Back-to-School: How to Build Community in the Classroom

As the beginning of a new school year sneaks up on us, the to-do list seems to multiply. From professional development hours to staff meetings to setting up the environment, educators and school leaders have their plates full during back-to-school time.

For early childhood students and their families, the start of the school year is also a time of many emotions. Some children may be sad that summer is over, some may feel excited to go to school – perhaps for the first time in their lives! Other children might be scared to walk into a new classroom where they don’t know anyone.

Taking the right steps from the start can help teachers and students build successful relationships, develop a class community, and contribute to a positive learning environment.

What is a Classroom Community?

A community is broadly defined as a social unit with common norms, rules, values, and responsibilities. If you apply that definition to a school, it is spot on. Within a school, students engage in academic learning, but they are also building relationships with their peers, learning rules, and developing invaluable social and emotional learning skills.

Classroom communities in early childhood education refer to the social environment created within a classroom setting that fosters a sense of belonging, collaboration, and positive relationships among young children. These communities are crucial in supporting children’s social and emotional development, as well as their overall learning experiences.

What Does a Classroom Community Look Like?

A strong classroom community is one where all students are included and engaged. Young children thrive when they can take on responsibilities and exercise some control in their classroom environment. That said, all classroom communities may look a bit different, based on the students and their interests and needs.

Here’s a quick video from The Office of Head Start about creating a caring community.

Why is Classroom Community Building Important?

All children deserve to feel safe, have respectful interactions, and to feel empowered in their own individual learning experiences. Having classroom discussions, solving problems as a community, acknowledging each other’s strengths and how they contribute to the group sets children up for success as they move into future educational endeavors.

Taking Time to Build Community in the Classroom

A positive classroom environment sets the tone for the year ahead. Making children and their families feel welcome in the classroom is crucial from the start. Taking the extra time to display photos of the children, their families, and environmental print in their home languages makes children feel safe and gives them a sense of belonging in a new place.

10 Pillars of Early Childhood Community Building

Using the lens of construction, building a strong community is like building a sturdy structure. It needs anchors or pillars to keep it supported and steady. Here are 10 critical components to building a strong community in the classroom.

  1. Positive Relationships: Building positive relationships between teachers and students and among peers is essential. In a strong classroom community, teachers create a warm, welcoming, and positive environment that encourages trust and respect.
  2. Inclusive Environment: Encouraging an inclusive space where every child feels valued and their voices are heard. Students feel a sense of belonging to the group and their contributions should be celebrated.
  3. Cooperative Learning: Implementing activities and projects that promote student interactions, cooperation, and teamwork, and allow children to work together to achieve common goals. Creating opportunities for children to build relationships through play and learning.
  4. Communication Skills: Supporting children in developing effective communication skills, such as active listening and expressing their thoughts and feelings in a respectful manner.
  5. Conflict Resolution: Teaching children strategies to resolve conflicts peacefully and manage their emotions in challenging situations.
  6. Emotional Support: Providing emotional support to children and helping them understand and manage their feelings in a healthy way.
  7. Engaging Activities: Organizing engaging and developmentally appropriate activities that stimulate children’s curiosity and encourage their active participation. Offering activities where children can take initiative and navigate their own learning.
  8. Rules and Routines: Establishing clear and consistent rules and routines to create a structured and predictable learning environment, promoting a sense of safety and security. Crafting well-defined expectations with whole class input strengthens the sense of community and commitment to one another.
  9. Encouraging Independence: Encouraging children to develop independence and self-help skills, allowing them to take ownership of their learning experiences. Students feel comfortable to try things on their own when they know they are safe in their community.
  10. Celebrating Individuality: Celebrating and embracing the unique backgrounds, cultures, and identities represented in the classroom, promoting a sense of cultural awareness and respect.

Is an Early Childhood Classroom Community Different from Other Age Groups?

Yes! The sense of community developed in the earliest years is very special! How students feel in their beginning years can affect their perspective on their future educational experiences.

Early childhood encompasses a wide range of ages and developmental stages. Teachers play a very different role in early childhood than in other grade levels. A teacher is a caregiver – helping students feel safe to explore and interact, a facilitator of cognitive learning – scaffolding and guiding the learning process, and a community organizer – strategizing ways to engage and support individual growth as well as whole class development. A benefit in early childhood programs and classrooms is that there are often several teachers in the environment. This provides more opportunity for one-on-one conversations and small group teaching which is crucial in building community.

Educational research shows that young children learn best through play, which means they thrive when they are active participants in their own learning. Free choice and opportunities to select where, when, with who, and what to play are essential to play-based learning. This unique environment that naturally lends itself to student interaction and bonding is not common outside early childhood classrooms.

Impacts of Community Building on Learning

When children feel part of a respectful learning community, they are empowered to participate, try new things, take risks, and engage with peers. A positive classroom climate that fosters a sense of community will set the tone for a student’s educational career. Community building is an aspect of social and emotional learning that can have positive effects on mental health and wellbeing.

A positive environment and a positive classroom community can greatly affect student learning outcomes as well. Research shows that students work harder and have higher learning engagement when they feel a sense of community in the classroom.

Simple Tips for Building a Classroom Community

Here are a few tips to help build community in the classroom.

  • Promote a positive classroom climate
    • Use supportive language, positive feedback and encouragement
    • Display a positive affect (Enthusiasm, joy, genuine interest)
    • Validate students’ emotions, concerns, and ideas
    • Provide time for children to respond to questions and conversation
  • Build individual relationships with each of your students
    • Ask questions to get to know their interests
    • Have students share their favorite things by creating a display or decorating the classroom environment
    • Use family surveys to learn more about students and their families
  • Incorporate routines and rituals
    • Greeting/departing rituals (songs, poems, moving their name/photo from home to school, etc.)
    • Follow a regular schedule; display a picture schedule at the children’s eye level
  • Invite students to help with classroom management
    • Involve students in creating classroom rules and norms
    • Choice and voice are important – ask for input on what helper tasks are necessary and allow children to choose if they want a job
    • When possible, include enough jobs that all children can have one if they choose to
  • Develop procedures for welcoming a new student later in the year
    • Decide how you will introduce new students to the classroom community
    • Carve out time specifically for getting to know a new child, just like you do at the beginning of the year with the rest of the class
    • Create opportunities for new children to develop peer relationships through partner and small group activities
  • Promote inclusivity
    • Encourage children to play together
    • Use scripted stories and intentional social emotional learning activities to guide discussions
    • Make sure your displayed materials show different races, ages, genders, cultures and abilities.
    • Offer materials that support a range of different abilities and strengths
  • Gauge the community regularly
    • Have ongoing classroom discussions about rules, norms, and new ideas
    • Provide space for children to voice their opinions and talk through their concerns
    • Celebrate successes within the classroom community

Classrooms as Communities

Creating a strong classroom community not only enhances the social and emotional well-being of young learners but also creates a positive foundation for their academic growth and overall development. It helps children feel safe, valued, and motivated to learn and explore the world around them. Teachers play a crucial role in facilitating the development of a supportive classroom community, fostering a love of learning, and scaffolding social skills that extend well beyond the early childhood years.

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