necessarily talking about formal measurements or basing your monitoring off of your initial student assessment.
While more formal types of monitoring can have a place in a student’s educational journey, here we are talking about ways of collecting data on how your students respond to various instructional strategies and how much those strategies appear to help them in furthering their educational goals.
While you are monitoring the relative success of your students, the core question that this monitoring should be helping you answer is whether the instructional strategies you are employing are best suited for the needs of your students.
One great way to assess the effectiveness of your instructional strategies is to incorporate activities into the lesson that ask students about information that you believe is key to demonstrating understanding of the topic at hand.
To be clear, these activities do not have to be formal quizzes or tests! Instead, it can help you quickly gauge the temperature of what is broadly clicking for students, who may require more individualized assistance, and whether you want to consider employing a different strategy if students don’t seem to be picking up on the things you expected them to.
As you continue to monitor your students’ progress, you may feel more comfortable trying a few different strategies just to see how they turn out, and you may even be able to develop a more nuanced sense of which strategies work in specific situations.
7. Be Flexible and Patient
After offering lots of different suggestions on ways you can meticulously plan around the start of the school year, we think it’s only fair to close out with a reminder that our best-laid plans will never go exactly as we intend but that they are still worth making.
Planning out our intentions and our goals helps us maintain a firm grasp on the things we are broadly aiming to work toward and makes it that much easier to be flexible, patient, and to make adjustments as needed. As logical as that may seem, sometimes it helps to have that reminder when our hard work doesn’t lead to the exact outcome we expect right away.
Sometimes students may object to something we could not have anticipated, other times the adjustment period may be much longer than expected, and other times still we just realize we didn’t fully think through some key detail that ended up being a lot more important than we anticipated.
In those challenging moments, it is always worth remembering that the work we have done up to this point is not in vain and the purpose of education is not to get everything perfect right away.
When a situation arises that requires some additional patience or flexibility, take a step back if you need it, mull over the new information you have that requires you to adjust your plans, and do your best to find a way to move forward that accounts for both your existing goals and the new information.
It’s not just a great way to approach the school year, it is a great behavior to model for students as we encourage them to explore, learn, and be willing to make mistakes.
A willingness to listen and adjust is so much more important to a safe, trusting, and healthy classroom environment than a perfectly constructed schedule, lesson plan, or curriculum!
The start of the school year is both an exciting and a daunting time, full of unknowns and of possibilities.
By both taking the time to carefully plan our approach and being prepared to set those plans aside when necessary, we are both acknowledging that education is a process and setting up our classroom to have successful routines, clear expectations, and students who trust in you and the safety of their learning environment.
We hope these tips have spurred some thinking on how to approach your coming school year and we will be back next week with some tips focused specifically on helping your new students feel right at home in their new class!