Getting comfortable and building strong relationships with a new crop of students is a process even in a “regular” school year. This year, things will likely be even more complicated for you and your students as you both adapt to new teaching and learning environments. Students will be meeting you for the first time while also dealing with the stresses of a pandemic. That’s a tough headspace to be in when entering the new school year — especially when the new year is likely to include continued distance learning or potential school closures.

All new classes are going to need extra social and emotional support this year from teachers. As Marc Brackett, director of Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence, recently told EdWeek: “If you don’t know how to deal with the lack of control of your future, or the feelings of uncertainty that you’re having, your brain is going to stay in a constant fight or flight mode. And if our brain is in fight or flight mode, then it’s not in learning mode.”

A recent study from TpT’s Education Content and Insights team confirms that students’ wellbeing is one of teachers’ greatest concerns. And many also noted that building and maintaining strong student-teacher connections will play a key role in helping students adjust and adapt. “The relationships are so much more important even than the academics,” says Amanda, a 2nd grade teacher in California. “Academics are of course important, but it’s the relationships that you have with your kids. And it’s hard to match that when you’re doing distance learning.”

To help you get started, we asked our Teacher-Authors how they’ll build relationships and support systems with new students both in-person and remotely. Here’s what they’ll be doing to put new students in a learning mode.

Understand Your Students’ Perspective

The challenges facing all students and teachers during the 2020-21 school year are unprecedented. “During the time of school closures and distance learning, many students have been operating without so many of the daily supports that they rely on heavily (such as meals, social-emotional check-ins, positive peer and adult interactions) for healthy functioning,” says Brittany from Success in Special Ed. “As we begin school again in the fall, educators need to be mindful of what students have been missing and meet them ‘where they are at’ — physically, mentally and emotionally. Keeping an open mind and an open heart will be critical this year.” 

Before you do anything else, put yourself in your new students’ shoes. Before class begins, consider how they feel and — if you’re starting school remotely — what parts of a distance learning environment will be the greatest challenge for them. “Try to view your students’ actions and behaviors from their point of view, including their sensory perceptions,” says Kirsten from Curriculum for Autism. For instance, you might avoid an awkward full-class introduction on a teleconference call, and instead, introduce the class to one another in smaller groups.

Create a Safe Space

Many teachers have been adjusting to distance and blended learning with a shift toward online resources and digital activities. You’ll want to do the same with the in-person techniques you’ve developed over the years for building relationships and norms with new students. 

  • Plan for predictability. “More than ever before, students will rely on the predictability that classrooms offer,” says Emily from Inclusively Educating. “Give your students a weekly schedule for online learning and provide daily videos for clarity of their expectations each day. These tasks should be done the same way, through the same platform each week and day,” says Krista from The Teacher House.
  • Be creative with check-ins. For her gifted students, “daily check-ins as a Google form are great to see how students are feeling,” says Tanya from Gifted Teacher 305. “Having a class-created agreement of norms and expectations makes kids vested in the virtual classroom culture.”
  • Train their focus on what’s ahead. The first half of 2020 has been hard. Now is a chance to reset. “Try to plan activities that focus on excitement for the upcoming year rather than what students did over the summer,” says Amy from Teaching Exceptional Kinders. “You can set hopes, dreams, and goals for the upcoming year, play some getting-to-know-you games, or even write about things they hope to learn in your class. When you focus on what’s to come instead of dwelling on the summer, it puts kids on a more equal playing field.”
  • Use small groups for connections. Small group meetings can be a much less intimidating way for new classes to be introduced to one another. “Small group messaging for virtual classes can create some connection for students,” says Becky from Smiling Students Lesson Plans.
  • Be their dose of daily happiness. “Always open your camera with a smile!” shares Jennifer of Happy Teacher Mama. “This immediately communicates that you are happy that they’re present and you are happy to be teaching them.”

Be Prepared for a Wide Range of Reactions 

Especially during this more challenging year, you should be prepared for a wide range of emotional reactions from your new class of students. 

  • “The world has changed and the reactions we will see to stressors are yet to be determined. In some students you will see amazing coping skills. In other students, you will see elevated fight, flight, and freeze responses [. . .] Educators need to be aware of job losses, family grief, and elevated anxiety and depression. Children have had limited contact with peers and friends. Some have had none. Especially for the little ones, this is likely to cause arrested development in some social learning areas,” says Laura from The Fancy Counselor. 
  • “Educators should understand that everyone reacts to stress differently so it may manifest different ways in different people,” says Becky from Smiling Students Lesson Plans

Involve Parents and Caregivers

When it comes to new students, parents and caregivers can be a teacher’s best friend. Building relationships with your new students during distance and blended learning will be challenging. But parents and caregivers can help. “Educators can help families during this time by establishing positive school-to-home communication immediately,” says Emily from Inclusively Educating. “Don’t wait until you have to contact home. Be mindful of the type of communication you are relaying home [. . .] there will be families that emotionally might not be able to handle negative calls or emails home in the fall. Of course, there are situations where this type of communication is necessary. However, knowing the dynamic of families as much as possible is key and this type of information only comes from establishing rapport with your families.”

Confidently navigate the 2020-21 school year with expert Teacher-Author and educator advice in TpT’s Back to School 2020 Guide: For Teachers Creating Tomorrow.