Getting Ready for the Start of School, Part III: How to Build Community and Bully-Proof Your Classroom

Getting Ready for the Start of School, Part III: How to Build Community and Bully-Proof Your Classroom

Do you ever wonder why the children in some classrooms work well together and show kindness to each other, while in other classrooms the children tattle, tease each other, and constantly seek teacher attention? One reason is community-building.

In an effective classroom, the children – and the teacher – feel safe, secure and part of a larger whole. The more the children care about each other, and know that they are cared for, the better they will behave. Here are some ways to ensure that you develop group cohesion and a positive climate from the very beginning of the school year.

1. Help Children Get to Know and Care About Each Other
         Starting the first day of school, plan activities that help the children get to know one another. Morning Meeting is a perfect time to build a sense of group cohesion. Here are a few examples of activities:

  • Classmate Scavenger Hunt. Make a BINGO game board. In each square put a description that might fit the children in your class, such as “Comes to School on the Bus.” Children talk to each other, trying to find the child’s name to match each square.
  • Classroom Family Book: Children each draw a self portrait, and depending on their age, either dictate or write something about themselves. The pages are laminated or covered in page protectors and put in a binder and become part of the classroom library. Read the book frequently to the children during the beginning of the school year.
  • Picture Name Cards.Take a digital picture of each child and laminate it on a small index card. Punch a hole through the cards and put them on a binder ring. Choose one child to start in the middle of the circle. That child looks at one of the cards, finds that child, says “good morning” and then takes that child’s place in the circle. The next child then turns over the next card and starts the process again.
  • Duck Duck Goose Name Chase . Play by the standard rules for Duck Duck Goose but instead the child who is “It” says the name of each child as he or she goes around the circle.
  • Who Am I? The children write or dictate something about themselves privately during the day. Then at group time, you read each description without telling the name. The children will play a guessing game to figure out who you are describing.

Here’s a video from the Responsive Classroom which shows a 1st grade classroom at Morning Meeting using picture greetings as a way of getting to know each other and build community:


In this video, kindergarteners learn more about each student in the class through “Star Student of the Day” writing activities.
Here’s another example of morning meeting activities:

2. Teach Children to Be Kind.     
          Bullying begins with small actions like weeds in a garden and the best approach is prevention. You want to create a healthy, caring environment where the weeds have no chance to grow. The goal is to get children into the habit of saying kind things – and know that teasing and cruelty are NOT acceptable. Have the children brainstorm kind words, put them on chart paper, and refer to them frequently the first few weeks of school. Be sure to acknowledge whenever you hear children using the words. After the children have gotten good at this, you can teach them how to do kind things for each other. The children can brainstorm ideas, then act out the scenarios for practice. Again, be sure to point out whenever you see children being kind. Here is a video of children giving suggestions for being kind:

Here is a kindness song you can use in your classroom:

3. Set Limits on Negative Behaviors
          Children will naturally test the limits on what they are allowed to say and do. This includes bullying, teasing and rejecting classmates. In order to create a healthy classroom community, it is critical to stop these behaviors immediately. If you let even the smallest negative comment go unchallenged, you will give the message to the children that being nasty to others is acceptable. It’s not.
           For example, you might overhear children say something like: “You can’t play with us.” “Look at what she’s wearing!” ” You’re stupid.” “Oooh, he looks like a girl!” or “I don’t like you.” When you hear children say these types of things, you have a teaching opportunity.
          I recommend having a quiet, private talk with the child and say something like, “Jenna, I heard you tell Kayla that she’s stupid. We don’t use mean words in our classroom. I’d like to see you say something kind to make up for that” (See Apology-in-Action).  Later in the day, when I had the children at a group meeting, I would tell the children, “I’ve heard some unkind words today so I think we need to review how we talk to each other in our classroom.” Then I would review the poster of kind words, talk about how it feels when others say mean things to us, and reaffirm how wonderful it is to have a place to work where everyone is treated kindly.
        After a few instances of this type of discussion, the children will come to an amazing realization: this classroom really is a safe place! This will help stop the anxiety, fear, and power-seeking that leads to bullying. In other words, if you can jump-start the kindness, it will take off and “go viral”. The critical step is to intervene immediately and consistently when children are unkind.

4. Use Positive Teacher Language
          Your words and actions set the tone of the classroom. Notice when children are following procedures, demonstrating newly learned behaviors and showing kindness. This is the old adage of “catch them being good.” In a positive, healthy classroom. children should receive many more times as many positive comments as negative ones. Find ways for children to see their strengths and the strengths of others. Children will follow your lead and watch you carefully, so remember you are always modeling. This is hard, so also find ways to stay calm when children push your buttons!
          Listen to how this teacher used Multiple Intelligences to help promote the idea that everyone has strengths:

This video shows how one teachers uses body language to create bonds with his students:

Do you have other ideas for creating a positive community in your classroom? Please share your experiences in the comments!

This is the third part of a series on Getting Ready for the Start of School. See Part I here, and Part II here.

The Positive Classroom Book is coming soon! Check back in September to order your copy. A must-have for all early childhood and elementary teachers!