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How to Jumpstart Your School Year Differently

There is A LOT to do to get ready for a new group of learners to walk through your classroom door. Perhaps you are overwhelmed with how to spend your time and what to focus on. What are the most pressing issues that need to be addressed?

Well, the answer depends on who you ask. If it was me, I would put everything you’ve been told on “pause” and FIRST, get inside your student’s brain. How? Keep reading – your classroom prep may have to wait until you do this one thing…

The Research

For starters, we need to learn to ask and answer the right questions about what it means to be “ready” for a new school year.

For many teachers, their questions have the word “I” in them, such as…

“How should I set up my classroom? What books, programs or activities will I use this year? What is the latest tech that I could use in my classroom?” (and on and on).

But you using the word “I” is not what counts; it’s better when we listen to the questions that students are asking.

Your students ask far different questions than you would as they begin a new school year. And these questions and the resulting answers you provide will make the difference between a so-so class and a great one.

Within the first 10 days (two weeks) of school, students are gathering the answers to the following critical questions:

  1. Is my teacher an ally or adversary?
  2. Will my competence grow with effort? Is it worth it to “bust my butt?”
  3. Will I be able to make friends and be liked?
  4. Can I succeed (keep up & do well) at this subject/in this class? Does my teacher believe in me?
  5. Do I belong in this challenging academic environment?
  6. Is my class (and this school) a safe place to be myself (and be free from harm?)
  7. Does this work have real value for me?

(Farrington, et al., 2012; Jackson, 2012).

Luckily, all these student questions fall nicely into three categories. All three are critical areas the brain needs to be met to be ready to learn.

The three areas of readiness to jump start your year are:

  1. Cognitive readiness
  2. Emotional readiness
  3. Social readiness

You may have a hundred to-dos swirling around your head in preparation for another year. Shifting your attention from your to-dos to your students’ cognitive, emotional, and social needs is a worthwhile shift. Teachers who focus in on these three areas of readiness are setting themselves up for a fabulous year.

Practical Application

As you jump start your year, focus in on the three areas a lit bit each day and students will come back the next day hungry for more. Here are some practical strategies to help you get started on the right foot.

  1. Cognitive Readiness should address these student questions:

    Can I succeed (keep up & do well) at this subject/in this class?
    Does my teacher believe in me?
    Will my competence grow with effort?
    Is it worth it to “bust my butt?”
    Does this work have real value for me?

Here’s how to answer these questions as a teacher…

Quick successes: Design activities and assignments for the first few days of school that are a guaranteed success for ALL students. Depending on the grade and/or subject you teach, it could be an exercise in counting to 10 in Spanish, solving a simple one-step algebra equation, or learning to spell one challenging word. The purpose here is to build the mindset of “I know I will be successful in this class” within the first few days of school.

Begin building one key skill: Invest time in the first few days of school to teach them a learning skill that will be used in your class. Ideas include Mind Mapping or visual note-taking tools. Teach students that they recall information better and do better on assessments when pictures or other diagrams are incorporated in their learning (Bui & McDaniel, 2015). Another suggestion is to introduce a mnemonic strategy that teaches them a list of 10 peg words they can use to remember 10 key things, etc.

High expectations: It has long been shown that teachers’ expectations of students impact their academic performance (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1969). How significant is this influence? Well, the effect size of “teacher estimates of achievement” is a HUGE 1.29 (Hattie, 2017). Having high expectations begins with the belief that ALL students can and WILL succeed. What does that look like in a classroom? For starters, it looks like eliminating any ability groupings – these are detrimental to students’ belief in themselves and their achievement (Dumont, Protsch, Jansen, & Becker, 2017). It also includes setting challenging, mastery-focused goals for your class. “By the time you leave this class and move onto 3rdgrade, you will all be reading at least 1.5 years above what you are now. I will be here to support you and cheer you on every step of the way.”

  1. Emotional Readiness should address these student questions:

    Is my teacher an ally or adversary?
    Is my class (and this school) a safe place to be free from harm?
    Do I belong in this challenging academic environment?

Here’s how to answer these questions as a teacher…

Welcoming culture: Students want to feel like they belong in their learning environment … so tell them! Say these words out loud and often to your students: “You belong here; This is where you belong; I am so glad you are in our class.” As you stand at the door to greet each student with a warm “Good morning!” add on whatever phrase you believe that student needs to hear.

Teach social-emotional skills: Begin with the basics of respect and a no-tolerance policy around bullying. Think your students should be old enough to already know what respect looks and sounds like? You might be right; but is it worth risking the emotional safety in your classroom if they haven’t learned it yet? Explicitly define what respect means in YOUR classroom. Use roleplays, visual posters, and video clips to help students SEE what respect looks like. Consider creating a class-wide non-verbal cue that can be used as a reminder of the expectations around respect or to subtly acknowledge a student for showing respect.

Role model how to self-regulate: Chances are you’ll meet new students who lack some level of self-regulation. Perhaps they have yet to learn how to manage frustrating feelings when they don’t do something right the first time, how to manage social conflicts on the playground, or how to be grateful for the luxuries they are experiencing in life. You play a tremendous role in teaching these self-regulation skills to students. As you get started with a new group of students, focus in on role modeling these skills for them – you’ll make time for direct instruction soon enough. For now, be proud of yourself for making out loud comments that verbalize these skills: “I am so glad I am healthy today. I got really frustrated with the copy machine this morning and I needed to take some deep breaths before I did something I would regret.”

  1. Social Readiness should address these student questions:

    Will I be able to make friends and be liked?
    Is my class (and this school) a safe place to be myself?

Here’s how to answer these questions as a teacher…

Build relationships with students: Students who have a positive relationship with their teacher experience more enjoyment (and thus learning). Students who report negative teacher relationships experience anxiety (and thus little to no learning) (Ahmed, Minnaert, Werf, & Kuyper, 2008). It’s no wonder then, that teacher-student relationships has an effect size of 0.74 (Hattie, 2017). That means your relationship with your students has the potential to improve their academic achievement by nearly 1.5 academic years.

Make it a priority to learn your student’s names within the first week of school. Give assignments that allow you to learn more about their family, hobbies, dreams, and fears. Create time in your lesson plans to allow for you to be with students one-on-one during the first weeks of school. An individual interaction with their teacher will leave a student feeling seen, special, and a valued member of the learning community.

Facilitate student-to-student relationships: In addition to you learning student names, set a goal for all students to learn the names of their classmates within the first couple weeks of school. Students who have good relationships with their classmates are more intrinsically motivated, have higher levels of cognitive attention (because they aren’t consumed with worry about whether their peers like them/will tease them), and ultimately demonstrate higher levels of achievement (Mikami et al., 2017).

When a student is experiencing social connection, portions of their medial prefrontal cortex become activated and involved in the experience (Hutcherson, Seppala, & Gross, 2014). And that part of the brain is highly involved in learning/memory formation and retrieval (Euston, Gruber, & Mcnaughton, 2012). In simple terms, students learn better when they are socially connected.

Build relationships with staff and parents: Use these first few weeks to build a bridge from the classroom to home. Send a letter/email home introducing yourself and your excitement for teaching. Start making positive phone calls home right away to strengthen the relationship with parents. Begin a weekly email home that shares a few highlights from the week and a kind reminder of how they can best support their son or daughter.

Connect with your colleagues next door and down the hall. Make it a point to drop by their room to offer a quick “good morning” before heading to your classroom. Create a new tradition for this year to eat together at least one day a week and share positive moments from your teaching and successful strategies worth borrowing.

With all the “shiny objects” vying for your attention this time of year, stay focused on what your STUDENTS need from you. Remember – they are the reason you do this meaningful work. 


Ahmed, W., Minnaert, A., Werf, G. V., & Kuyper, H. (2008). Perceived Social Support and Early Adolescents’ Achievement: The Mediational Roles of Motivational Beliefs and Emotions. Journal of Youth and Adolescence,39(1), 36-46.

Bui, D. C., & Mcdaniel, M. A. (2015). Enhancing learning during lecture note-taking using outlines and illustrative diagrams. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 4(2), 129-135.

Dumont, H., Protsch, P., Jansen, M., & Becker, M. (2017). Fish swimming into the ocean: How tracking relates to students’ self-beliefs and school disengagement at the end of schooling. Journal of Educational Psychology, 109(6), 855-870.

Euston, D., Gruber, A., & Mcnaughton, B. (2012). The Role of Medial Prefrontal Cortex in Memory and Decision Making. Neuron, 76(6), 1057-1070.

Farrington, et al. (2012). Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners: The Role of Noncognitive Factors in Academic Performance – A Critical Literature Review. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Hueston, C. M., Cryan, J. F., & Nolan, Y. M. (2017). Adolescent social isolation stress unmasks the combined effects of adolescent exercise and adult inflammation on hippocampal neurogenesis and behavior. Neuroscience, 365, 226-236.

Jackson, C. K. (2012). Non-cognitive ability, test scores, and teacher quality: Evidence from 9th grade teachers in North Carolina (No. w18624). National Bureau of Economic Research.

Hattie, J. (December 2017). Hattie’s 2018 updated list of factors related to student achievement: 252 influences and effect sizes (Cohen’s d).Retrieved from http://www.visiblelearning.org

Mikami, A. Y., Ruzek, E. A., Hafen, C. A., Gregory, A., & Allen, J. P. (2017). Perceptions of Relatedness with Classroom Peers Promote Adolescents’ Behavioral Engagement and Achievement in Secondary School. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 46(11), 2341-2354.

Rosenthal, R. & Jacobson, L. (1969). Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher Expectation and Pupils Intellectual Development. Psychology in the Schools, 6(2), 212-214.

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