You’ve set up your classroom and made it welcoming for your students. You’re a mix of excitement and nerves. The first day of school always has a lot to think about and prepare for, but the first day of kindergarten can be especially challenging. There are so many things that make kindergarten unique, as well as magical, compared to other grades. So, to ensure a successful and stress-free start to the school year, I have 10 steps to help you rock the first day of kindergarten!
1. Over-plan, but under-expect for the first day of kindergarten
Kindergarten children at the start of school are really preschoolers. Their attention span is very, very small. But that being said, every class is different. You just don’t know what your class will be like until you meet them. So for the first day of school, I always plan for more activities than I know I will need. I plan for activities that won’t take too long and are not too complicated, like different coloring activities. Activities that I can just grab and go if I need a time-filler. I also have a bunch of books on display that I can grab to fill a few random minutes here and there.
Do I end up using these activities? Not every year, no. But sometimes! So it makes me feel less stressed and frazzled if I know I have a few different back-up plan options for my first few days of school.
2. Ease into the day
You will have students and parents trickling in and will probably have a few students (or parents) that have difficulty separating. You will probably be pulled in a few different directions, so it’s important to plan a few different activities that all students can do independently. I like to put out some coloring sheets and a few simple toys. Not any kind of play activity that needs directions to play, but instead, I put out open-ended building materials that I know they are familiar with.
As children are coming in the classroom, they go right to playing. Once students are settled and playing well, then I start introducing a few routines while we are playing.
BONUS TIP: As children are playing, call over one at a time to take their first day of kindergarten picture! You’ll be so happy you have it for class books and end-of-the-year slideshows and portfolios!
3. First routines I teach on the first day of kindergarten:
The very first thing that I want my students to know – listening to my directions. I need a way to get their attention. I teach them two different attention-getters while they are playing. After I teach the attention-getter, I let them go back and play and then I “quiz” them on it. Every few minutes while they are playing I use one of the attention-getters and then praise them for following it.
For more help with teaching routines, check out this blog post!
The second routine I teach my students is how to clean up. I don’t get too specific, but I go to each table when they are playing and say, “we are about to clean up. When it is clean-up time, you need to put everything back in the basket. Then the basket goes right here.” Then, after clean-up time I praise students for putting all the toys away neatly and calmly and being first-time listeners.
After we clean up, we do a very abbreviated morning meeting. I’ll talk more about that below. After the morning meeting is over, I teach my students how to line up. I model for them how to keep their hands by their sides and stay quiet. I have a few students model keeping a safe distance between each other in line. Then we use this line to take a quick tour around the school – and the first stop? The bathroom!
The fourth routine that I teach my students is how to use the bathroom. We all go into the classroom bathroom and I model for them how to use the flush, where to get toilet paper, how to wash hands with soap and where to put paper towels when they are finished. We also have a light outside our bathroom that they light up if it is occupied. I want all students to be able to use the bathroom when they need, and I want everyone to know what is expected in the bathroom from day 1.
4. Do brief meetings
After we clean up, I do a very abbreviated morning meeting. I use it as a chance for students to start learning the basic routines of the meeting. I go around the circle and model the kind of handshake greeting we will be using. This also helps everyone to hear everyone’s name. Then we read the morning message and do a get-to-know-you activity. I like “Cross the circle if ______” (you like ice cream, you like to ride a bike, you have an older sibling, you have a pet, etc.) to help them start to see things they have in common with each other.
Anytime we gather on the rug during the first few weeks of kindergarten, but especially the first day of kindergarten, I keep the lessons very brief. I try to have them only be about 5 minutes, unless it’s a read aloud and then it can be a bit longer. I use them to model using a few classroom tools and teach them what the activity will be. Then I send them off as soon as possible to go do it.
Back to School Kindergarten
5. Go Slow to Go Fast
In order for your students to successfully, independently, and expectedly, follow your routines and expectations and use tools appropriately, you have to break apart every step, model it for them, and give them time to practice. This takes time. It takes more time than you would think. But the more that you can break down expectations, really model what you expect, and give students time to practice those skills, the more your students will follow your expectations. The fewer misbehaviors you will have. The fewer issues you will run into. Your students will be more independent and successful. It takes time to get to this point and patience and lots of practicing of routines. But when you put in the time, it pays off big later on.
Spread out these routines and expectations over the first month of kindergarten. Don’t do them all at once and definitely don’t rush through them. The first 6-8 weeks of school should all be about learning the routines and expectations of school. Teach a routine and keep re-teaching it until it looks the way you want it to. Constantly praise students for correctly following parts of the routine. Anytime that you see something you want students to do more of, tell them! For example, “You pushed in your chair! That is taking care of the classroom and helps everyone stay safe”.
6. Assume nothing, teach everything
When I say to assume nothing, teach everything, I mean to assume that your students are coming to kindergarten knowing nothing. Some will definitely know what you will be teaching them, but some won’t. That means not assuming they know how to read or write their name or know what you mean by “come to the rug” or how to use a marker. When I say to teach everything, I literally mean to teach every little thing. Over the course of the first month of school, you’ll want to break apart every routine into tiny and specific steps.
My first-year teaching kindergarten, after having taught first grade, I thought I knew this. My first day of kindergarten was going so well. I was going slow and taking my time. I was meeting students where they were. Then, all of a sudden, it was nearing dismissal time. I hadn’t left enough time for dismissal (see step 9) and then I started to rush. I simply said, “ok everyone, stack your chairs and pack up!” I was so used to saying this in first grade I never thought how my students learned how to do this. That is kindergarten – teaching students all the foundational steps and routines.
After I said this, chaos ensued. Children started carrying chairs and didn’t know what to do with them or where to put them. I had to stop everyone and say forget it and I tried again the next day. When I redid it, I followed the steps of teaching routines. I modeled the routine and had everyone practice it. 1000 times better than the first time.
So, assume they know nothing so that you can teach them every little step. This will lead to success and independence, and help you stay calm and stress-free! You will be talking a lot this first month of kindergarten. From explaining every little step of routines to constant praising of what you are seeing your students are doing. It’s a big shock to your summer self, but it’s an important part of laying the foundation for the classroom routines you want your students to be able to do independently.
7. Do a quick school tour
All students should know the basics of the school building. On the first day of school, show them the essentials and know that you will have time later to show them more. For the first day of kindergarten, I take my students to see the bathroom (this is when we teach how to use the bathroom appropriately. We have one bathroom in our classroom, but I would still go over the expectations and model appropriate use even if we had bathrooms in the hallway. Although, I would separate boys and girls and see if I could have a male teacher assist with the boy bathroom.)
Next, we find the main office and the nurse. That’s it. My students don’t have specials the first few days or lunch at school the first few days, so I know the rest of the school can wait. I don’t want to overwhelm my students by showing it all at once. I also know that their attention span probably can’t handle more than a few things for our first day. After we find these places, we go outside to find the playground.
8. Go over recess rules
Before I let my students play at recess, we take a tour of the playground. This means that before we even step foot outside, I tell my students that we are staying as a group to take a tour of the playground and learn the rules of the playground. I make it clear that this is not playtime… yet. When we get out to the playground I show them the different equipment they can play with and we go over any critical safety rules. It’s important for children to know what play options they have outside, in order to be successful and expected at recess. It’s lesson 1 in my Recess Play Curriculum, which you can learn more about here!
9. Leave at least half an hour to get ready for dismissal
After the kids play outside, I have three activities I try and complete with them where they listen to a read-aloud, learn how to use crayons, and then fill out a First Day Picture page. That’s it. If I have time, I teach them some morning routines to help them with their arrival in the morning (even though I know they’ll need lots of reminders). If you have a lot of empty time, you can pull out a backup activity, read aloud, or just let them play. They know how to do that and how to be successful playing at the tables like you did in the morning.
The most important thing for the first day of school is to leave way more time than you think for dismissal. I leave at least half an hour. I model and practice with my students how to clean off the tables and stack chairs safely. Then I model and we practice packing up our backpacks, getting our folders, and sitting on the rug.
One tip I have is to have dismissal spots. I have colored columns on my rug, so I say that the red column is for bus, blue is for walkers, green is for car pickup, and orange is for after-school. This gives everyone a spot to sit, and it helps me triple-check the dismissal list. As I’m checking over the dismissal list, I give each child two dismissal stickers. One says their name on it. One says how they are getting home. This is vital to making sure that everyone ends up in the same place, and just in case a kindergartener starts wandering away from their dismissal group, any adult can help them find their way again. I cannot recommend these stickers enough. I just print them on labels based on the dismissal my students choose.
10. There’s always tomorrow
The goal for the first day of kindergarten is for students to be happy and get home safely. After that, it’s all a bonus. If they learn how to use a crayon appropriately, great. Have time to learn some recess rules? Great. If you run out of time and didn’t do something you planned, that’s ok! There is always tomorrow and the next day.
Spoiler alert, you probably will run out of time at least one of the days during the first week of school. It’s much better to meet students where they are, be responsive to their needs and abilities, and to go slow and purposeful when teaching routines and expectations. It will pay off big in the long run to take the time now to go over routines and expectations. Don’t rush to do too many things in a day – instead, take the time to do it right. There’s always tomorrow.
The first day of kindergarten is an exciting and challenging time for teachers and students alike. By following the ten steps outlined in this blog post, teachers can navigate the unique demands of the first day and ensure a successful start to the school year. From over-planning and under-expecting to teaching routines, establishing expectations, and allowing for gradual transitions, these strategies help create a positive and structured learning environment. Remember to take the time to teach and practice every step, assume nothing, and embrace the idea that there’s always tomorrow. With careful preparation and a focus on building strong foundations, teachers can set the stage for a successful and rewarding kindergarten experience.