Activities to Get to Know Your Students During the First Week of School
(Including Free Worksheets for All Grades!)
Every student that comes through your door is incredibly unique — in their hopes, dreams, likes and dislikes, interests and hobbies, ways of relating to the world, senses of humor, and sources of joy. Many of their defining characteristics will become delightfully familiar to you over the next few months, and many will evolve or change during the time they spend in your classroom.
As their teacher, you will come to know them deeply, in some cases perhaps even better than anyone else. If you’ve been teaching for some time, you likely already understand the value of that knowing — how much every student, no matter their age, background, or disposition — needs to be seen, heard, and understood as a one-of-a-kind learner and human. Knowing your students is perhaps one of the greatest (and most challenging!) tasks you routinely undertake as an educator.
For most, the back-to-school season marks the beginning of a new chapter of that ongoing journey. It’s never too early to begin creating a safe space conducive to building bonds of trust. To help, we’ve gathered a few of our favorite activities that allow you to get to know your learners during the first week of the new school year — complete with a few free printable resources!
Build Community & Set Expectations
A classroom is a community, where every member must feel valued, comfortable sharing their perspective, and able to function in a way that is compatible with their learning needs. Listening to and observing students as you set expectations and foster a sense of community is important work in the first week of a new school year.
Ask students what they need from you. This activity emphasizes student agency, allows you to model growth and transparency, and even requires learners to engage in some metacognition. Simply ask students what they want in a teacher! You can conduct this activity anonymously or with names, individually or as a group, depending on your preference and what you want to learn. We’ve created this templated worksheet to use in your class:
Establish safe, equitable lines of communication. Early in the year, ensure that students have access to secure, accessible lines of communication to convey information about themselves, their needs, and their circumstances that they may not feel comfortable sharing publicly or even in person. This could be as simple as making sure your preferred contact information is accessible, or perhaps you establish a creative routine for dropping written messages in a safe space in your classroom. Don’t forget to include parents and families in your planning on lines of communication!
For more on setting expectations and fostering community, read:
Teach Expectations Just As You Would Teach Any Academic Skill
Ronald C. Martella, Ph.D., BCBA-D and Nancy Marchand-Martella, Ph.D., BCBA-D
5 Ways to Build Relationships with Students and Families
Strategies for a Student-Centered Back-to-School Season
Set Goals Together
Goal-setting is an important activity to set the tone for a productive, fruitful year of learning and can reveal so much about your students’ understanding of themselves, relationship with learning, and hopes and dreams.
Set a collective class goal. This activity is great for students of all ages and can contribute to your community-building efforts, too. Adapt the format to your students’ needs and your teaching style. Class goals might have to do with the community itself, such as always being kind and respectful, or they might reflect students’ relationship with learning, such as a group commitment to growth. Regardless, goals should be set in a collaborative environment where everyone has the chance to contribute and should be displayed prominently in the classroom to serve as a reminder throughout the school year. Download and print this poster for a simple example:
Set individual goals for the year. Knowing students’ individual goals for learning and growth can help you understand them within the context of their experiences, interests, and relationship to learning. It’s also critical knowledge to have to personalize students’ learning pathways.
For older learners, goal setting may not happen in the very first week of school — depending on your preference, you may find value in giving students time to familiarize themselves with your expectations and class content, so they can set goals specific to their growth and achievement in your class. Or, you may find value in allowing them far more flexibility in their goals, and ask them to express far-reaching, abstract dreams they hold dear to their hearts — for the school year, for their academic careers, or for their lifetimes. The direction should be determined by what information about your learners you need to be a better educator.
For younger students, simpler, explicit goal-setting activities may be the most successful. Ask students to write (or perhaps draw) their goals early in the year, and display their goals for a reminder throughout the school year. This printable worksheet is great for early learners:
Share Your Stories
Finally, get to know your students by allowing them creative ways to tell their stories! It’s important to model this practice by telling elements of your own story that you’re comfortable sharing, too. These activities can be carried throughout the year when different opportunities for self-expression arise in the classroom.
Create self-portraits. For older students, self-portraits might take the form of a longer-term multimedia project, leveraging new technology and even public outlets. In this webinar, STEAM teacher Tim Needles describes how his students used Adobe Spark to create visuals that expressed their understanding and practice of mindfulness, which they then shared on social media. Self-portraits also don’t have to be visual — they can involve writing, movement, or journal reflections. For younger learners, self-portraits can be as simple as coloring a worksheet or creating a unique piece with art supplies. Consider keeping these self-portraits and having students create updated versions at the end of the year to reflect on their growth.
Have students complete surveys. Student surveys are a great way to learn about your students at the beginning of the year. Start by asking for simple information that requires students to reflect on their relationship with school, their needs, and their learning preferences. What you do with this information is entirely up to you — but if you do plan to share students’ responses, be sure to make your intentions clear when you hand out your surveys.
Here are two printable student survey worksheets you can use with elementary students and middle or high school students:
For more back-to-school resources, see:
Back to School Preparation and Support | McGraw-Hill
Teachers and administrators using McGraw-Hill can get their back-to-school questions answered in one place about topics…
For more free worksheets and posters, see: