By Molly Breen
Depending upon your setting’s process for enrolling new students, you may have a window of insight into the lives of the children who will soon walk through your doors or you may begin the year with very little information. However, to create a personal and thoughtful welcome for your new cohort of learners, it is critical to have some information about the kids who will be members of your class community. For children with specific diagnoses, disabilities, or neurodivergences, this is especially important! And for all children, ensuring that they feel safe and seen in your setting helps build a solid foundation for trusting relationships.
Here are some ideas to help you set a tone to welcome all children:
Prior to the school year beginning—or prior to the start date for a new student—send a letter or email communication to the child and their family sharing a bit about yourself as the teacher and asking questions to get to know them. Questions can be general: “How does your family like to spend time together?” or “What is important to know about you right now?” Or they can be more specific: “Do you/does your child tolerate noisy environments well?” “Do you/does your child like rough-and-tumble play?”
For children with a specific diagnosis or Individual Education Program, make sure that you take time to read through all documentation and schedule a meeting with the family and the team to understand the child’s needs and the goals of the IEP. In addition to this meeting, I like to have a conversation with the family about their child’s gifts and the things they love most about their child. In my experience, when young children are born with a disability or get a diagnosis for a developmental disability in their early life, parents spend a lot of time talking about all the challenges for their child and potential challenges for the teacher. Remember to celebrate the whole child—including the challenges that come with their physical, developmental, or cognitive disabilities.
Create an inclusive classroom and school environment that reflects the lives of the kids and families you serve. This ensures that all children, regardless of ability, can benefit from and learn within the same space as typically developing children. A couple of great resources for inclusive classroom designs are:
Once you have laid the groundwork for connection and understanding, that key ingredient—the children—becomes the most important element of your welcome. Your students will take cues from you—those they feel, hear, and observe—on how to be in your classroom and with their peers. You don’t have to be an early childhood special education teacher to create an inclusive welcome for your students (although that expertise is invaluable and, if it’s available to you in your setting or through your district, you should definitely seek it out!), but you must be intentional in your approach:
- Make sure your classroom library reflects the cultures, languages, abilities, and experiences of the children you serve.
- Decorate your room with images of your group of children and their families along with children’s artwork. Consider a more minimal decor at the start of the year and let the children’s work and images become the primary feature of the room over time.
- Read and talk about different abilities during your group learning time. (This might be the most valuable learning of the year, even with all your wonderful curricular planning!)
- Modify as you go. There is no way to predict a perfect setup, a perfect plan, or the perfect group of children. As you become familiar with the children in your group, modify plans to be responsive to the needs of all.
It’s okay to learn alongside your students about compassion, empathy, and welcoming friends with differing abilities; as adults, we don’t have to have all the answers. In my experience, students are often some of my very best teachers. So reflect and refine as you go, and that magic from the start of the year just might hang on through the last day of school.
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.
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.