Survive the First Day of School after Distance Learning

Photo of a young teacher in front of her classroom. Text says: How to Survive the First Day of First Grade (after Distance Learning)

Preparing for the first day of school after distance learning? Here are 8 helpful tips to help you survive this unique day.

Hooray! You survived pandemic teaching and are excited to start a new (and more normal) year. There’s only one little problem… Your new first graders spent little (or no) time in the school building last year. You have a new-found appreciation for the work the kindergarten teachers do each year, teaching students “how school works.” Now that task falls to you. Where do you even begin with this first day of school after distance learning?

For anyone who has taught kindergarten, you know the first few days are brutal. You have lots of little friends who don’t know how to “do school” and it’s your job to teach them. Now this falls to you, dear first grade teacher. As you look at first graders who haven’t ever been in a school building, this introduction to school seems daunting.

But, you can do it! Every year, you introduce kids to new routines – because your routines aren’t identical to the kindergarten teachers’ routines. Sure, you have a few more routines to teach than normal this year, but… These kids are a full year older than kindergarteners. With that age comes some maturity. That, in and of itself, will simplify the transition to school.

With a bit of careful planning, you’ll have these new kids settled into the school in no time at all!

Take baby steps – it’s the first day of school after distance learning!

These little ones may be new to school and may find it a bit overwhelming (just like their teachers.) Before your students set foot in the building, identify the classroom procedures that will allow everyone to survive the very first day – usually routines related to food, bathroom, and lining up. Some common survival procedures include:

  • where to sit
  • how to ask to go to the bathroom
  • where to find the bathroom (and any tricks, like turning on the automatic sink)
  • how to find the right classroom after going to the bathroom (point out a special decoration by your room)
  • the lunchroom routine (going through the lunch line, where to sit, etc)
  • how to line up (without a mad dash)
  • how to walk in a line (look at the back of the head of the person in front of you)
  • quieting down at the quiet signal

The best way to teach most of these routines involves modeling – showing exactly how (or where) to do the task. For many of these routines (like how the lunch line works), you’ll want to show kids how to do it, then have a few students demonstrate for the class. This allow students to see the routine more than once. Finally, let the entire class try the routine.

The Secret to Lining Up

Here’s a quick tip for teaching kids to line up: Limit the number of kids joining the line at a time. My favorite way to do this is with a little game called “Line Up If…” On the first day, you can keep it simple: “Line up if your shirt is red.” After helping these students line up, call other shirt colors (one at a time) until everyone is lined up. Later you can mix in shoe colors, letters in their name, or birthday months. But shirt colors are easiest on the first day – you can clearly see who needs a prompt.

Like any other year, teaching procedures and routines is going to take time. Expect to take several days to teach even the most basic routines. Check out this post about how to teach procedures and routines for more details. You’ll even find tips and tricks about what routines you should teach on the first days.

Sprinkle in some instructional routines

You are gradually working your way toward academic instruction, so it’s important to start building a few of these routines from day 1. Since some (most) of these procedures will be new for your new firsties, be very intentional in your teaching. 

Start by planning this out before the first day of school. Identify a basic instructional routine and visualize the procedure in slow motion – where will students start, where will they stop, what do they need to do between starting and stopping. For instance, in teaching kids how to come to the floor for a story or morning meeting, they need to:

  • leave their desks
  • push in their chairs
  • walk to the floor (after you show them the gathering spot)
  • find a place to sit (facing the teacher or in a circle)
  • sit criss-cross, applesauce
  • look at the teacher
  • try hard not to talk (gotta be realistic here!)

Like any other procedure, you’ll need to demonstrate this, have a few students at a time demonstrate while you narrate their moves, then have the rest of the class try it.

Some of the most basic instructional routines for students for the first day of school after distance learning include:

  • coming to the floor for a lesson
  • writing your name on the paper
  • turning in papers
  • cleaning up supplies when finished (even if it’s just a pencil on day 1)

Most of these routines weren’t needed for distance learning. Even if your students were in person last year, some of these routines were greatly impacted by Covid restrictions and might look different this year.

Capture their cuteness

Add a self-portrait to your first day schedule. It’s a perfect way to sneak in some instructional routines (how to use and put away crayons, where to turn in papers…) Pair it with a last day self-portrait and you’ll be amazed at how much these little darlings grow and change during the year! Plus, it’s a great way to keep them busy for a few more minutes (always an advantage!)

Photo shows a self-portrait stick figure from a child on the first day of school after distance learning. The page also includes space for the child to write her name.

This self-portrait can be used to break the ice at parent teacher conferences in a few weeks. You might even consider this as the first piece in a yearlong portfolio that shows how each student has grown in skills during the year. You can include monthly portraits, number writing, and writing samples. First grade is a huge year of growth and development, and a portfolio is a fun way to capture that for parents.

This photo shows number writing samples from a child at the beginning of the school year.

Overplan

Just like any other year, you want to overplan for the first day of school. These kids will have short attention spans, so activities that take 5-10 minutes are perfect. 

Plan lots of little fillers and use them throughout the day: 

  • counting songs
  • active songs (ex: Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes)
  • engaging stories (Elephant and Piggie books are always a hit!) 
  • movement activities (jump 10 times, touch your toes 12 times)

A school tour is always a fun first day activity – but keep it short to match their attention spans. The first day of school tour will be especially important if your students were not in the building last year. Highlight the most important places they need to know about and save the rest for another day. Be sure to visit the bathroom, the office, the health room and the playground.

Smile!

There’s an old adage in teaching about not letting kids see you smile in the first month. I believe the opposite. Kids need to know you adore them from day one. Smile all day long – as they arrive, before a story, when you pick them up from specials or recess, when you wave them goodbye. Don’t miss an opportunity to share your smile!

This is especially true on the first day of school after distance learning. After the last crazy year of school, kids are likely to be a bit nervous. Some of them may not have been in a school building before. They will appreciate your reassuring smile. This will go a long way in establishing a sense of community and trust in your classroom.

Praise, praise, praise

Along with your smiles, offer your new students lots of praise. Not just generic, “good job” praise. But specific praise about what they have done well – the behavior you want them to repeat. A generic “good job” may inadvertently reinforce an unintended behavior: Did the teacher like how fast I got to the floor, even though I pushed someone out of the way? Or did she like how I was quiet as soon as I sat down?

Specific praise will clarify what behaviors you want students to repeat in the future. It’s also a quick reminder of the desired behavior for students who are still following the direction.

Specific praise is a positive way to reinforce the behaviors they have been practicing. It could sound like this:

  • Look how nicely Teddy walked to the floor and sat down.
  • You remembered to write your name at the top of your paper. Now I know who did this hard work!
  • You noticed a capital N in your name and fixed it.
  • I saw 5 kids push their chairs in quietly before lining up. That makes it easy for other kids to walk by.
  • Sonja remembered to throw her snack wrapper in the garbage.
  • Look how clean our room looks after we cleaned up! All the books are put away so we can see the covers.

Focusing on what kids do well in the first few days helps establish a positive climate in your room. The kids will feel loved and treasured by you, and will want to come back to school the next day. It also makes your expectations clear and explicit to everyone.

If all else fails, grab a book

Little ones generally love stories – especially short, funny ones. For the first few days, gravitate toward old favorites, like anything by Mo Willems, Pete the Cat, or the No, David series. Make sure the books are short, but sweet. You are still battling incredibly short attention spans. If it was a hit, read it again later. Books you love will help the time pass and help your students realize that school can be an enjoyable place, with a teacher who knows how to have fun!

The photo shows a box of books for fun read alouds.

You made it through the first day of 1st grade after distance learning!

While it may feel daunting to start the year with kids who haven’t been in a school building before, use what you know to make it a success! You’ve done this before. You’ve taught routines and corralled little bodies. This time, you just need to be a bit more intentional than normal. With a some careful thought and planning, you will reach the end of the day – slightly exhausted, but with students who know what to do the next day!

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Photo of a young teacher in front of her classroom. Text says: How to Survive the First Day of First Grade (after Distance Learning)

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