Building a Classroom Where All Are Welcome

Set the Tone for a Successful School Year Before Students Even Enter the Door

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By Tasha Fisher, Special Education Teacher

I’ve recently had a chance to sit and reflect on my practices as a teacher, particularly my practices over the past year, and I want to share strategies that have been successful in building a strong sense of community in the classroom – even before students enter the classroom. These practices ensure that the school year will be productive for both my students and for myself because, as I’m sure we all know, starting the year off strong allows you to garner more student engagement, making instruction and driving positive learning outcomes easier.

"I do not teach anyone; I only provide the environment in which they can learn." – Albert Einstein

In order to have a classroom that activates students' innate curiosity, which will greatly influence data-driven results like grades and standardized test scores, students need to feel welcomed and valued for being themselves. Strong classroom management and relationships are necessary to build a sense of community. Before the school year even begins, I focus primarily on two areas: building relationships with my students’ families and organizing my physical classroom space.

Build Connections with Caregivers

I make it a priority to begin building a connection with families before the first day of school, which tends to be appreciated. Many families want a personal connection to their child’s teacher, so I schedule a call with them for a quick introduction and follow up with a welcome email that includes personal information about myself and why I teach, how I structure my class, the ways I hope to inspire my students, and the at-home support necessary to accomplish our goals. I also ask families to complete a questionnaire so I can learn more about them and their student. This questionnaire gives families the opportunity to share information that may not be in school records, any changes that have taken place over the summer, or just give the opportunity to share relevant personal details about their student.

Download Tasha’s Family Questionnaire

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Once the school year has begun, I send home a positive note about each student within the first week of class so I can build a solid foundation with families. This foundation is especially important if future communications require that we deal with more challenging topics surrounding their student. Building relationships with family is so important. They can be crucial allies when you need their intervention, and they may also offer other means of classroom support like volunteering or donating materials.

In order to have a classroom that activates students' innate curiosity . . . students need to feel welcomed and valued for being themselves.

Additionally, I’ve fostered and adopted throughout my life, so I know personally that language like “parent, mom, and dad” can isolate children who may have experienced past trauma. Throughout the course of my career, I’ve never had a class where every student lived in a “traditional” household, making it even more apparent that it’s important to utilize the appropriate language. I find it helpful to use inclusive language to make sure I embrace families of all types. For example, I use “family” where “parents” or “mom and dad” are routinely used and will interchangeably use “your adult” and “family” when speaking to children about their caregivers.

Structure Your Physical Space

The physical environment of a classroom plays a significant role in learning. Physical classroom design can influence academic and emotional well-being by creating a sense of belonging. When students feel welcomed in your classroom environment and emotionally regulated, they are more able and willing to learn.

I begin outside of my classroom with a welcoming door. I personally hate decorating, so I keep it simple and effective while motivating myself by thinking of the outcomes I want to achieve this school year. I use posters about values, empathy, and growth mindsets – and I only use photographs that accurately reflect the diversity of my classroom and community. This is a best practice of mine; a lack of representation within classroom decor and materials can make students feel as though particular groups don’t belong in that space. The power of subliminal messaging is strong, so keep this in mind as you select items for your classroom; it’ll set the tone for how students perceive your space and how they behave.

When students feel welcomed in your classroom environment and emotionally regulated, they are more able and willing to learn.

While classrooms are filled with a wide variety of learners, they should always be calm and with limited distractions for all students (though this is particularly important for students with auditory and visual sensitivities). A space that is warm, inviting, and inclusive helps children feel safe and cared for so they can be comfortable exploring, trying new things, and learning new skills. It’s a priority that my classroom be seen as a welcoming place where my students are safe and comfortable to become thinkers and learners while encouraging those sparks of curiosity.

Make spaces for independent and group learning. I have vertical whiteboards around the room for students to use for group work and to explain their individual work. Research shows that students are more eager and spend more time on task when standing using vertical whiteboards. I like to laminate chart paper as an inexpensive, DIY whiteboard. This allows me to have materials that are easily accessible throughout the room – even ones that, when purchased new, can be costly. When students are in a physical space that is made for them to actively use, great work will happen.

Keep 504s and IEPs Top of Mind

Look at your roster and check for students with 504 plans and IEPs. Many people forget that there are invisible disabilities that they need to address. Every year, I’m amazed at the number of teachers who do not know which students have asthma, PTSD, seizures, or safety plans. For example, a student may be hearing impaired, so seating placement is important for that child's ability to effectively learn, as is making other students aware of that child's different needs so they can best engage and collaborate with each other. Teach the class to make sure they have the attention of the student who is hearing impaired before others start speaking.

Classrooms should also be arranged to allow for student comfort and movement, which is created by including different flexible seating for all students. In turn, students are going to be more likely to learn if they are comfortable in the room, both physically, emotionally, and mentally.

Implement a Calm Corner

The most important element of my physical classroom last year was the calm corner. So many of my students had faced traumatic events that simply did not disappear despite being in the classroom. To combat this, I made an area that faced away from the group towards a window where students could regroup and calm down with items like fidgets, stress balls, or art. After 5-8 minutes, they would be able to rejoin the group calm and refreshed.

Pay Attention to Your Classroom Library

Your classroom library should include books with characters from different backgrounds. Books that represent a variety of cultures and people help us understand those who are different from us, as if opening a window to a new experience. If we only see characters and experiences that reflect our own, we’re more likely to believe that our own experience is more important or valid than those that are unfamiliar. It’s worth reiterating how significant the power of subliminal messaging can be.

One of my students told me that he didn’t see himself reflected in our class library, and he was right. Although I had books with characters from varying ethnic backgrounds, they didn’t reflect his personal experience, making it difficult for him to feel included. This was eye-opening, and a valuable reminder that no matter who we are or how much we know, there's always more to learn. I bought books that included characters he could relate to (like simply being a silly, young boy), and language he’s familiar with. This was important because he had also expressed to me that kids at recess would act as if he were strange when he used language that differed from theirs. To take the lesson a step further, I incorporated the stories I purchased into read-alouds and spoke about the great advantages of being multilingual and embracing other cultures. The students loved the stories; they not only showed diversity but also depicted normal slices of life that they could understand. As evident from this exercise, read-alouds are a great community builder that have the potential to form the foundation for close relationships among teachers and their students.

Books that represent a variety of cultures and people help us understand those who are different from us, as if opening a window to a new experience.

The start of the year sets the tone for student success. To help our kids believe the school year will be positive, we need to create an inviting classroom environment where everyone feels welcome and can thrive. Keep an eye out for my next blog post with Learning A-Z, where I’ll share strategies for building strong student relationships and a positive classroom community.

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