7 Tips for Supporting Your Students to Start the School Year
At a Glance
Create a Welcoming Environment: The blog emphasizes the importance of creating a comfortable space where students feel supported, safe, and encouraged to explore and ask questions. Tips include setting up a classroom with visual supports, sensory-friendly elements, and a clear sense of organization to help students understand what to expect throughout the year.
Address Individual Needs and Concerns: The post outlines how to consider students' unique needs, including sensory accommodations and addressing anxieties or fears. Building relationships with both students and their families, offering social opportunities, and providing tools for self-regulation are emphasized as essential practices.
Celebrate Successes and Foster Independence: Celebrating even small successes during the first week sets a positive tone for the entire year. Encouraging self-advocacy, individualized supports, and giving students space to navigate social opportunities on their own terms underscores the overarching message of creating a trusting, safe, and supportive learning environment.
Much like the first week of school is crucial to setting the tone for the rest of the school year in terms of routines and expectations, it is also crucial to establishing your classroom as a place where students will feel heard and supported, safe enough to try and to make mistakes, and comfortable enough to come to you with questions and concerns.
Although it can take a longer time to truly get to know your students and their wants, needs, and preferences, your actions at the start of the year go a long way toward making your intentions clear and are foundational to how the rest of the year will look.
Thankfully there are so many different ways to demonstrate what kind of environment you want your classroom to be and that you are here to support your students as they learn and grow. In this post we are sharing some of our favorites. These tips are jumping off points - of course you know your own classroom best and we hope these starting points will inspire some ideas specifically suited to your classroom context.
If you have a favorite way of supporting students that you’d like to share we’d love to hear from you, just drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and in the meantime we will jump into 7 ways you can show support for your students to start the year.
1. Create a welcoming environment with students in mind.
As a teacher you have more than one way of creating a great first impression with your students beyond the way you personally introduce yourself.
The way your classroom is presented and the items within also help to offer your students a sense of what they can expect and what resources will be available to them throughout the year.
A classroom full of visual supports, sensory-friendly elements, and a clear sense of organization can help to create a stable and engaging environment from the beginning.
While you may not always have access to complete information about all your students’ needs before you meet them, the information you do have can sometimes be a helpful indicator as to the types of supports you may want to make available and visible from the beginning!
2. Provide a sensory-friendly space.
Speaking of sensory-friendly, a welcoming classroom can include more than just sensory-friendly elements. We distinguish a sensory-friendly space as a safe area with consideration for sensory needs where students can self-regulate when they need to.
Establishing both that this space exists AND that students are welcome to practice self-advocacy by accessing it when they need to is a great start, and you can go a step further by offering sensory items like fidget toys, blankets, or headphones to help block out sound.
The exact space you create may depend on the types of items you are personally able to provide and that is OK! The crucial point is establishing the space and including what you can - including a student’s own personal self-regulation tools - so that students feel comfortable taking the steps they need to center themselves when they are feeling overwhelmed or overloaded.
3. Address anxiety and fears.
The first week of school represents a major transition, both from whatever routine a student may have established over the summer and from the classroom they grew accustomed to in the prior school year. It is understandable that for some students the first week may be a little overwhelming!
A great first step to supporting these students is encouraging the open communication of worries, and ensuring students that nothing is too small or “silly” to be talked about.
The great news is that a lot of the items in the last two sections can be helpful tools to address anxiety or concerns, but every student is unique and you never know what specific thing might cause some worries.
The important thing is to respect those concerns and treat them seriously, and from there, it is possible to consider solutions that you are able to provide that the student in question finds helpful.
4. Involve families.
Over the course of the school year there is a good chance you’ll talk to a student’s caregivers at some point, but it can be worth taking the time to be proactive and try to establish a partnership for student success as early as possible.
Families by virtue of knowing the student best may have some unique insights into their needs that simply aren’t communicated in an IEP or student file.
As a bonus, it’s also an opportunity to share information about classroom routines and expectations so that you and your student’s family and/or caregivers are on the same page.
5. Build relationships.
Over the course of the school year, you are certain to have opportunities to interact with and learn about each individual student. But much like with their families, being intentional in the first week about taking time to get to know each student as an individual sets the tone for you caring about and supporting them as individuals while also helping to gain insight from the person who knows the student best: the student themself!
These types of meetings are a great time to talk about strengths, challenges, and learning styles, but also about a student’s personal interests that can help you individualize their supports and make them more fun and comfortable to use!
6. Provide social opportunities.
On top of your own relationship with your students, the first week is also a great time to provide opportunities for students to get to know each other on their own terms.
While it can be tempting to tightly define the parameters of these social interactions, consider creating open-ended opportunities with some nice icebreakers and try as much as possible to focus on being available to keep things moving when you are needed rather than trying to actively set the agenda. Note that open-ended opportunities are different from providing structure for the activity!
Building social skills and peer relationships is essential, and giving students a space to feel safe navigating social opportunities on their own terms is crucial to establishing your classroom as a space that encourages self-advocacy and independence.
7. Celebrate successes.
With so much focus on establishing class norms, getting to know everyone, and getting the class up to speed, it can be easy to forget that doing all these things is still work even if it’s not as closely tied to the curriculum as activities during a standard school week. On top of that, adjusting to a new space can just be intimidating for some students and any step forward can be a major one.
Finding some small ways to celebrate the successes of the first week can show you are equally excited about taking introductory steps as you are about the bigger achievements your students will make through the year.
Whether that’s finding small ways to draw attention to something wonderful a student has done or a quiet acknowledgement based on a student’s preferences or even a mini-celebration at the end of the first week, you can show that dipping your toes in the water is an important part of the learning process and not just a matter of your personal expectations. Because for some students it is an effort, and we want to establish as early as possible that effort is something we always want to acknowledge even when things don’t go perfectly.
We hope these tips have inspired some thinking on ways to fit the ideas behind them into your unique classroom context or to meet the needs of your individual students. As always the first week is never the only week and it is OK for mistakes to happen. It is OK to have to adjust plans!
Rather, the first week is a major opportunity to set a tone of trust and safety that can echo throughout the school year and every little step you take in that week can echo throughout the year and make your own life and the lives of your students that much easier.
Stay tuned for next week when we’ll be diving into some start of the school year tips for parents, and in the meantime we wish you the best of luck in building the welcoming and safe classroom environment that you and your students deserve!