One of the most important things that we do at the beginning of the year is to make connections with the children in our class, and to help them develop good relationships among themselves.  This is so important because we want children to feel safe and comfortable, and cared about while they are at school.  Brain research clearly shows that feelings such as fear, anger, stress, apprehension and nervousness impact the child’s ability to learn.  Also when people feel a sense of relationship, or community,  they are much more likely to cooperate and get along.  There really is no way we can make a child behave well, or do anything we ask.  All we can do is to set up an environment and atmosphere that helps them want to make good choices.  We want them to feel like our class is a team that works together and cares about each other.

I referred to my classroom as a School Family.  Two ways to foster this concept is by developing routines that help the children feel comfortable and safe – these give them a sense of order – they know what to expect; and rituals, that bind the class together.  Rituals are just special activities that are done to connect and unite you and the children in your class.

Here is a list of some of the rituals I developed with my kindergartners:

Ritual list

I learned a lot and got many ideas from Conscious Discipline, a program developed by Dr. Becky Bailey.  I highly recommend reading her books, or taking the class if you get a chance.

I think it is important to greet each child as they arrive at school  Becky Bailey said that eye contact and touch are two powerful ways to build connections between people, so I wanted to use these to greet the kids.  I am a big hugger and my natural tendency is just to give each child a hug as they come through the door.  But some children are not always comfortable with that level of touch.  I wore this apron every morning.

Of course I explained it and modeled how to use it at the beginning of the year.

Each child would decide what touch they wanted from me.  If they touched the 5 I would give them a high 5.  If they touched the bear I would hug them, and if they touched the handprint I would shake hands with them as I told them hello or good morning.  I had to remind myself to really be present with the child when I was greeting him or her.  The beginning of the day can be really busy, and it was easy to be hugging, high 5-ing, etc. without really thinking about the child.  I tried to concentrate, smile at the child and make it meaningful.   Another great idea is to notice something about each child as you greet them – it doesn’t even need to be stated as a compliment, just that you are paying attention – “Justin, you have a new shirt on today!”  “Megan you look like you are in a good mood!”  It takes such a little effort and time, and it makes each child feel noticed and important.

I made this apron from a tool apron I bought at Home Depot – really cheap.  I used a die cut machine to make the 5 out of felt, the handprint out of vinyl and I had cut the bear face out of a scrap of fur.  I used craft glue to put them on the apron.

When the children went into the classroom they did their normal morning routines, then symbolically put a person in a little box.  This symbolized our whole class together and safe.  I had little people figures that I used for awhile, but then decided it was better for each child to decorate a wooden ice cream spoon to look like him/herself.  I wrote the names on them with permanent markers.

We sang this song:

I have a little safety box

To keep my Kindergartners in

I take them out and (kiss kiss kiss)

And put them back again!

When someone was absent we wrote their name on the board and mentioned how much we would miss them that day.  When an absent child returned to school we sang this song to the tune Frere Jacques:

We missed Timmy

We missed Timmy

Yes we did, yes we did

Glad that you are back, glad that you are back

Now we miss …..

OR  Everybody’s here!

Another ritual we used every morning was singing Hello Neighbor, a song I learned from a Dr. Jean CD.  I didn’t use the CD in the morning – we just sang it.  This song includes eye contact and touch between the children.  We practiced gentle touches.

Hello Neighbor

Every day one child was the Special Helper and sat right next to me, on a little stool I decorated.  In my post called Special Helpers I talked about some of the jobs they did.  They also chose a handshake to “pass around the circle.”  In my post Greetings and Celebrations I talked about different kinds of handshakes.  The special helper would choose a handshake and do it with me, then they would turn and do it with the child next to him/her at the circle, that child would turn to his/her neighbor, and it would go around the circle all the way back to me.

We would often sing our school family song too.  It is to the tune of You are My Sunshine.

You are my family

I taught the children very simple sign language for important words in this song.  Adding motions helps the children learn songs, and be more actively involved.

Another song that built a sense of community was You are my Friend:

Friend song words

Later in the year we made a book using these words:

Sometimes we made a class book, other times each child illustrated their own book to take home.

Which songs you choose is not as important as the fact that they become a ritual in your classroom that the children count on to signal the beginning of a safe, predictable day.  Check out CDs by Becky Bailey and Dr. Jean if you are looking for more ideas.

All of these songs included simple movements because exercise and breathing are great ways to help children de-stress too!

In my classroom we did not have any kind of reward system.   Over the years I tried lots of kinds – a jar that we filled with cotton balls, sticker charts, etc.  But the children often got frustrated waiting for a reward – or sometimes one child consistently make choices that kept the others from reaching these rewards.  And if some children received a reward, but not all – that was like a punishment for them.  I just didn’t find them helpful as a longterm strategy.  Dr. Bailey suggested having lots of celebrations instead of rewards.  The main difference is that a celebration is never promised ahead of time, or contingent on good behavior or success.  You may choose to celebrate good behavior that you noticed – that had already happened, but I would not say …”If you are quiet walking down the hall we will go out for recess!”  Instead I would say “Wow!  I noticed that our class was very quiet in the hallway – so we are going to celebrate by having an extra recess.”  You can celebrate in lots of different simple ways, the children really love it, and they are very motivated to repeat the behavior that you celebrated!

Celebrations can be simple, and most of mine were – or more elaborate.  You could have a surprise popcorn party or video, extra recess, or a fun game or song that they enjoy.  The most important thing is to talk about why you are celebrating.  I sewed a drawstring bag about of festive fabric to be our Celebration Bag.  I put an assortment of noise making toys, a couple of plastic champagne glasses (to click together), plastic eggs filled with bells and taped shut, etc.   There were enough items in the bag for each child to choose one.

For many celebrations I would dump the contents of this bag onto the carpet, we’d go around the circle and each child would select one – they did it very quickly because I kept calling kids.  Then we stood up – they had to hold their item very quietly and we chanted “We’re so proud, we’re so great!  We just have to celebrate!  One, two, three …”  And then we shook the toys and made noise – they were great about it and didn’t yell or act wildly – they really considered it a special privilege.  Then I went around the circle and collected the toys in the bag.  It probably took less than 5 minutes, and they loved it!

We also used special Cheers.  I got these from Dr. Jean Feldman – drjean.org.  She has a lot of these cheers on her website, ready to print off.  We cheered all kinds of achievement all day long – when a child did the calendar, tied their shoe, learned a sight word, treated someone kindly … anything I wanted to notice and recognize.  At the beginning of the year I always chose the cheers and modeled them, later I would ask the child what cheer they would like.

We kept them in this little box from a sample size of Cheer detergent

I printed them from Dr. Jean’s website on cardstock, then laminated them.

These are a few of my favorites:
We also had a few songs that we sang along with our routines, and they became classroom rituals too.  I got many of them from Dr. Jean’s CD’s – I have listed my favorites on a post labeled Songs.

Here is a song I used often to get the children to quickly come to sit on the carpet:
Have a seat

We ended every day with the song May There Always Be Sunshine – Dr. Jean’s Keep on Singing and Dancing:

May there always be sunshine copy

We also used some of these silly rhymes:

Ways to say goodbye

There are countless ways to develop rituals in your classroom.  You have to find things that you and your children enjoy and feel connected with.  Keep in mind that eye contact and touch are powerful ways to help people feel connected, and that movement and deep breathing help children de-stress.  Most of all just love your kids and have fun with them!

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. C. K.
    Aug 07, 2011 @ 11:07:27

    Dear Kindergarten Nana,
    Thank you for all of your wonderful ideas and examples. I’m headed back to teach Kindergarten for the third year, after taking some time off after the birth of my third child. I look forward to each of your blog postings as they are positive, fresh and inspiring. Do you have any “First Day of School” suggestions?


  2. Randi
    Aug 07, 2011 @ 11:37:59

    I have been teaching preschool or kindergarten for 26 and these e-mails have wonderful new ideas or reminders of things that I’ve done in the past that I have forgotten about. Thanks you sooooooo much.


  3. Lucille
    Aug 08, 2011 @ 08:21:35

    Everything I’ve been reading this summer has stressed the importance of building a “community” within the classroom instead of using rewards and punishments. I so agree and I’m excited to meet my new kiddos next week. Thanks again for writing and sharing. Your post keep me excited to face a new school year.


    • dbsenk
      Aug 08, 2011 @ 08:25:09

      I am so happy to hear this Lucille. If you haven’t read Conscious Discipline yet, I think you’d love it. It not only gives all the reasons this is important, but also great ideas about how to implement it!


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