Tips for Creating a Soft Start Classroom

Many teachers are intrigued by the idea of having a soft start classroom. But you might have many questions about how to implement the soft start routine into your day. If you want to better understand what a soft start classroom time “looks like,” read my first post on the topic. If you want to learn more about the soft start routine, keep reading to learn answers to the most common questions about it.

How does a soft start differ from morning tubs or work stations? 

With morning tubs or work stations, a teacher pulls together a set number of activities for students to use when they arrive. These often involve hands-on activities and manipulatives. They frequently align with curriculum goals. And teachers assign students to a station or tub for the day, where students will engage in the activity and interact with peers.

In a soft start classroom, students also participate in engaging activities and interact with peers. But teachers don’t typically “pull together” materials for a soft start; students are allowed to choose from activities in the classroom (like games, drawing, books, blocks, etc.) The activities in a soft start are less closely linked to curriculum goals and students choose their activity rather than being assigned by the teacher.

To me, the big differences boil down to:

  • a soft start is student-driven and student-focused
  • you don’t need to prep and swap out soft start activities every week or two (a win in my book!)
  • the routine feels more like flexible seating – children choose what meets their needs and interests at the moment

How much time do you allow?

In my school, students arrive during a 15 minute window. They can start arrive in my room at 8:35, then the final bell rings at 8:50. My soft start typically extends for 5-10 minutes beyond that, allowing all students to participate at least briefly. 

Depending on the arrival window for your students, you might need to adapt the timing. The age of your students and efficiency of your class will also impact your time. You might start by planning 15-20 minutes; you can always add or subtract time as needed.

When do you begin? How do you introduce the soft start?

Like so many key routines, I start on the first or second day of school. However, what you see in the first week of school looks different than it does mid-year. I start with one activity and gradually add more activities. I follow a Responsive Classroom model, so each new routine is introduced and practiced intentionally, building student responsibility and community.

Start with simple classroom activities that are relaxing and engaging for your students. Your first choice should be something that requires minimal explanation, which will vary based on your student population. Some ideas include drawing or play dough (without tools). You can add more complex activities (like games and blocks) once students understand the soft start routine.

On Day 1, you might choose to set out play dough for each student to play with. (I like homemade play dough, but pre-made canisters also work. In fact, my favorite is “magic play dough” that starts white and changes color.) Day 2 might repeat the exact same activity, but focus on responsible clean-up. If things are going well, you might introduce a new activity on Day 3 or 4 (perhaps drawing paper and crayons.) Put the first activity away and have all students practice the new activity. By day 5 or 6 you might allow students to choose from the two activities (ex: play dough OR drawing). 

Perhaps in the afternoons you have time to show students how to use the classroom library. Once they understand how to respect the books and the space, that might become a third choice for a soft start (play dough, drawing, or books.) By the end of the first month of school, you might have 4 basic choices for students. Continue adding choices that have been practiced at other times during the day (like math games or blocks from inside recess).

How many choices do you have at a time?

I don’t have a set number. I aim for 3-5 activities, but I am generally open to student suggestions. So if a student asks me, if she can cut and staple the paper she uses for coloring, I typically say “yes, if you are respectful with the tools and clean up.” Students can come up with the most creative and engaging activities if you let them!

How do you keep track of the  students’ choices?

I don’t. The purpose of a soft start is to ease children into the day and make them feel part of the classroom community. If Abbi wants to draw 9 days in a row and it sets her up for a day of learning, great!

Many activities, such as drawing or reading, can handle the whole class at once. Some activities naturally limit themselves, such as games with 2 or 4 players. For very popular activities with no natural limit, you might need to discuss with students how many students can join in – frequently I allow any number as long as they are respectful and kind. If you need to limit the number of kids in one activity for any reason, you can tape a sticky note with a number on the materials. Then have class discussion about what to do when someone else wants to play.

A photo of a sticky note on a box to help with limited materials in a soft start classroom routine.

How often do you change choices?

As little as possible. Seriously, if things are working, I leave it. If kids request something, I typically add it. When things start to feel “stale” for kids, I might make minor changes, like putting out water colors instead of colored pencils, or replacing an old game with a new one. Sometimes a math game is quite popular, so I let students choose that in the morning. But I don’t make full-scale changes to the choices. The consistency is reassuring to students and the routine helps with classroom management.

You might consider evaluating the choices once a month. Which materials are popular? Which are neglected? Can you trade the neglected activity for something new? Is one activity (like Legos) too busy? If so, is there something similar you can add (like Wedgits) to draw some attention away from the busy activity? If everything is going well, no need to change!

Photo of two stacks made from colorful Wedgit blocks.

Wedgits are one of the fun types of blocks I’ve used during my soft start time.

How do you manage student behavior with a soft start?

Remember that my classroom management is based off Responsive Classroom, which values student choice and student involvement in classroom routines and expectations. Modeling and rehearsing routines are a critical in Responsive Classroom. So, in my room, productive noise is encouraged and students are empowered to make choices. When problems arise, I work together with students to identify logical consquences and more appropriate choices. So typically a quick reminder, then asking the child to make a new choice is how I handle behaviors during the soft start time. For on-going issues, a follow-up conversation may be needed.

If students are fighting over materials, discuss with them how this can be handled. They might suggest a sign-up sheet, a limit on students, a schedule, or any other suggestion. If their idea seems reasonable, give it a try! We want our students to become problem-solvers, not people dependent on others to tell them what to do.

If students are roaming instead of choosing an activity, ask them why. Would adding a new activity be more engaging? Do they want to work with a friend? Are kids saying mean things? Are the choices overwhelming? Then work with them to solve the problem they identified.

How can you incorporate academics into a soft start?

It’s important to me that the soft start choices are truly choices for students, so I don’t directly connect them to academic skills. Instead, I think about what academic skills can be gained through this structure and these activities. All activities during morning choice incorporate decision making and interacting with others – truly critical life skills. Plus, you can easily include things like:

  • extra time to observe insects, class pets, plants (science)
  • planning and building with blocks (engineering)
  • blank writing booklets from stapled paper (creative writing)
  • books – can have bins that focus on genre, social studies concepts, favorite authors (reading)
  • math games
  • commercial games – many of which include math and problem-solving skills
  • art materials (design process, fine motor skills)
Photo of a child holding a cards that shows 359 represented with yellow base ten blocks. The card is used for the game Base Ten War.

Students sometimes ask to play a math game during the soft start time.

Hopefully these tips and tricks will help you create a soft start classroom this school year! If you have more questions, let’s continue the conversation in the comments section. I’ll be happy to problem-solve with you.

Text says Tips & Tricks for a Soft Start with photo of two stacks of building blocks.
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