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The First Four Weeks of School

It’s that time again! Time to think about going back to school.

For families, this usually means checking the closet for school clothes that fit and shopping for school supplies. For teachers, this means a lot of planning.

How those first few weeks go helps to set the tone for the rest of the year. Planning and execution are both important to helping it go well. There are two concepts I talk about with the teachers I work with to help this time go smoothly and pave the way for a good year.

Go Slow to Go Fast

This is a concept I learned from business groups I work with. I’ve also heard it this way, “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” The idea here is we need to take all the time we need to build routines and lay the groundwork for trust and collaboration. These first four weeks are when we set boundaries and build the community of learners who will be working together the rest of the year. There are four goals for this crucial time:

1. Teach routines

Assume nothing. Especially this year, after the disruptions of the last two school years, students are not likely to know how school should go or how to talk to each other. And in any case, they probably haven’t had you for a teacher before, so they won’t know what you expect. Teach routines, including speaking and listening techniques, just as you would any other content. Give your students time to practice and continually assess how they’re doing with these skills.

2. Build Community

Your students should get to know not just you, but each other as well. Establishing positive relationships and finding common ground will go a long way when you start with group work and projects. Laying the groundwork for trust will also boost confidence and engagement.

3. Get Buy-In for Rules

A part of building community is having and adhering to rules and guidelines for behavior. Getting buy-in for the classroom rules is an important proactive step toward avoiding discipline problems later. Students should have an opportunity to help shape the rules and understand how the rules help them achieve their goals. For example, if I’m reading about my favorite animal and I need a quiet environment to do that, if the rest of the class is loud, I won’t be able to read my book. It’s important for students to realize that not only do rules make the classroom community a better place for everyone, it helps them too!

4. Prepare for Academic Work

These first few weeks are a great time to introduce the techniques you’ll use to do academic work. Whether it’s group projects, homework assignments or class discussions, giving students time to learn these structures and practice them will help them when the stakes are higher.

Sequence Intentionally

This idea is one teachers are familiar with. We learn it as scaffolding. We know how important it is for academic success, but sometimes we forget it’s important for social emotional learning and proactive discipline too.

I like to think about scaffolding social skills backwards. I start at the end and work my way to the beginning. I think about where I want my students to be after these first four weeks, as we start to dive into academics more. For example, what skills are needed for my students to be successful in group work? They need to be able to communicate clearly about their needs, wants, opinions and thoughts. They need to disagree agreeably. They may need note taking or public speaking skills. I can’t assume they’ll have these skills coming into my class, so I’ll have to teach them in those first few weeks.

Now I think about each of these skills and how to teach them. For example, in order to disagree agreeably, they need listening skills, they need to be able to summarize what someone else says and they need sentence stems for disagreeing with another student without starting a heated argument. This is the academic work for those first four weeks, and the order I do them in is important!

I might pair them up for a one minute listening and summarizing session about their summer vacation. The next day I’ll teach sentence stems, “I agree because ___,” “I disagree because ____,” “I understand why you think ____, but I disagree because ___” and pair them up with someone new to discuss their favorite superhero or game. Next, I’ll teach formulating arguments and set them up in a four corners activity about which kind of lunch is best. Now they’re ready to plan a group project or have classroom discussion while disagreeing agreeably. Their social skills have been scaffolded and they’re primed for success. The activities don't have to take long, but the payout is huge!

Remember, assume nothing! Many adults struggle with these skills, so taking the time to teach them and give your students practice is absolutely necessary. And it will pave the way for not only academic success, but confidence and engagement as well.

There are some great resources for thinking about these first four weeks I highly recommend:

for Elementary School, from the Center for Responsive Schools

for Middle School, from Responsive Classroom

an app for community building and academic interactive activities, free to download

(if you’d like the premium features, use code kikoriwholeplanet15 for 15% off)

As you plan for those crucial first four weeks of school, remember to Go Slow to Go Fast and Sequence Intentionally. Your future self will thank you!


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