Create community, foster well-being, and set expectations as you go back to school!

A female teacher with brown skin talks to a diverse group of students standing in a circle.

The smell of new school supplies, fresh borders around the bulletin boards, rosters ready to go: It's back-to-school time! We educators know that the first weeks of class are critical in terms of setting the tone, establishing expectations, and building community. 

You likely have some tried-and-true approaches and activities to start the school year, but below we've put together a list of possibilities to try out at the start of this school year. 

Online Activities

  • Ask students to create a Flip introducing themselves, stating their goals for the year, or sharing one thing you and their classmates need to know about them. Then make a Mixtape of their responses to share with the class.
  • As you're developing classroom norms and expectations, use Mentimeter or Wooclap to generate a real-time word cloud to consolidate and display responses. You can also have students create personal word clouds (ABCya is one option) that represent them.
  • Curate videos from GoNoodle to help facilitate classroom routines, mindfulness and movement breaks, and more. You can also use UNICEF Kid Power to build community around helping others, or Move This World as a more comprehensive program to build SEL skills into the weekly routine.
  • Try Along to open up lines of communication and build relationships right from the start of the year.
  • Create a Kahoot or GimKit quiz about the year to come, and then revisit it at various points throughout the year so students can reflect.
  • Use generative AI to create a poem, rap, or other form of song about your class, what to expect, yourself, etc. You could also have students generate something about themselves to share, and use it an opportunity to discuss AI in general.
  • Using Canva or Adobe Express, tap into the power of generative AI design and videos to create an introductory video or presentation for new students.
  • With a classroom TikTok account, you can create videos that students can duet with. Introduce yourselves, talk about goals for the year, or just open up fun conversations for community building. Note that a public account is required for Duets, which could have privacy implications.
  • Use Breakout EDU to set up a back-to-school escape room, or GooseChase EDU to create a scavenger hunt.
  • Start a routine using the Connection Cards in Sanford Harmony Game Room (part of the free Harmony SEL program) to build community.
  • Connect with classrooms around the world (easily!) using Empatico or Belouga. Establishing a regular cadence for meetings with students from somewhere else can build relationships and broaden student horizons.
  • Use Book Creator to make a book about your class and have kids create self-introductions or a book reflecting their goals for the year.
  • Take kids on a virtual field trip to kick off the year. You could establish a routine of checking on particular animals (the cameras in Africa on are live all year!), find art that represents them on Google Arts & Culture, or visit Catie's Classroom from Super Simple each week.

Offline Activities

  • Have selected alumni answer key questions about what current students need to know to tap into peer-to-peer advice and mentorship. This could be in person or a video you assemble to reuse each year. Students can then set goals or co-create class expectations.
  • Create a time capsule with the class to open at the end of the year. Have students catalog their current obsessions, their hopes for the year, or something they want to tell their future selves.
  • Have students design their perfect classrooms on paper or using a digital tool to learn more about how they love to learn, their personality, and so forth.
  • Set up some simple STEM challenges to get students working together on a common goal.
  • If phones are allowed in your school and aren't required to be in backpacks, have students create a phone "cozy" (a small box or paper sleeve) where their phones stay until you give permission to use them.
  • Design a class flag or crest together that represents different aspects of the classroom community and/or a classroom "code of honor."
  • Have students move to one corner of the room in response to statements, or have them hold up numbers if you have students with mobility issues. Statements can include things like, "I enjoy video games/art/sports/books the most," or "If a weird pet were forced on me, I'd most want it to be a kangaroo/anaconda/miniature horse/raven." Students need to share the "why" of their response for at least one choice.
  • Especially for middle and high school students, music is often linked to their forming identities, so have students share a song that means a lot to them and explain why. Consider giving options for ways to share, so more introverted students don't have to present to the whole class right away.


    image credit: Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages


Christine Elgersma

Christine Elgersma is Senior Editor, Learning Content, Strategy which means she manages the newsletter about learning, edits writing about learning, and loves to learn. Before coming to Common Sense, she helped create ELA curriculum for a K-12 app and taught the youth of America as a high school teacher, a community college teacher, a tutor, and a special education instructional aide for about 18 years. Christine is also a writer, primarily of fiction and essays, and loves to read all manner of books. When she's not putting on a spontaneous vaudeville show with her daughter, Christine loves nature, music, and almost any form of dark chocolate.