As a kindergarten teacher, you get the amazing opportunity to create that first love of learning. Your impact can last a lifetime. I was a kindergarten teacher before joining NWEA, and I’ve had former students grow up to tell me that I was their favorite teacher and keep in contact for college recommendations. It is quite an honor to hold onto the title of favorite teacher for all those years!
Kindergarten classes may be especially large in the 2021–2022 school year because of lower enrollment during COVID-19. As a result, researchers expect we’ll see a “kindergarten bubble,” and that could make community building more important than ever this year.
I believe I had success in my kindergarten classroom because of how much I focused on building a classroom community in the first weeks of school. The structures I put in place created a sense of family that lasted throughout the year and for years to come. Here are 10 things that can help you create community in your kindergarten classroom this year.
1. Connect with families
I will be the first to admit that I did not fully understand a family’s tie to kindergarten until I became a parent myself. Even if students have gone to preschool, kindergarten is a rite of passage and inviting families to be a part of it can help you build relationships with both kids and their families.
One way to help families transition right away is to make the first morning of kindergarten extra special for them as well. Kindergarten parents and guardians tend to want to linger that day, but it is hard to have an adult crying in the window while their child is crying on the carpet. Try having what I call a Boo-Hoo Breakfast set up in a hallway or common area, such as the cafeteria or library. It can be really simple, just bags with granola bars, donuts, or other easy on-the-go breakfast foods paired with some information on common kindergarten procedures and contact information. The Boo-Hoo Breakfast can help adults feel a little love when they’re vulnerable, and the details on your classroom can help them feel confident that their child is in good hands.
2. Get to know each other
A great way to honor diversity is to truly get to know your students. Getting to know each other on a deeper level helps us to be culturally responsive educators.
One thing I really like to do very early in the school year is to give family members a student inventory so I can get to know their child and so we can begin to collaborate on goals for the child for the school year. Ask for family pictures to post around the room, too, and share pictures of yourself and your family with your students. A fun way to make sure every student gets a chance to share who they are is to designate a bulletin board in your classroom for a student-of-the-week project. The week’s student can bring in items that tell their story, including more pictures. You can have students share their story with the class, and you can celebrate different cultures through traditional food or even by taking a virtual tour of a country online.
3. Create a safe environment
Making your classroom a safe place to learn and grow is critical for all students. Getting to know your families and students definitely helps you start this work. Another more in-the-moment strategy is to greet your students at the door, including on the first day of school. Teaching your students that you are happy to see them and that you are going to have a great day helps to set the tone.
Over time, you can add in a special morning greeting or, better yet, ask students to help you decide on one, like a high five, handshake, or socially distanced elbow tap. Bowing to each other or doing a little morning dance can be fun, too. Students can help these greetings evolve throughout the year. They’re a great opportunity to learn from students of different cultures. Ask them to teach you a greeting that may be meaningful to them.
4. Establish procedures—and practice them
One of my first years teaching kindergarten, I lined up my students and we began walking down the hall. At some point, I turned around and saw a clump of little eyes looking up at me but no longer in a line. I felt like a mama duck who needed a better procedure and some time to practice with her ducklings. It dawned on me that for some students, the instruction “line up” may be completely new vocabulary, even if they attended pre-K.
In The First Days of School, Harry Wong and Rosemary Wong confirm that everything you can think of for your classroom inner workings needs to have a procedure, and creating checklists for yourself can help you remember everything and be consistent. As you begin to plan your first few weeks, think about procedures such as how students enter the room, where their supplies and backpacks go, how to transition from tables to the floor and, yes, you guessed it, how to walk in a line. Once you know what the procedures are and have decided how you’d like them to be done every time, begin to teach them and make sure to create time for practice. Have students practice coming into the classroom, for example, transitioning between their table and the floor, or responding to an attention getter. In my classroom, we would make practice a game. We would try to beat our time for getting to our seats quickly and quietly, for example. If things didn’t go quite as smoothly as I wanted, we would stop, review the procedure, and try again.
Practice a lot during the first few weeks of school. Really working to cement procedures at the beginning will make for a much smoother classroom later on.
5. Assign classroom jobs
Classroom jobs distribute responsibility for things that need to get accomplished in the room, further building a sense of community and helping kids feel ownership over their classroom and learning. If you can, have one job per student. If you can’t, put some students on “vacation” for a week. Some common classroom jobs are Paper Passer (to help you distribute handouts), Electrician (to turn lights off and on), and Line Leader (to be the first in line). On The Cornerstone for Teachers, Angela Watson suggests creating a job for each procedure and offers an extensive list of possible classroom jobs.
6. Write a classroom management plan
Creating a strong classroom management plan will help students know your rules and expectations. It provides consistency for you, your students, and families. You can have your students help create your rules so they feel like a part of the process and are more invested in success.
In my classroom, I started with Whole Brain Teaching’s classroom rules, which encourage hand motions to help students remember them. During the first week of school, we would review one rule a day and make a list together about what each rule should look like. I implemented ClassDojo as a way to not only connect to my families but also positively reward students for following rules. I made each rule a Dojo and had students help me decide how many points each was worth and why. I would rarely take away points for negative behavior and chose to overly focus on the positive. I learned that by focusing on who was doing something right, I was able to correct negative behavior by not even bringing attention to it.
7. Model giving praise and showing kindness
At the beginning of the year, modeling giving praise and showing kindness are critical. One way to do this is to choose a student of the day and have students practice writing their name. (I would always make it a big secret but by doing so we were also practicing phonics.) I would write a J on the board, for example, and say, “The name of today’s student of the day starts with a J,” and then I would make its sound. I would also slowly show students how to form the letter J. I would follow with the other letters until the student’s name was complete and the class had guessed it. The student of the day would then stand at the front of the room so that we could practice showing them kindness. I would be the first to deliver a compliment to the student, and they would practice telling me thank you. Their peers would take turns giving the student a compliment. They would also make drawings for the student of the day, and I would staple them together so the student had a special book from their classmates.
A few other strategies are to celebrate successes and reward kindness. Dr. Jean’s classroom cheers were a regular part of our classroom, and we used them anytime we wanted to celebrate an achievement. Whenever I observed kindness between students, I would reward it with a special ClassDojo point, too. Over time, kindness would become second nature and students would outright ask me to award a classmate kindness points when they felt someone had earned them.
8. Be silly
Kindergartners like to have fun, and they can learn a lot that way, too. One way to help make learning fun for your young students is to allow yourself to be silly with them.
According to Brain Balance Achievement Centers, the average attention span range for a six-year-old is 12–18 minutes. Brain breaks in the middle of lessons and activities that welcome in some fun and silliness will help kindergartners get the rest they need from focusing on a task. I often find good brain break ideas on The Learning Station and GoNoodle.
There are many songs that help to teach kindergarten skills as well, and you don’t need to save them for a brain break. Interject movement, songs, and silliness into your learning plans. Allow time for laughter and fun in the learning process.
9. Take lots of pictures
Families love receiving photos throughout the day, especially when kids are in kindergarten. ClassDojo will let you share all the fun things happening in your classroom. Seesaw is another good option. Post photos of the first day of school, special projects, exciting science experiments, field trips, and more. (Make sure to get photo releases from all the students before posting anything for all families to see.) The photos will be fun to look back on as you document your year, and you may even want to create an end-of-year slideshow for kindergarten graduation and to share with families.
10. Embrace teachable moments
No matter how much you plan, there are bound to be unpredictable things that are said or that you experience together. I remember the time my students and I had a caterpillar in our room that led to a whole unplanned unit on raising caterpillars and releasing butterflies. Sometimes you may see a snake on the sidewalk or some other wildlife that derails your lesson or timing for the day. Students will also tell you about exciting things going on in their lives, like when they take a big trip or get a puppy. Make sure to allow these moments to happen. In kindergarten, everything is a learning experience and a time to build your classroom community.
Wishing you a great year
After COVID-19 school closures and transitions to remote learning and hybrid instruction, in-person classes are likely to feel extra invigorating this year. I hope you can enjoy this special time with your kindergartners and start the year off right with some community building.