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The Perfect First Day of School

Updated: Aug 6, 2023

The first day of school is important. Like, really important. I mean no pressure but the first day sets the tone for the rest of the year. Setting up a smooth, positive, fun first day for your students is a great way to ensure a great school year to come.

But first days are hard. They're stressful and nerve-wracking, for you and for your students. So, here's my recipe for the perfect first day. You'll obviously need to tweak this to fit it to your own schedule, procedures, routines, etc. Consider it a rough outline, anyway.

Start out SUPER low stress (and peaceful)

There's a whole lot going on way too early in the morning on the first day of school. Students aren't sure they're in the right place. They don't know where to put their backpack or where to sit down. They don't know what to do with their lunch money. If parents are allowed to walk them down, they trap you with 100+ questions. You don't even know everyone's names yet! Pause. Take a deep breath. Set yourself up for early success by following these simple steps:

  • Write simple directions on the board - Tell students exactly what to do when they arrive without having to say it over and over again to each one. This might simply say:

1.) Find your desk

2.) Take all your stuff with you to your seat (don't unpack yet)

3.) Work on the activity on your desk quietly

  • Don't ask very much of them at all - If you have assigned seating, be sure to label desks with name tags so they can find theirs independently. Have them take everything with them at first (don't unpack yet). You can explain later where everything goes. Have a very simple, mindless activity out on the desks with all supplies needed to complete it. Some ideas for mindless first day morning work:

    • A coloring page - If ever there was a time to just chill out and color, this is it. If it relates to the curriculum, even better.

    • An extreme dot to dot - Mindware has a great selection of extreme dot to dot books that are reasonably priced. They also have free samples available.

    • A names word search - Use this free make your own word search tool to create a word search using the names of each student in the class. Students can hunt for each name, and get to know their classmates a little better in the process.

    • A get to know you activity - this "News About Me" newspaper template is a great first day of school activity. Students fill in information about themselves and draw pictures to create a newspaper. (Psst... these look great hanging in the hallway for open house!)

  • Keep it peaceful - Encourage students to stay calm and quiet while they work at their desks. I know excitement and nerves are running high but this is really important. A chaotic start to the first day of school is the last thing you want. I find that students usually come in this way anyway. They aren't sure what they can get away with yet and they're hesitantly feeling the scene out. Be sure to compliment students for working quietly and being peaceful. Even bust out a reward if necessary. If someone gets loud or rowdy, quickly but kindly correct them "Michael, we're going to have a super peaceful morning while everyone get's settled in, please work quietly." This usually does the trick. They don't know you yet and they don't want to get in trouble 5 minutes into the first day. Also, did I mention rewards? A single m&m goes a long way, just saying.

Get to know each other with some ice breakers

Before jumping in to anything even somewhat resembling teaching, take some time to get to know each other, loosen up, and have fun. Stuff is still stashed at desks. You'll get into the procedure of unpacking in a little bit. Choose an ice breaker game to play with your class. I have 7 tried and true ice breakers available in my TPT store, including:

  • Paper Snowball Fight - This is my personal favorite. Each student writes an interesting fact about themselves on a piece of scrap paper (supply paper and pencils for this). Then, they ball the paper up to make a paper "snowball." Now have a snowball fight! Give them a minute to throw the paper balls around the classroom. Be sure to set some ground rules (no running, no yelling, etc.). Make sure they know the signal to stop (ring a bell, clap your hands), grab a paper snowball, and return to their seats. Then everyone takes turns reading the fact inside their snowball and trying to guess who wrote it.

  • Two Truths and a Lie - Students write down 2 true things and 1 untrue thing about them. Take turns reading these aloud while the rest of the class tries to guess which one is the lie.

  • Never Have I Ever - Everyone puts up 5 fingers. Take turns stating something that you've never done (for example, "Never have I ever been to Disney World"). Anyone who has done that has to put down a finger.

  • Categories - Draw a category card (example: favorite flavor of ice cream). Students write their answers down then share them with the group. If another player has written the same answer as you, you both have to cross it off on your paper. The player with the most answers not crossed off at the end of the game wins.

  • Guess Who BINGO - Print off copies of the Guess Who BINGO board for each student. Students roam around the room, trying to find classmates for each fact on the board until they have written names on 5 boxes in a row.

  • Fortune Teller Me More - Print a copy of the fortune teller template for each student and walk them through folding the paper to create their fortune teller (these are also sometimes called cootie catchers). Then let students walk around, asking each other questions with their completed fortune tellers.

  • Question Ball - Very similar to the game "Silent Ball" except with questions. Students sit on top of their desks and throw a ball around the room. When you throw the ball, ask a question like "how old are you?" or "what's your favorite color?" The recipient catches the ball and answers the question, then throws it to another classmate. If a student fails to catch the ball, they sit down in their chair. The game ends when only one student is left.

Lay down the law (in a positive way)

Now it's time to get real. I like to call students down to the carpet at the front of the classroom for this next bit. Now is when you have a meeting, a powwow, to go over all of your behavior expectations. Here's what that looks like in my class (and yes I stole this from my blog post 6 Lifesaving Tips for Managing Behavior in the Classroom which I also suggest you read if you haven't already!):

  • I begin this meeting by asking if any of them play sports and calling on a few to share which sports they play. (This may or may not lead to a discussion as to whether or not dance is a sport, just try to breeze past this quickly).

  • I choose one of these sports that are shared (usually soccer because for some reason everyone seems to play soccer) and I ask students if there are any special rules for this game that their coaches teach them. Students usually say things like “you can’t touch the ball with your hands,” or “you can’t trip anybody,” or even “you have to come to practice or you can’t play in the game.”

  • We have a discussion about why sports have rules like these which usually results in comments like “to make it fair,” “so no one gets hurt,” etc. Students typically agree that these rules are necessary.

  • I then tell them that school is kind of like a sport. At school we are learning and practicing skills to become better learners and to strengthen our brains just like learning and practicing soccer skills helps us become better players and strengthen our muscles. A test at school is kind of like a game in sports and in order to perform well, there are rules, or expectations, that must be followed.

  • Then, and this is key, I ask them what they think some of the expectations at school should be so that everyone can learn in a safe, fair environment. I already have my expectations printed and laminated and ready to be hung on the wall directly following this discussion but they don’t need to know that. Let them think they came up with the rules! They will be way more apt to follow them if they feel they have some ownership over them. They will most likely say things like “listen to the teacher,” “raise your hand to talk,” “keep your hands to yourself,” which is basically what you came up with anyway. Write all of this down on the board or a piece of chart paper. Pause every now and then to discuss why their suggestions are important. “Why do we need to raise our hands to talk?”… “Because if everyone talks at the same time, no one will be able to hear anyone else.” Make sure they understand each expectation and aren’t just regurgitating rules put in place by past teachers. If they prove to you that they understand the expectations, then you can hold them to them all. year. long.

  • Finally, show them your printed, laminated expectations ready to be hung on the wall as if you somehow instantaneously typed up their suggestions and manifested them into permanence like this: “You guys came up with some really good expectations. So basically, to sum it up, we need to…” and then go through your expectations with them before prominently displaying them in your classroom.

Make sure your expectations are phrased as positive statements. Try to avoid using negative words. Also, try to limit it to about 5 expectations that cover all the bases. To give you an idea, here are the expectations I use each year:

  1. Use a quiet, polite voice

  2. Raise my hand to share

  3. Listen and follow directions

  4. Respect people and belongings

  5. Think before I act

Okay now you can teach some procedures!

Don't feel like you need to launch right in to this week's spelling list or multiplication facts or whatever on the first day of school. No. First you need to explicitly teach them how to do school. This was one of the biggest mistakes I made during my first years of teaching. I thought students would show up and just know exactly what to do. I didn't realize these were skills that needed to be taught. Here are some procedures you'll need to teach - explain, model, and practice - during the first few days of the year:

  • Arriving at school - show them exactly how to come into the room, unpack their stuff, hang up what they don't need, etc. Where do they put their lunch money? Do they need to sign in? What do they do once they sit down? You should have this all figured out ahead of time. Model it yourself, then call on a few volunteers to "practice" it. Watch extra closely as students enter the room the first week. This is your chance to critique, correct, and complement as students carry out this practiced procedure.

  • Transitioning between activities/subjects - I suggest incorporating nonverbal signals for transitions. I used to ring chimes when it was time to stop and clean up to transition to the next activity. Also, make it very clear what students are transitioning to. Don't just say it out loud "we're doing our math warm up then we're coming to the carpet for the lesson, then we'll choose a partner to play a math game." Nope. In one ear and out the other. Instead, write it on the board, or have a set of cards in a pocket chart or bulletin board you swap out that they can refer to throughout the day. That way when you ring the chimes, they automatically stop, clean up, and move on to whatever comes next. Practice this on the first day of school as well. Write on the board "1.) morning work 2.) carpet."Give them 5 minutes or so to work on the morning work, then ring the chimes. They should stop, clean up, and come to the carpet. If it doesn't go well, stop, reset, and try again until the transition is smooth.

This is what you should be teaching on the first day of school! Don't worry about the curriculum. Trust me, you'll have plenty of time to focus on that. If you don't teach expectations and procedures first, your classroom will be so chaotic and confusing that no one will be able to focus on the curriculum anyway. There are many other procedures that need to be explicitly taught and practiced in this way, such as:

  • Leaving the classroom (for lunch, recess, etc.) - How do we line up? What does our line look like? How do we walk in the hall?

  • What do I do if I need to use the bathroom?

  • What do I do if I need to sharpen my pencil? What if I need a tissue?

  • How do we use and take care of classroom supplies?

  • Where do we turn in our work?

  • What are the expectations in the cafeteria? Can we talk? How loudly? Can we sit wherever we want?

  • What are the expectations on the playground? Are there certain things we can and can't do?

  • How do we pack up to leave at the end of the day?

Teach them - explain, model, practice - and then hold them to it and reward them for actually doing it, throughout the year, but especially in the beginning.

First day activities

Don't feel like you have to cram a bunch of activities in on the first day of school. Students are coming from 2 months of relative freedom and leisure. They are going to be very overwhelmed if you're loading them up with work on day one. Instead, have some simple activities prepared, including some backups in case something doesn't take as long as you think it will take (down time is not your friend!). Limit your "assignments" to:

  • That mindless morning work you laid out first thing - keep coming back to that when you want to practice seat work. Students can work on it throughout the day as a kind of mock classwork assignment.

  • Icebreaker type get to know you games - These are fun and serve the purpose of lightening the mood and getting to know one another. Many also provide a much needed opportunity for movement. Remember I have a resource for this with 7 ready to go games including directions and all needed printable materials.

  • Snack - plan to provide a snack for students on the first day. They're used to being able to eat pretty much whenever during the summer so getting to lunchtime can be hard. Allow them to chat during snack. Staying quiet all day after a summer of chatter is also hard.

  • Read aloud - A growth mindset related first day themed read aloud is always great to throw in. Some of my favorites are Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg, Something's Wrong by Jory John, and Mixed: A Colorful Story by Arree Chung.

  • Extra outside time - Consider throwing in another movement break outside if the weather is nice. I can't express to you enough how hard it is for children to sit still and quiet in a classroom all day after the freedom of summer time. Consider it extra practice for recess procedures and expectations.

With going over expectations, practicing procedures, lunch, recess, and specials classes - that's about all you're going to have time for. Truly, don't try to cram in too much. You'll just overwhelm everyone, including yourself. If you absolutely must throw in something academic, consider something like this Figure Me Out back to school math project. It's math, disguised as a fun get to know you activity. Or have students fill out their own Instagram page or Facebook page to display in the hallway.

I hope this recipe for the perfect first day helps you start out on the right foot this school year. Remember, keep it simple, keep it peaceful, keep it positive, and have fun as you get to know each other and look forward to the awesome year ahead!

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