How To Calm Back-to-School Nerves

Set students up for success with these tips for getting the year off to a smooth start.

By Eliana Osborn


School boy with arms resting on books

We had a long weekend at my house leading up to the first day of second grade. This time, I was prepared for my son’s emotional roller coaster of excitement mixed with anxiety, so we all managed better than in years past. Being prepared ahead of time for anxiety regarding the beginning of the school year can keep your classroom feeling more steady and peaceful. How can you start off the year on a strong foot instead of wiping away tears? Read on for some tried-and-true strategies for creating a positive classroom experience.

Get-to-Know-You Games

Tables or desks, rows or small groups—no matter how your room is set up, kids are in close proximity to strangers on the first day of school. Talk about nerve-wracking. Just think of how awkward you feel standing in an elevator. Ice-breaker games may seem cheesy to you, but they are ideal for getting kids moving around, talking to each other, and finding out commonalities.

How about the Mingle Game? Each person writes a question on an index card. It could be anything, from "What’s your favorite color?" to "Where would you like to visit?" Cards in-hand, have everyone walk around the room (perhaps while playing music). When teacher says to stop, students have to ask their question to the nearest person. After a few rounds—some long, some dramatically short—everyone will have met a few new people and gotten in a little stretching at the same time.

You can also try to do a Fact Web (idea courtesy Stand in a circle with one child holding a ball of yarn. She says a fact about herself, holds onto the end of the yard, and tosses the ball to someone else. Repeat until everyone has participated at least once and you have an amazing-looking web. If possible, take a picture of the completed web to display proudly.

Clear Discussion of Rules and Routines

Kids and adults worry most when they don’t know what is expected of them. Think about what is most important to you; not a list of ten rules, but the one thing you simply must have students do if you are to have a pleasant classroom. That concept needs to be posted in more than one place—big, bold, and easily visible. Spend time talking about this rule more than once on the first day:

  • Why it is important to you?
  • How do other rules relate to it?
  • Why did you choose it?

When they go home, your pupils should know at the very least, that there is one thing that is crucial in your class, and they should be able to articulate it to their parents.

Practice Transition Times

You may think that after first and second grade, kids would know the basics of how to be at school. Somehow, you have to reteach what appropriate behavior looks like each and every year, all way through college. Instead of complaining, just expect that if you want pupils to do something, you’ll have to show them precisely what you mean. This is especially true for the in-between times: coming in, getting out supplies, sharpening pencils, finishing assignments, etc.

Model how you want kids to behave when they do things. Be dramatic, perhaps showing a good and bad version of transition moments. A little humor goes a long way. Then practice together in slow motion, next in regular speed, then supersonic fast. 

By breaking the ice, being crystal clear about what you want, and running through possible trouble areas right up front, you’ll be well on your way to a fabulous school year.