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Truth for Teachers Collective   |   Aug 6, 2021

How to ease the transition back to in-person learning for kids (and yourself)

By Alissa Alteri Shea

1st Grade

How to ease the transition back to in-person learning for kids (and yourself)

By Alissa Alteri Shea

This article is written by Truth for Teachers writer Alissa Alteri Shea.

One thing I love about teaching is that no matter how difficult the previous school year may have been, August always offers us the invitation to begin again. This year that is true, unlike any other.

Collectively, we all need to begin again. Teachers need to look back and make sense of the school year we left behind. What did we learn? What valuable things do we want to drag out of the Covid days and keep? What do we want to let go of and never return to?  Hopefully, this summer gave you a little time and space to reflect, courage to try again, and hope to envision something better for the school year ahead.

If you have spent the past year or more teaching remotely, in hybrid settings, or doing in-person school with covid restrictions in place, this school year may feel like you are starting all over again. You may be wondering a lot of things.

How did I do this before?!  What new routines for ongoing safety protocols do I need to establish?  How will I nurture relationships with children who have not seen a normal school day for a long time? How can I find ways to set my students (and myself) up for success? How do I create a classroom environment that welcomes children back to school post-pandemic? 

Regardless of what your state or local school district mandates, safety protocols will still be on everyone’s mind as school reopens, especially since not all children will be vaccinated. Many teachers, students, and families may continue to feel cautious as memories of COVID-19 linger, and we all try to ease ourselves back into normal routines. Wearing masks, maintaining physical distance and washing hands were all important in keeping us safe and healthy at school last year — and may still be needed as a new school year begins.

As you make your way back into your classroom to take on the challenge of beginning again, here are some tips that can help you create a smooth transition back to school for you and your students — one that embraces what a joyful classroom can look like in a post-pandemic world.

Make safety protocols fun

When setting up the routines you plan to use with your students this year, use kid-friendly language to set the tone and explain these safety protocols so young children can feel more comfortable following the rules.

One way to do this is to greet your students by name at the classroom door each morning with a high five, elbow bump, or just a big smile and friendly hello.

Welcome them into the school day and check to see that safety protocols are met on arrival. Hand washing is one well-established safety protocol that kids in school last year were well trained in and is definitely one routine we want to continue.

On entering the classroom, have children do a wiggle dance as you sing a song to the tune of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” while applying hand sanitizer or washing hands: “Front, back, and in between, in between…helps keep our hands clean, really clean”. While doing this, if your students are still wearing masks, have them check to make sure their “superhero masks” are on right; remind them that all superheroes wear their masks correctly and tightly around their face. Then they are ready to enter the room to begin their day.

Teach children to respect personal space

Teaching children how to maintain appropriate physical distance is another healthy routine to continue this school year.  Trying to implement physical distancing is not an easy concept with young children — they naturally want to run and be close together. But giving each other personal space at certain times is always a good idea.

When walking in halls or around the classroom, have them “spread their wings or fly like a bird” to give each other space to move around the room and not bump into anyone else.

When moving from one space to another at school or while taking walks outside, use a rope with tape holds spaced three feet apart to show children what a safe distance looks and feels like. Children can hold on to their spot on the rope when moving as a class. This safe, distanced way of moving can be your class train where all are invited to come aboard.

Hula hoops or individual blankets can also help establish space boundaries between children when gathering as a group.  Learning how to keep some physical distance from others is an excellent concept to practice right from the beginning and will go a long way in reducing conflicts between children as they work and play.

Create a peaceful learning environment 

When children return to the classroom for the first time, they will likely experience many emotions. Some of them may not have been to school for a very long time. Some younger kids will never have been to a physical school, and some will have experienced severe loss and anxiety. There are many ways to set up your classroom space to make it a welcoming, peaceful place for children to return to.

Have calming music or nature soundscapes on when children enter the room in the morning; that sets the tone for a calm day of learning and lets children know that school is a safe place to learn and be with their friends.

Soft lighting in the room makes the classroom feel inviting and comfortable for your students, more like a home environment some of them are accustomed to learning in.

Have a daily schedule posted so children know what to expect during the day. This helps set kids up for success by letting them know what will be expected of them. It’s been a long time since we have seen a normal school day. What will that look like in your classroom? Having a visual schedule is especially important this year, as most children are coming from a school year where routines and expectations were constantly changing, which may have caused anxiety for many of them. Maintaining consistent routines brings comfort and helps children feel confident knowing what to look forward to each day.

It will take time for children to adjust to the length of a full school day, so keep your students moving throughout the day to help them stay focused and calm.  Play lively songs during transitions and soothing meditations after recess so kids can reset and center themselves for the rest of the day. This adds fun to the day, gets kids laughing together, encourages mindfulness, and helps build a joyful community.

Offer flexible seating

When young children return to the classroom, it can be challenging for them to spend a lot of time in an assigned work spot. Offering flexible seating gives them a choice in what is most comfortable for them and helps the classroom feel more inviting. Bouncy balls, wiggle seats, yoga mats, small rockers, and seating cushions at low tables are all options for making a classroom feel more attractive for your students.

Letting children choose new spots to work in each day keeps things interesting for them and helps them learn what kind of seating arrangement helps them do their best work. Space out sit spots around the room with as much distance as possible to help create the physical distance some children may need to feel safe in the classroom.

This year we will bring in a few tables for small group seating, which allows us to meet the needs of having more children in the room and adds variety to the individual seating options that children can choose from. It also gives space for small group instruction to take place again.

Provide individual storage tubs

Decide how you want to store materials for student use. Last year, my students had all their materials stored individually to reduce the risk of virus transmission.  I may keep some of those storage tubs this year because they helped teach my students how to be responsible for their materials and organize them neatly. We even had individual “take and go” play boxes filled with Legos, watercolors, puzzles, and pretend animals. We may keep some of these as an option for children who would rather work independently in their own workspace or for small groups of children to share together.

This year there may be more opportunities for group work and shared materials to enter the classroom again, but having several options available will help students know they have choices in how to work and play together safely. Having materials stored individually also makes it easier for students to grab what they need if you want to take a lesson outside or to another location in the school for small group work.

Focus on social and emotional connection

When returning to school for the first time, it may be hard for some students to focus on academics right away. Have a social-emotional learning plan ready to gently welcome students back into the school routine.

One way to do this is to reach out to each child and meet them where they are emotionally, whether that’s excited and ready to jump right in or hesitant or even fearful. Before school begins, send out a survey to your student’s parents asking them questions about their child to get to know the family better. This year, be sure to include questions about the pandemic and concerns the family may have about returning to school.

Throughout the school day, teach children the importance of identifying, understanding, and managing their emotions. Let them know they can ask for help when needed. Having a “calming corner’, or a quiet space for children to go when they need a break from the business of the classroom, is a great way to support children with the transition back to a full school day.

In our calming corner, we have an old-fashioned telephone with a cord attached that children can pick up and pretend to talk to someone when they have big feelings that need to be expressed. This often helps calm anxieties so children can return to their work when ready.

Building connections among children can also ease them back into in-person learning and help them feel safe at school.

A class mascot is a great way to do this. Every day, my morning meeting features an appearance by our turtle stuffie, Twiggles, who will be with the class all year. Each morning Twiggles asks the kids, “How are you feeling?” The kids talk to Twiggles, and he listens to their answers, and sometimes he asks them funny questions that make the kids laugh, like “I’m a turtle, and I’ve never been to school before. What should I do here?”

On Mondays, we share Fabulous (or not-so-Fabulous) News with Twiggles, and we get to know what is important to each member of our classroom community. In conversations with Twiggles, each child feels valued and heard. Sometimes he even shows up at our morning meetings with a friend to help us talk about how to care for each other.

Get outdoors

One thing I am bringing with me from pandemic teaching is getting my class outdoors for instruction. It has become a permanent part of my teaching after experiencing how much joy it brought to my students last year.

There are many benefits to teaching outdoors, including easing anxiety and engaging students in their learning. Just a short activity outdoors like a snack or read-aloud or playtime can go a long way in building community, resilience, and excitement for being back at school. Time outdoors offers a welcome relief from students’ assigned indoor work spots, and it can give them a chance to take off their masks if still wearing them and take a deep breath of fresh air.

When I first started teaching outdoors, I did so mainly for practical reasons. I wanted to find a safe way for my students to gather and be back at school for instruction during the pandemic. But the more I started looking outdoors, the more I realized how much there is to learn and how many ways there are to integrate the curriculum in ways that inspire curiosity for students.

Each season brings new things to study in nature and limitless possibilities for engaging your students in outdoor learning. There are great resources to help you get started that can be adapted to different age levels. Even the smallest outdoor activity can feel like an epic adventure, especially for kids who find it hard to adjust to the length of a regular school day inside a classroom.

Not all learning has to be an indoor project. Being outdoors offers the freedom to be more relaxed and helps kids regulate their bodies so they can adjust to the increased expectations of being back at school.

Make room for hopes and dreams to be shared

Many teachers have hopes and dreams for what the school year ahead might hold, and so do students.  Making time to share what each child looks forward to in the year ahead helps establish a community where each child feels valued and heard.

One way to do this is to read If You Find A Rock, a beautiful story that celebrates rocks everywhere — and the mysterious places they are found. It offers inspiration to go outside to find smooth stones around the school or to bring in a rock from home. As a special project, have each child paint a rock and write one thing on it they want to hold onto for the school year ahead. It can be a “memory rock” of something valuable they learned from last year. Or it can be a “wishing rock” to hold something they wish for in the year ahead. It’s a great way to help children reflect and set a small goal for the year ahead that is important to them.

There are resources available to help you plan similar activities to build community in your classroom right from the beginning, where children’s hopes and dreams can be heard and celebrated. Some resources have been adapted to meet the safety protocols put in place due to the pandemic and can help you create a joyful morning meeting that brings your class together to set the tone for a positive day.

All the efforts you put into building community and establishing routines in your classroom will be well spent, especially for children who have not experienced a structured school day for a long time or who may feel timid entering a classroom full of children again.

Take care of yourself

More than anything, make a promise to take good care of yourself this school year. The past year or more has been a stressful time for teachers, and we are all still trying to figure out what school will look like as we move towards a new normal.

Be gentle with yourself, and find the help you need within your school or in teacher communities online if support is not available at your school. Find ways to make your physical and mental health a priority so you can be there for the children.

One thing the kids need most is a caring adult who can show up and be present for them every day. If you feel calm, rested, and happy to be back at school — the kids will feel that, too.  

Setting the tone for returning to school is not an easy task. Still, with these simple steps, you can create a positive space for joy and connection to happen again for students in your classroom, even with reasonable safety protocols in place.

Remember, you are a superhero to your students, with or without the mask on, and you can do this! Embrace the invitation to begin again with confidence knowing you have what it takes to create a classroom community that welcomes your students into an exciting new adventure in the school year ahead.

Alissa Alteri Shea

1st Grade

Alissa Alteri Shea is a first grade teacher at a public school in Western MA. She began her teaching career while working with the Jesuit Volunteer Corp in NYC. After teaching Kindergarten at PS 257 in the Bronx, she went...
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