9 Fun Ideas for Welcoming Students Back to School and Getting Them Excited to Learn

By Andrew Hawk

9 Fun Ideas for Welcoming Students Back to School and Getting Them Excited to LearnI hope all of you have been enjoying a relaxing summer. Before I had children of my own, I used to think summers passed more slowly than the rest of the year. There was always less to do when school was out. Now, each day seems to go faster than the one before, regardless of the season.

This summer was one of the most needed summers in recent history, in my opinion. After more than two years of teaching and learning during a global pandemic, educators and students alike were exhausted. Rest and relaxation were the interventions that everyone needed. While we’ve now had some time to relax, this summer has flown by, and it is almost time to welcome students back to school. Here are some ideas I hope you will try to create an enthusiastic start to the year!

1. Decorate the School

If you choose this idea, be sure to go all out and make passersby wonder if it is someone’s birthday. Fill balloons with helium. Hang streamers in the hallways. Decorate windows with erasable markers. Rent one of those inflatable tube people (I think they’re called sky dancers) that businesses set by the road to attract attention. Creating a party atmosphere will get students excited to be back at school.

2. Organize a Pep Rally

You might think of pep rallies as something for middle and high school students only, usually relating to school sports. But pep rallies are a great way to show and create school spirit, and you can have one at any grade level. Most students are always up for shouting and singing school songs. Kick off the year with a welcome-back pep rally.

3. Greet Students in the Hallways

This is already a given at many schools. Students are happier to be back if staff are also visible and happy. Have all school personnel take to the hallways on the first day of school, with smiles and greetings at the ready. Invite custodians, the school resource officer, school board members, the superintendent, and whoever else works at the school. The more people there to help welcome students back, the better. This is a fast and easy way to start the year on a positive note.

4. Host an Open House

The open house is a school tradition in many places and was one of the many activities that were interrupted by the pandemic. In Indiana, we are now able to resume this event. Having the chance to come in and see their new classrooms and desks and meet their new teachers and classmates can help students with first-day jitters and make the transition to a new school year a bit easier.

5. Hold a Special Breakfast

This event can be done in a few different ways. You might choose to organize smaller breakfasts by grade level or class or have one big breakfast event for the entire school. It has been my experience that students are excited to see their principal serving food. So break out the chef’s hat and tongs!

6. Play Getting-to-Know-You Games

This idea is more for an individual class than an entire school. Getting-to-know-you games are a great icebreaker activity for the first day of school and can help build classroom community. There are literally hundreds of options to choose from. When I was a classroom teacher, my personal favorite involved passing out small candies like M&M’s or Skittles and asking students to answer different questions based on the color of the candies. A quick online search can help you find the perfect game for your class, or you can make up your own.

7. Do a Fun Writing Prompt

When I was a classroom teacher, I liked to end the year by having students write letters to the future class telling them what to expect. On the first day of school, I would pass the letters out and have students take turns reading them. I would then have the new class write a letter back to the previous year’s students. If you prefer something a little more traditional, you can always fall back on the tried-and-true, “What do you hope to learn this year?”

8. Head Outdoors

Having class outside is a special welcome-back event that most students enjoy. Weather permitting, plan to take a short lesson or an interactive read-aloud outdoors on the first day of school.

9. Do a Team-Building Activity

Unlike their adult counterparts, students are almost always excited by a team-building activity. These activities are easily paired with STEM or project-based learning activities. A classic is the “Build a Tower” activity. I have completed this as a participant and as an instructor, and I can confidently say that it is timeless. If you are not familiar with this activity, participants are split into teams and given various supplies you likely already have on hand. Teams are tasked with building a tower using the supplies. At the end of the activity, the team with the tallest tower wins. This is another area where a quick online search can produce lots of results. Find the perfect activity for you!

Enjoy the rest of your summer, everyone!

For more resources to help kids of all ages handle the ups, downs, ins, and outs of heading back to school, check out our collection of back-to-school books.

Andrew HawkAndrew Hawk has worked in public education for 18 years. He started as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He completed his bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Indiana University East in Richmond, Indiana. Andrew has taught first, second, and fifth grades as a classroom teacher. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University. Andrew has worked as a resource room teacher and also has taught in a self-contained classroom for students on the autism spectrum. In 2017, he earned a master’s degree in educational leadership, also from Western Governor’s University. This is Andrew’s first year as a building principal. He is the principal of an elementary school that houses kindergarten through fifth grades. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with his wife and two daughters.


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FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2022 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The views expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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How to Foster Self-Advocacy in Children

By Afsaneh Moradian, author of Jamie’s Class Has Something to Say 

How to Foster Self-Advocacy in ChildrenFar too often we see the children in our lives as their gender and age group and make decisions accordingly. We put preschoolers in swimming class and sign six-year-olds up for soccer.

As adults, we love the kids in our lives. We know what they need, and it’s our job to keep them healthy and foster their development. But sometimes our ideas and expectations don’t fit the actual individuals we are raising. What can seem like children rebelling might actually be a child screaming—literally and figuratively—to be heard.

My child’s grandmother has an especially challenging time managing her expectations of what my nonbinary child should like and how they should behave. One time when the two of them went out for lunch together, she assumed that she could order anything off the children’s menu and her young grandchild would enjoy it. She could not have been more wrong! My child refused to eat the congealed mac-and-cheese they were served, no matter how “fun” the presentation was.

Asking children about their preferences and encouraging them to make choices is key to establishing and teaching healthy communication. It also teaches a child to have confidence in their ideas and opinions and what it means to respect someone else. The more children are empowered to share, the easier it will be for them to make good decisions and know how to interact with peers in respectful ways.

Giving children the space to speak up is also fundamental to establishing trust between child and adult. When children have an adult in their life who really takes the time to listen, hear them, and respond to what they are saying, they know the door is wide open for them to communicate something serious that is affecting them or someone they know.

Here’s a fun activity that can facilitate children sharing their preferences and opinions.

All About Me Worksheets

  1. Create a worksheet with a list of topics such as favorite food, least favorite food, favorite color, a sound you dislike, favorite toy, favorite movie, biggest fear, etc. Be sure to leave space after each topic.
  2. Give each child a copy of the worksheet and ask them to fill it out. If your age group isn’t reading and writing yet, you can read each line out loud, and they can draw their answers.
  3. The worksheets can be posted in the group space to share everyone’s ideas. Or you can use the responses for the following activity.

Treasure Hunt of Friends

  1. Using the responses you collected from the previous activity, create a treasure hunt of friends.
  2. Give each child a new worksheet to fill out with items such as: find four people whose favorite food is pizza, find someone who loves Toy Story, etc.
  3. Children walk around and talk to one another to complete their sheets.
  4. If the children are too young to read and write, place images instead of words followed by the correct number of apple outlines. The children can still walk around and speak to one another to find the answers, but they only need to write the person’s initials in an apple.
  5. If you feel your group isn’t ready to walk around with their sheets, you can still share the responses as a circle time activity by asking everyone with a specific answer to stand up or do a different type of movement.

The more we can do to really get to know the individual children in our lives and show that we respect their ideas even when we don’t agree, the more self-assured children will become and the better able they’ll be to speak up for themselves and others.

Afsaneh MoradianAfsaneh Moradian has loved writing stories, poetry, and plays since childhood. After receiving her master’s in education, she took her love of writing into the classroom where she began teaching children how to channel their creativity. Her passion for teaching has lasted for over fifteen years. Afsaneh now guides students and teachers (and her young child) in the art of writing. She lives in New York City.

Free Spirit books by Afsaneh Moradian:
Jamie Is Jamie Jamie and Bubbie book cover Jamie's Class Has Something to Say book cover


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How to Help Kids Cope with Mixed Feelings About Back to School

By James J. Crist, Ph.D., author of What to Do When You’re Scared and Worried: A Guide for Kids

How to Help Kids Cope with Mixed Feelings About Back to SchoolMost kids look forward to the end of the school year. No more getting up early, doing homework, studying for tests, or dealing with bullying at school. What’s not to like? Seems like everyone looks forward to summer!

However, as summer wears on, many kids start getting bored and miss the excitement of hanging out with friends on a daily basis. At the same time, many kids do not look forward to school starting again. The anticipation of getting up early, making new friends, and worrying about homework and grades can make it harder for kids as they get ready to return to school. But having mixed feelings about back-to-school is normal. By helping kids talk about their feelings, adults can make it easier for kids to process those feelings and get ready for school in the fall.

Anxious children often have particular difficulty returning to school. They may become clingier, have trouble sleeping, and may voice fears about school. If they have heard about school shootings or have had experience with bullies, their anxiety is likely heightened. Meeting a new teacher can be difficult if you’re not sure if that teacher will be nice or mean. Some kids worry about not knowing anyone in their class if their friends are all in different classes. Kids who struggle academically will worry about their school performance and the stress of keeping up with homework and doing well on tests, as well as their overall grades.

Parents Have Mixed Feelings Too

Just as kids can have mixed feelings about returning to school, parents can too. For some parents, the beginning of summer can be a relief from the stress of having to monitor children’s grades, email teachers, make sure homework gets done and is turned in, and transport kids to sporting practices and other after-school activities. At the same time, keeping kids entertained all summer can be challenging. Many of today’s kids value screen time above all else, and it can be a battle getting them to engage in healthier activities, such as playing outside. While some parents may look forward to having their kids return to school, others may dread the pressure that comes with helping kids be successful, particularly parents of kids who struggle academically or socially.

Helping Kids Cope

One of the most helpful things parents can do is simply reflect and validate kids’ feelings. You don’t need to convince them that they’ll have a great year, and you don’t want to minimize their concerns. Start by asking open-ended questions. For example: “How are you feeling about returning to school?” With younger kids, who often have a harder time putting feelings into words, it can help to give options: “Are you looking forward to returning to school, wishing you didn’t have to go back, or maybe some of both?” You might also name some feelings kids may have, for example: “Some kids feel nervous about going back to school. Is that something you are feeling too?” Let them know that it is normal to have mixed feelings and that it is okay to talk about them.

Often, stress about a situation stems from not feeling in control of what happens. So focusing on things they can control can help kids feel better about a stressful situation. Printing out the school calendar can help provide structure, including marking down days off and the beginning and end of the quarter. Going shopping for new school clothes can be fun for some kids. Practicing reading, especially with kids who don’t read much, can get them into the habit of doing schoolwork. Setting up an area for doing homework and making a schedule for when homework will be completed each day or week helps provide a routine. Allowing your child input into this process makes it more likely that they will follow through.

Making a list of pros and cons can help kids look at their feelings more objectively. You can ask: “What are some good things about going back to school? What are some not-so-good things?” If kids have trouble coming up with anything, you can suggest some possibilities. Some good things might include being around friends, making new friends, getting out of the house, learning interesting things, talking to friends during lunch and playing with them during recess, and maybe even not being around siblings all day! Some not-so-good things might include having to get used to a new teacher, making new friends, worrying about bullying, worrying about grades and homework, and even being away from parents and siblings, which can be harder for anxious kids.

Teaching Stress-Management Skills Can Help

Techniques such as mindfulness and deep breathing can help manage stress over returning to school. Mindfulness involves paying attention to what is happening around you in the moment. Tuning in to what you notice in your environment, such as what you see, hear, smell, or feel, can help kids feel grounded and move their focus away from unpleasant feelings.

Parents can practice this with kids at home. Noticing the feel of a stuffed animal or the beauty or scent of a flower can be a good way to start. Combining this with deep breathing (sometimes called belly breathing, balloon breathing, or square breathing) helps the body relax. Breathing in and out slowly to the count of five works well for most people. An internet search for “belly breathing for kids” will yield a number of short videos you and kids can watch. Here are two good examples:

For more information on mindfulness, which includes short audio clips of mindfulness exercises, check out the Mindful website. Guided meditations or guided imagery can also be helpful to put kids into a more relaxed state. Kids can listen to the soothing voice of the facilitator describe a calming scene. You can record your own voice reading a meditation or check out one of the many videos online. Here’s an example titled “Letting Go of Worries”:

Ask your child for suggestions on what they think a calming scene would be. It could be at the beach, curled up in front of a fire, or watching a balloon slowly float up to the sky. Here’s a script you can use.

Systematic desensitization is a therapy technique that helps people deal with scary situations by thinking about them one step at a time and using deep breathing when the thoughts of the situation become too scary. Kids can learn to use their imagination to walk through the steps of going through the school day as if they are watching a movie or video. When combined with deep breathing, kids can desensitize themselves to the idea of going to school. If they start feeling anxious, they can stop the imaginary video, take deep breaths until they feel calmer, and restart the video. Kids can practice until they can get through the entire school day without feeling anxious. For some kids, visiting the school prior to the first day can help allay the anxiety of going to school, especially if the school is new for them.

If your child expresses worries about returning to school, help them come up with a game plan to handle them. For example, they can plan to talk with their teacher privately before or after school if they need extra help. If they know who their school counselor is, you can have them write that person’s name and room number on their agenda or planner so that they can seek them out if they have trouble handling feelings or dealing with conflict.

Conclusions

It’s normal to have mixed feelings about returning to school, for kids as well as for parents. Helping kids talk about their feelings openly and providing them with strategies to cope can go a long way toward a successful transition back to school.

Dr. James J. CristAuthor James Crist is the clinical director and a staff psychologist at the Child and Family Counseling Center (CFCC) in Woodbridge, Virginia, and a substance abuse counselor, working with addictive disorders in teens and adults. At CFCC, he provides psychological testing and individual, couples, and family psychotherapy for children, adolescents, and adults, specializing in children with ADHD, depression, and anxiety disorders. Visit his website at jamesjcrist.com.

Free Spirit books by James Crist:

What's the Big Deal About Addictions? Answers and Help for Teens by Dr. James J. Crist Siblings The Survival Guide for Making and Being Friends WhatToDoWhenYou'reScaredAndWorried What to Do When You’re Cranky & Blue


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.


FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2022 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The views expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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How to Help Teens Develop Better Phone Habits

By Beverly K. Bachel, author of What Do You Really Want? How to Set a Goal and Go for It! A Guide for Teens

How to Help Teens Develop Better Phone Habits“Put your phone down and go outside.”

How many times will you say this to teens this summer? Chances are several times each day.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, teens spend upwards of nine hours a day on their phones. And according to behavior change expert Kris Jennings, summer is a great time to focus on helping teens improve their phone habits.

“Shifts in our usual patterns such as moving from the structure of school days to the freedom of summer vacation create opportunities for us to stop old ways of behaving and start new ways,” explains Jennings. According to a 2019 survey, the average person picks up their phone about ninety-six times a day and then proceeds to use it for one minute and fifteen seconds. That amounts to two hours a day. And while it’s not easy to stop ourselves from picking up our phones, in large part because they’re designed to keep us coming back, learning a few basic principles of behavior change can help your teens take control of their phones . . . and their lives.

Our phones create messy habits, so we need to start by untangling the good from the bad,” says Jennings. “Asking your teens to quit cold turkey or taking away their phones is not helpful . . . or sustainable.”

Start with awareness

The first step is to help teens become more aware of how they currently use their phones by encouraging them to observe their phone use over a few days, jotting down what they notice, while you do so as well. What time-specific or emotional triggers prompt them to pick up their phones? For instance, do they do so when they first wake up? When they get home from camp? What about when they’re feeling anxious, bored, excited, lonely, or sad?

Also ask them to pay attention to how they feel before, during, and after using their phones in various ways (playing Wordle, scrolling social media, chatting with friends, watching online videos).

Tapping into greater self-awareness for how they use their phone and how they feel after doing so can help them identify which behaviors they want to continue, which they’d like to leave behind, and which they’d like to replace with more positive, and perhaps even more productive, habits.

“Once your teens decide they want to make changes, it gets much easier to support them because their motivation is coming from within,” says Jennings, who uses the Tiny Habits method of behavior change to help teens alter their behaviors.

Developed by BJ Fogg, director of the Stanford University Behavior Design Lab and author of Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything, the Tiny Habits method is scientifically proven to create new, lasting habits quickly and easily.

Jennings stresses three ways to help teens develop and maintain their momentum:

  1. Start small. The Tiny Habits method focuses on taking small, positive actions, such as saying a daily affirmation, that can be completed in as little as thirty seconds and incorporating them into other, existing habits like brushing one’s teeth or pouring a bowl of cereal.
  2. Focus on the positive. Rather than admonishing teens for using their phones, praise the behaviors you want to see more of. Also consider setting up a few rules that both you and teens agree to. For example, no using phones at the dinner table or while driving.
  3. Celebrate! Intentionally celebrating success, even with something as simple as a high-five, reminds teens they have what it takes to change and that their new behaviors are worth celebrating.

“Self-awareness and building habits that support our goals are lifelong skills,” Jennings says. “Unfortunately, most of us learn to resist change because we don’t have positive emotions around it. By embracing tiny habits, teens can change in some pretty big ways.”

To help teens improve their phone and other digital skills, download this free Slaying Digital Dragons Resistance Manifesto. It is one of many practical tools included in Slaying Digital Dragons, a book that helps teens better understand how their digital habits impact their bodies, brains, psyches, relationships, and reputations.

Beverly BachelBeverly Bachel is a freelance writer and the author of What Do You Really Want? How to Set a Goal and Go for It! A Guide for Teens. She has introduced thousands of teens and parents to the power of goal-setting.

What Do You Really WantBeverly is the author of What Do You Really Want? How to Set a Goal and Go for It! A Guide for Teens.


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.


FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2022 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The views expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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9 Ways Administrators Can Prepare for the New School Year

By Andrew Hawk

Even though students head home for the summer, at the majority of schools across the United States, the behind-the-scenes work of running a school never really stops. Sure, things slow down a little, but the gears keep right on grinding. As years pass, administrators learn how to prioritize their to-do lists to increase efficiency when getting ready for the new school year. Here are a few ideas you may want to consider as you prepare for the upcoming year.

9 Ways Administrators Can Prepare for the New School Year

1. Survey Stakeholders

At the very least, include teachers, students, and parents in your survey. You might also include a random sampling of other members from the community. After all, a school has a major impact on its neighborhood. I recommend sending out a survey at least once every three years. The survey should be concise and to the point to increase the number of people who fully complete it. You’ll gain much valuable knowledge from these surveys, but I know the first time can be a little scary. If you have not done a survey in recent years, make the leap.

2. Schedule Repairs

Every year, administrators hope repairs will be few and easily completed. While it is true some years are better than others, you’ll need to make at least a few repairs each year. The best way to stay caught up is to maintain constant vigilance. If your budget allows, you might also be proactive. Having a good maintenance crew can make all the difference, but take a collaborative approach to ensure nothing is missed.

3. Order New Supplies

Who orders the supplies for a school can vary from state to state. In Indiana, the school treasurer is usually responsible for this task, but the building administrator plays a large role in prioritizing what gets ordered based on the needs of the building. This is another area where it helps to solicit feedback from your staff.

4. Organize a Student Assistance Day

I have witnessed schools do this in a variety of ways. Some keep things simple, such as handing out backpacks of school supplies, while others go as far as bringing in hairstylists to cut students’ hair for free during the last week of summer. Something that never changes? How continually impressed I am by community support when it comes to organizing events to assist students. Organizing a student assistance day is too big a project for one person to complete. So I recommend you recruit some helpers to organize the day. This could be a great way for national honor society students to earn some community service hours.

5. Schedule Training Sessions

Wow! How did I manage to summarize that vast topic in only three words? This topic occupies page after page in books and blogs. However, this list doesn’t feel right without acknowledging the never-ending journey of professional development (PD) for educators. I swear I am going to keep this simple! Some professional development is required by state law and needs to be completed annually or biannually. These types of trainings include topics such as CPR and de-escalation training. Be sure to get mandatory training sessions on the schedule, and then the sky’s the limit on everything else!

6. Update Handbooks and School Improvement Plans

I hope you consider both of these to be “living documents.” They do little more than take up space otherwise. If I am planning a major overhaul of either the School Improvement Plan or one of the various handbooks (whether it’s for students, classified staff, or certified staff), I form a good-sized committee. This helps ensure that everyone has a voice in the process. If only minor updates are needed, a small committee is fine.

7. Renew School Clubs and Sponsors

This is not just about renewing clubs and sponsors, but about evaluating clubs and organizations to assess their successfulness. Students deserve as many extracurriculars as a school can provide, and in this day and age, there are a lot of great options to choose from. Not every activity is going to be a perfect fit for every school. If something is just not working, it is okay to replace it with another option.

8. Plan to Welcome New Staff Members

At most of the schools I’ve worked at, this was usually handled by a committee of teachers. However, I recommend checking in and making sure that something is taking action to help new staff members feel welcomed and supported at their new school.

9. Outline Your Orientation Meeting

I have been a part of orientation meetings that lasted an entire school day and ones that only lasted half an hour. The orientation is a real balancing act of relaying needed information to staff members and making sure you are not wasting people’s time. I believe administrators should not exceed ninety minutes with these meetings. Start getting your discussion points outlined and see if there is anything that can be excluded this year!

I hope these tips help you have a successful start to the new year.

Enjoy the rest of your summer, everyone!

Andrew HawkAndrew Hawk has worked in public education for 18 years. He started as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He completed his bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Indiana University East in Richmond, Indiana. Andrew has taught first, second, and fifth grades as a classroom teacher. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University. Andrew has worked as a resource room teacher and also has taught in a self-contained classroom for students on the autism spectrum. In 2017, he earned a master’s degree in educational leadership, also from Western Governor’s University. This is Andrew’s first year as a building principal. He is the principal of an elementary school that houses kindergarten through fifth grades. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with his wife and two daughters.


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.


FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2022 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The views expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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