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Create a Caring Classroom Community in the First Week of School (Even When Social Distancing)

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You’ve probably been dreaming about teaching your first day of school inside your very own classroom for years – but never, in your wildest dreams, did you think that you would have to consider things like “How do I keep students from touching each other?” or “How do I ensure that students wash their hands and keep my classroom clean?” 

In short: “How do I keep my students safe throughout all of this?”

I get it.

It’s a very weird time in our world, and COVID may change the way we do things inside of classrooms for a very long time.

However, I want to encourage you to shift your mindset around this away from, “Oh, I wish things could just be normal!” to accepting what is and pivoting to make this first week of school the most incredible experience possible for your students.

It’s about DECIDING that you are going to make this an amazing experience for your students and leading them through this in the most positive way possible.

In your new role of classroom teacher, you will quickly realize that you are now a leader. 

YOU will set the tone for how your students respond to this new normal.

The more positive you are about it (or the more freaked out and nervous you are about it), that is how your students are going to respond.

 So – before you get started with planning, it’s really important that you get your mindset right:

DECIDE and commit to becoming as nimble and as solution-oriented as you can, and encourage your students to help you to set a safe and positive tone to everything that happens while you are together at school.

The thing is – it’s very possible to develop a positive, close, and loving classroom community – even when students can’t be physically close to each other.

Now, before we dive in and talk about exactly how you can do this, if plans at your school are still up in the air and you are concerned that you might need to make the transition to teaching online with your students, you might want to check out a brand new mini-course I’ve created to help you with that.

I provide step-by-step PDF resources and audio downloads, awesome resources to set up your at-home teaching space, and a spreadsheet loaded with teacher-tested links for each subject area. Just click the image below to check it out now! 

All right, let's dive in and talk about 8 Ways to Create a Caring Classroom Community in the First Week of School (Even When Social Distancing is Required):

If you’re a member of the READY for School Academy, inside Step #4 of the Academy, I share 14 Fantastic First Week of School Activities that I used in both lower and upper elementary with great success over my ten years in the classroom.

If you AREN’T an Academy member, you can grab your copy of this resource very inexpensively inside my Beginning Teacher Talk TpT store. You certainly don’t need to purchase my resource in order to do many of the activities we are going to talk about today, having it just makes things a little easier for you to grab and go with the ideas I’m going to share.

Let’s talk about how to adapt some of these activities (as well as talk about some new activities) you may want to consider to ensure social distancing is maintained inside your classroom – all while creating a caring classroom community from the very first day!


1. Choose books that help children to process their feelings.

Especially with everything that is going on in our world right now, giving children opportunities to talk about all of the emotions that are often stirred up for everyone (including the teacher) at the start of a new school year is going to be particularly valuable.

Especially during this time when back to school will likely feel a little different than usual for many children, giving students opportunities to talk about what they’re feeling can be a valuable first step towards creating an open, honest, and caring classroom community.

So, let’s talk about three great books that I love to use (from K to 5):

Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes: This is an adorable story about a little mouse named Wemberly who worries about EVERYTHING. Wemberly’s parents think that she worries too much and so does her grandmother. So, you can imagine how poor Wemberly feels on the first day of school.  She has a whole list of worries. What will school be like? Will she make friends? Will people laugh at her doll, Petal? This is such a great book to use during the first week of school when of course, everyone has some worries of their own.



Scaredy Squirrel by Melanie Watt: This is another award-winning book I love about how to conquer fears and worries. This book is about a little squirrel who never leaves his nut tree because it’s way too dangerous out there in the unknown. What if he encountered a tarantula? Or a green Martian? Or killer bees? Or sharks? But Scaredy Squirrel knows he’s well prepared for any emergency with his antibacterial soap, his Band-Aids, and his parachute. 


Then, one day, Scaredy Squirrel finds himself literally out on a limb of his tree – and as he leaps out there into the great unknown, he discovers something he couldn’t have imagined. This is a really great book to help your new students gather their courage and develop the confidence to conquer new things and achieve huge goals.


First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg: Everyone knows that sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach when they are starting anything new, and so of course, school is no exception. Sarah Hartwell is scared because she doesn’t want to start over at a new school. She just knows it’s going to be terrible! 

However, somehow Sarah manages to pull herself together and get to school – where of course, she meets a new friend, Mrs. Burton, who eases her through this new challenge. Your kids will love the surprising way that this story ends!

For more of my favorite 10 books to use at the beginning of the school year, check out Episode #20 of the Beginning Teacher Talk podcast – My 10 Favorite Books for the First Weeks of School: (And Activities to Use with Them).

2. Invite students into the conversation about how to stay safe.

As a follow-up discussion to one of the books I’ve suggested above, you may want to involve your students in a conversation about some of the ways you are going to work together to keep everyone safe inside your classroom and inside the school this year.

Brainstorm ideas to list on chart paper: This may involve wearing masks, maintaining social distance, washing hands and the surfaces of the classroom more often than usual (and having new, dedicated jobs on your job board to help achieve this inside your classroom).

I mentioned this in a previous episode, but adding jobs like “Chief Sanitizing Officer” and “Table Cleaner” to your Happy Helpers Job Chart might be great additions this year, having one boy and one girl in charge of doing each job.

You will already be teaching and practicing your classroom routines with your students on the first day/week of school, so it’s a natural extension to talk about special things you’re going to do this year in your classroom because of COVID.

And, my advice to you is to talk about these changes matter-of-factly, and don’t make this a bigger deal than it is. Instead, “normalize this new normal” for your students by talking about it as naturally as you would your pencil-sharpening routine.

Remember – kids will take your lead, so be positive and upbeat – even if you’re a little nervous, too.

3. Create a class poster about “How We Can Show We Care” 

Help your students to take ownership of their new classroom by brainstorming ways that they can demonstrate care and kindness for each other – even when they can’t hug or share in ways they have been taught to do.

This might mean:

  • Showing respect for each other’s ideas (you will need to teach your students what “showing respect” looks like and sounds like when you are teaching your class jobs on the first day of school),
  • Being patient with each other (share examples of what this looks like),
  • Encouraging each other (again, give examples),
  • Taking ownership of our own things (cleaning up after ourselves), and
  • Cleaning the shared spaces in our classroom regularly to keep everyone safe. 

Involving your students in the creation of these new ways they can show care and consideration for each other will likely help them to feel like they have at least some measure of control over their environment at a time when nothing seems very certain.


4. Secret Compliments

I include this activity inside my 14 Fantastic First Week of School Activities resource. This activity is a wonderful way to build community inside your classroom in the first weeks of school.

It’s appropriate for 3rd grade and above at the beginning of the year (or for 2nd grade if you have an academically very strong class).

This activity involves giving each child a paper bag that they decorate using positive adjectives to describe themselves. Then, students either randomly draw a classmate’s name who will be their secret pal for the week (who they write a genuine compliment for each day as their morning work), or you can randomly assign one child to each student for them to write to each day.

Continue to rotate names for two weeks, and then let your students open their bags and read all of the wonderful things their classmates have said about them! 

5. Appreciation Circles

Not only can we help our students to develop a caring classroom community through writing, but we can also teach children to do this by being intentional with language.

Teaching children that words matter and that the way they speak to each other has the power to either make someone’s day or hurt them deeply can go a long way towards developing a classroom community where children feel safe and loved.

Following up from the Secret Compliment activity, review what a genuine compliment is and share some examples of genuine compliments. Then, in a classroom where children are practicing social distancing, have them sit in a wide circle and take some time to think about things that they appreciate about each other.

You might want to brainstorm some sentence starters to help your students formulate their ideas, like, “One thing I really appreciate about you is…”

Then list a bunch of ideas, generated by the students. Emphasize that they need to really think about whether or not a statement truly applies to a person, because the more true it is, the better it often feels to that person.

It works well to have some a group incentive to encourage children to get started with sharing their appreciation. One idea is to place one paper heart (or some other kind of token) in front of each child. When someone says one thing that they appreciate about another, that child gets to add their heart to a jar that is placed in the center of the circle.

Once everyone has received one compliment about why they are appreciated, the class earns a special reward (such as a 2-minute dance party to a fun, upbeat song), a quick game that the class loves, a surprise hilarious video that you’ve found to share with them, or maybe even a bit of free time.

Sometimes, I loved to surprise my class with a secret reward that I would print and place in a fancy gift bag beside our heart jar. Once everyone received one compliment about how they were appreciated, I would open the bag and tell my students what the reward was (after a few guesses, of course)!

If you’re a READY for School Academy Member, I’ve given you 24 Creative, Almost-Free Student Awards to help inspire your imagination for how you might want to decide on a special goodie for your kiddos. Or, you can even include a few and let them vote for the one they want. 

The first time you do Appreciation Circles with your students, it may be difficult and it may feel uncomfortable for some students. However, holding Appreciation Circles on a regular basis (once each week, if you can) will change the way your students interact and feel as members of this amazing classroom community.


6. Classroom Scavenger Hunt

You might think that having students do a fun scavenger hunt inside your classroom to learn about where everything is kept is going to be off-limits in a classroom with COVID restrictions, but this is still possible!

I would usually do this activity with students in pairs, but if you are practicing social distancing in classrooms, this is an activity that can be done individually - with 5  or 6 students walking around the classroom at a time (being careful to maintain social distance) while the rest of the class is engaged in another activity.

I give you the full instructions for how to do this activity in the 14 Fantastic First Week of School Activities resource. It’s always a class favorite and a great way for students to get out of their seats to explore their new classroom.


7. T-Shirt Activity and Guess-that-Person Bingo 

Two of the other activities that I share inside your 14 Fantastic First Week of School Activities download are a T-Shirt Activity and a follow-up Bingo activity. Both of these activities are great ways for children to get to know their classmates without needing to sit physically close to each other.

In a nutshell, the T-shirt activity involves having children design a paper T-shirt with specific information about themselves.

For example, you might have them draw and label their favorite food on the right sleeve of the shirt, their least favorite school subject on the left sleeve, and their favorite thing to do on the weekend on the shirt pocket – or whatever you want. Once they’re done, your students will have a paper t-shirt that showcases a whole bunch of fun information about them.

Then, children introduce themselves and share one or two pieces of information about themselves from their T-shirt (but no repeats – if someone says that their favorite food is pizza, then nobody else can say that)!

Record all of this information so you have it for the follow-up activity:
Guess That Person Bingo! 

Kiddos fill an empty Bingo card with the names of their classmates and play using information they’ve just collected about their friends. Finally, display your T-Shirts on a clothesline and string across your room (students can study them during their free time and be better prepared for the next round of Bingo)!

Such simple, fun, and meaningful ways for children to connect and get to know each other – all while remaining socially distant and staying safe in the classroom.


8. Time Capsules

There may never be a better year than this one to create Time Capsules with your students to document this time in history (and in their lives).

Have your students draw and write about what school is like at the start of this school year. Encourage them to write about how they’re feeling and what they miss about how school (and life outside of school) was like before COVID-19. 

I give you a basic template inside your 14 Fantastic First Week of School Activities resource, but you may want to customize this for your specific situation and circumstances at your school. I give you the full instructions for how to create Time Capsules with your students inside that resource, but again, this would be an especially meaningful way to help your students to bond around this very unique circumstance that they find themselves in at school this year.


So there you have it. I hope that this was helpful for you to see the many ways that it’s still very possible to create a fun and meaningful first week of school while creating a caring classroom community and keeping kids safe during COVID-19. 

Again, if plans at your school are still up in the air and you are concerned that you might need to make the transition to teaching online with your students, you might want to check out a brand new mini-course I’ve created to help you with that.

Just click the image below to learn more now!

I hope you have a wonderful week, and remember - just because you're a beginning elementary teacher, there's no need for you to struggle like one.

πŸ’› Lori

Dr. Lori Friesen | Beginning Teacher Mentor

Creator of the R.E.A.D.Y. for School Academy, Dr. Lori Friesen has mentored thousands of beginning teachers across the country through her workshops and courses. Host of the popular podcast, Beginning Teacher Talk, and creator of the innovative literacy program for 1st and 2nd grade, Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed, Dr. Lori is dedicated to serving educators and inspiring learners. Learn more at and at

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