By Molly Breen
Whenever we prepare to welcome students back to school, we thoughtfully consider our classroom environment as the “third teacher.” We know that every corner of the room matters and details count! The environments we create set the tone for our class communities, help inform child-directed play, mediate behaviors, and so much more. It’s safe to say that classroom environments are pivotal to the school experience for kids and teachers.
So what about this year, when we are welcoming back and welcoming in (for the first time) children who have lived the past year or longer in relative isolation? What more should we think of to create a “welcome without walls” in the wake of pandemic social isolation?
A meaningful transition into a new school year extends beyond a thoughtful classroom environment. You can do a lot in the weeks leading up to the first day of school to ensure that children feel a sense of safety before they even enter your beautiful and intentional space. Some of us are still navigating restrictions for COVID safety regarding gathering or having parents in the building, so please refer to your local and program guidance to make sure that the following suggestions are compliant and safe for you.
1. Summer Letter
Whether it is a personal letter from a lead teacher or a letter from the program director, staying in touch with families over the summer (if your program takes a break or students take a break) helps everyone feel connected.
Depending on your program size, consider sending letters or postcards in the mail instead of emails. Receiving mail is a more kinetic experience than email, and it has a human connection that can be missed with electronic communication. This point of contact can be a simple greeting that highlights a few upcoming dates or events before the start of the school year. I like to include a photo of something I have done outdoors over the summer.
2. Home Visits
The seminal longitudinal Perry Preschool Project study in the 1960s revealed just how critical home visiting is for students’ success in early learning and for lifelong positive outcomes. If you are not familiar with this research, it’s worth reading the overview here. And despite current debate about the randomizing in the original study, the project’s overall long-term success is clear, with home visiting as an important lever. The Perry Preschool Project integrated weekly home visiting into its program design—an amazing future ambition—but you can start with an introductory visit.
Again, depending on your program size, home visits may seem an overwhelming proposition, but I guarantee that you will be convinced of their value if you do them! Consider starting the year with a round of home visits with classroom teachers and support staff. We do 20-minute introductory visits with each student in our program. Because we team teach, each teacher visits about 10 kids and families. We let families know ahead of time that the visit will be somewhat brief, and we use the time to deliver materials and some paperwork for the new school year. We also warn parents that the visit will be child-centered and that specific questions about the school year will be addressed in the upcoming orientation.
Visits can take place outdoors or at another meeting place if meeting at home is challenging. The kids in our program are generally VERY excited to have a teacher stop by, and when the school year starts, kids and teachers have a shared experience to refer back to that helps build trust and connection.
3. Open House or Mini-Tours
Most schools offered only virtual tours in the last year, if they offered any. It’s possible that some of your newly enrolled students (and their parents and caregivers) have never set foot in your physical space! Consider offering an Open House with appointment times to avoid crowding, or give timed mini-tours with groups of two or three families. This way, kids have an opportunity to get to know the school space alongside their beloved adults—a reassurance that helps children feel supported through the transition.
Make sure everyone understands the intention of the visit: Is it to explore the room and materials? Visit the bathroom? Meet the teachers? Do an activity together? Encourage sensory exploration so that children engage with the classroom and the materials. Set up provocations that invite play! In my experience, an Open House always leaves students wanting more and feeling ready to return for the first day of school.
4. Slow Start for New Students
We designate two days prior to the start of the regular school year for new students only. Our slow-start days give our new learners an opportunity to transition into the school experience without the hustle, bustle, and energy of our experienced preschoolers.
Depending on your program schedule and needs, these could be two- to three-hour consecutive school days where parents and kids practice separating and teachers offer an intentional introduction for new preschoolers. If your program has a parent group or board, consider asking that group to host an informal coffee gathering outside of the school building to help parents through the transition as well! Each of these ideas contribute to building confidence, trust, and a sense of community.
5. All About Me
Chances are that you already have a practice of hanging up child and family photos in your program’s classrooms and common areas. This is a well-documented approach to creating a child-centered environment. We include something called a “Family Page” in our groups: a sheet of cardstock with room for a photo (or drawing!) and fill-in-the-blank information like the child’s name and age, people and pets in the child’s family, and something important to know about the child. The “something important to know about me” line is usually a wonderful mix of earnest parent reports of children’s interests and abilities and child-led proclamations like “I wear underpants!”
I always encourage parents to take dictation or to let kids write their own ideas if they are writing. We use these pages as a tool for introduction in our morning meetings at the beginning of the year and then we keep the pages hanging up or in a book in the classroom all year long.
6. Room Introduction
Once the foundation for connection has been laid with a letter, a home visit, a school visit, and a slow start, chances are good that your new preschoolers will begin to feel trust in you and their new school community. Of course, it’s not unusual to have tears in the first days and weeks of a new school year, but your intentional points of connection will undoubtedly help children feel a sense of safety and belonging.
As you begin the year together with all your students—both new and returning—take time to “tour” your classroom together. Ask questions like “What do you think we can do in this area?” and “How many children could sit at this table?” Let returning students share expertise, like how to figure out where things go when cleaning up or what to do when you need to go to the bathroom.
Even if you covered these things on the slow-start days, now you are reinforcing them together with the whole group. A room introduction can be brief and silly (I like to pretend that I am a tour guide), but it should also instill in children a sense of care for your shared environment and things; it’s like opening a wonderful gift together!
7. Share About Yourself
It can be easy to overlook the importance of “Teacher Features” at the start of a new year together. We are often most focused on our kids—and for good reason! But it is critical that we, the practitioners, model how to build relationships through sharing about ourselves.
Make your own “All About Me” page, bring in a picture of yourself as a preschooler, or share something unique about yourself or something you love to do. We like to do Teacher Features throughout the year to keep our relational connections with kids vital. And when we introduce the Teacher Feature we say, “Because teachers are people, too!”
Taking time to create beautiful and intentional classroom environments will no doubt affect how children are welcomed into our school communities. And taking time to create a “welcome without walls” through the suggestions offered here will undoubtedly soothe fears and anxieties about the transition to preschool—for kids, parents, and teachers. Consider incorporating some or all of these intentional strategies into your new school year!
Molly Breen, M.A., E.C.E., has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.
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