Transitioning back to school can bring up so many emotions, thoughts, feelings, doubts, and on, and on. And add transitioning back to school amidst COVID and all those feelings are heightened. especially uncertainty and doubt which is why we wanted to bring you today’s post. 

Today’s blog post is a collaboration between Cassie, Adventures in Behavior, and Kaylan, Caffeinated Behavior Change.  Our friendship began on instagram almost 2 years ago when we were both new to the world.  We instantly bonded over a love of Harry Potter, coffee, and all things behavior.  Cassie is a middle school special education teacher and Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA).  Kaylan is a school division behavior specialist, certified special education teacher and BCBA.  This back to school season is unlike any other.  We wanted to collaborate and provide you with all the knowledge we’ve gained over the years so that you can have the smoothest, easiest return to school possible amidst the chaos of COVID-19.

Like we said, back to school is an emotionally charged time of year every year— but especially now. So many emotions running through our brains and hearts. Excited. Stressed. Happy. Scared. Confused. Anxious. Irritated. Sad. Bewildered. Just to name a few. So how do we start to consider going back to school after so long at home? Especially when many in society have the thought of “Oh there’s a national crisis and pandemic– teacher’s can fix it…” but again we ask “where do we even start”? What does and should a COVID classroom look like? 

Check out our Top 10 Tips for Transitioning to Back to School in a COVID Classroom: 

1. Create a Safe Classroom Environment 

“create a safe nest for students so that they learn and thrive and, when they eventually fly, they soar.” – Kristin Van Marter Souers 

Children (humans) cannot and do not learn when we don’t feel safe- end of story. When considering our classroom environment this should always be at the top of the list but it is even more crucial now– and I know I didn’t have to tell you that. With the state of the world and our culture, trauma is prevalent. Trauma is real. 

Emotions are high and supports are unfortunately very low. But don’t lose hope because we can help. That’s what we as teachers do- we help. We nurture. We love. 

We are the safe nest for students — little birdies fly on home to  me whenever you need a hug (or air hug), listening ear, or space to be your amazingly wonderful unique self. 

To create a safe and nurturing environment:

  1. Design a functional space free from clutter and distractions. Yes, decorations are pinterest pretty but they can also be overwhelming and overstimulating. Let me say it again FUNCTIONAL over fancy. 
  2. Consider safety risks when arranging furniture and stations– always have a teacher or IA stationed next to the door (if you have to ask you haven’t had your first runner YET ;0) Use furniture like bookshelves, cubbies, filing cabinets, whatever you have to create boundaries between stations and students. I love using filing cabinets to create cubby holes for individual desk areas and bookshelves create a great boundary and storage for independent work stations. If you can get funding, spend a few extra bucks, or #clearthelist I highly recommend the 3 drawer rolling carts. Use those to move teachers around the room instead of students this year. Moving station teaching 🙂 
  3. Visuals, visuals, visuals everywhere. Designing a safe environment includes informing kids what’s going on — consistency and transparency 
  4. Supportive staff- what, when, where, why, and how of staff procedures for engaging with students, communicating, responding, managing behaviors. Train your staff on your classroom procedures: this includes how to talk to students (positive language), how to interact and play with students (social skills), how to regulate emotions (SEL), how to de-escalate escalating behaviors, etc., etc., etc.
  5. Consistency. You hear this one a lot but especially in such a chaotic time and after so many months at home our kiddos are CRAVING consistency. They are craving structure and routine. They need it and THRIVE on it. They need to know what’s going on in their lives so they can learn how to respond to their world. 
  6. Calm down area- when your kids have big emotions (not if, when) where will they go? Make it comfy, cozy but again functional. I had 2 $5 shag pillows from walmart and a weighted blanket from our OT. You don’t need to buy out Ikea or amazon to have an inviting and functional space. 

2. Create a Strong Classroom Management Plan

A Strong classroom management plan is the foundation of your classroom.  Without it, you have no way of reinforcing expected behaviors, students do not know what your rules are, and you have no method of creating a positive classroom culture.  I remember my first year teaching.  It was often chaotic in my classroom.  Students did not know where to go and what to do.  My staff did not know what to do each day and while I did have reinforcement systems in place individually, there was no class wide system to tie everything together.  When I think about how a classroom management plan would have changed that year, I can envision a totally different outcome.

So, what do you need to include in your classroom management plan?

  1. Rules- Every classroom should include 3-5 posted rules that are worded in a positive manner telling students what TO do, not what they shouldn’t do.  
  2. Reinforcement System- You will need some sort of reinforcement system that is a group contingency.  In essence, every student in your classroom (regardless of individual behavior plans) would be a participant.  There are so many great ones out there!  Marble jars, token economies, class dojo, the good behavior game, and more!  You might also consider having choice boards for individual reinforcement choices that are built off of preference assessments that you can do.  This will ensure that ALL students have a reinforcer that is effective for them.
  3. Procedures- This is a critical piece of a classroom management system.  It tells staff members how the classroom is to run and when staff teach these procedures to students, it provides order and structure in the classroom.  
  4. Home/School Communication- How do you plan to communicate with parents?  This is very important to the success of your students, especially in this COVID age.  There are so many systems out there!  Remind, Seesaw, Google Classroom, Schoology, Classdojo, and more!  I personally prefer to stick to email and phone calls and use my school’s learning management platform, but do what works for you!

3. Focus on Building Strong and Lasting Relationships 

One of my student’s brothers once asked if I could be his mom–heartbroken. Yes, yes, oh man I wanted to say yes. But do you know if I ran into him right now I guarantee he would push his glasses back up his nose and run over to give me a hug. Am I that special? No, but I gave him my time and undivided attention. I gave him something he was craving more than any ipad, any snack time, any friend. I gave him an adult who loved him. 

So what others see as babying is me playing uno during my “lunch break” (quotations cause I don’t care about lunch breaks but that’s just me). Or babying is me pulling the kid aside and taking a walk when they are refusing to sit in the chair and do their math worksheet. My favorite time of day and one I often get eye rolls for is breakfast. I LOVE eating breakfast with kids. It may be before contract time BUT I DON’T CARE. I love, love, love mornings with my students. Let’s eat breakfast, read a book, play a game, and start your day off fantastic! (They may have no one else willing to take time out of their day to eat with them– be that person). 

And what others see as giving them what they want is me giving them what they want BUT contingently. If my student wants to watch The Flash Youtube videos, I’ll watch The Flash once they do x, y, and z. Behavior goes where the reinforcement flows (that saying will never get old). 

Relationships and RAPPORT are all about creating instructional control. You become the reinforcer by pairing yourself as a reinforcer and in turn your students do what you ask. But it’s more than that. It’s giving your students someone in their corner who is always rooting for their success. Be their reinforcer and be their champion. 

(And I am 100% that teacher, and still am, that will break your “3-S” line any day of the week to give a kid a hug, high five, thumbs up, whatever. I will do it every time… so cut out the eye rolls 😉 

4. Set Clear Expectations 

Like I said earlier, the classroom management plan is your foundation for success.  Within that plan, it is so critical to have clear expectations and procedures for all areas and activities in the classroom.  Think for a moment, Johnny’s pencil broke while he was working.  How do you want him to handle this?  Make a list of all the things that could possibly happen during your day and make sure that you have clear procedures outlined for them.  

Once you have that list identified, you will also need to include planned teaching time of these expectations.  Should an 8th grader know how to line up or enter the classroom? Probably.  But, what if no one ever taught that student how to do those things?  We need to ensure that we are teaching expected behaviors from day one.

Here are some things that you should consider procedures around, especially in the transition back from COVID shut downs.

  1. Arrival/Departure routines- how do you want students arriving to the school and leaving?  What does parent pick up look like?  What do the bus riders do?  Where do they go when they come in the morning?  What should they be doing? What should they be doing while they wait to leave?
  2. Group work- how will you set up and maintain safety during group work?  What are the group work expectations?  Are students allowed to speak whenever they want or do they need to raise their hands?
  3. What does independent work time look like?  Are you implementing a traditional TEACCH type independent work station or is it technology based?  Your procedures should be different for each of the different methods of independent work.
  4. Bathroom routines- If you are in a life skills program, bathrooming is going to look very different than if you are a resource room teacher or general education teacher.  How do the students indicate they need a restroom break?  Are they able to go whenever they want or is it only during scheduled breaks?
  5. Meal routines- Are you eating in the cafeteria or your classroom?  What do the students that bring their lunch do?  What do the students that buy a school lunch do?  Are they able to feed themselves or do they need assistance?  Who is providing this assistance?  What do they do when they are done?
  6. Technology procedures- This is going to be a critical piece especially during this COVID time.  When and why are they able to use their technology?  What are the rules surrounding websites and things they are able to do?
  7. COVID specific expectations-  These will differ from campus to campus and district to district.  How often must students wash their hands or use hand sanitizer?  How should students act when they cough or sneeze?  When should students be wearing a mask?  IF they can’t, what policies govern this?  How do shared materials get used?  What is the sanitization process for these?  Are students expected to maintain 6 feet distance at all times?

5. Start your day with a SEL focused Morning Meeting 

Social Emotional Learning is nothing new however, there has been an increasing focus on SEL skills in the last few years. And looking toward this year it’s even more crucial to our students’ success. With EVERYTHING happening in the world we have to make sure we are putting in the time and energy to cultivate and nurture SEL skills in ourself, our staff, and our students. SEL needs to start first thing in the morning and permeate throughout your entire day. Morning Meetings are everywhere but what does a SEL focused morning meeting look like? 

Here are my TOP 5 must haves to make it a SEL focused morning meeting:

  1. Morning Routine: Set the stage for the entire day with a well thought out and taught routine for the morning and day. The students should know what is expected and the steps to take from start to finish during morning meeting (and every routine during the day). 
  2. Goal setting: Teach your students to set and monitor short and long term goals. What SEL behaviors and skills do your students need to be successful? Are they struggling with emotional regulation or cooperation? Do they have difficulty with peer pressure or working in groups? Guide your students to choosing an appropriate goal and then teach them how to get there. Don’t forget to add in monitoring and reinforcement so that they WANT to get there. 
  3. Class Discussion Questions: Create a culture of collaboration and communication. Write a question of the day on the board and have your students answer the question and share aloud with their peers. For example, “if you were the teacher for the day what would you do and why?” Have the students discuss their answers and practice reciprocity skills. 
  4. Explicit SEL instruction: Choose 1 SEL skill to teach each week. Use the Behavior Skills Training teaching model (instruction, model, practice, feedback) to explicitly teach SEL skills. Use youtube videos, read alouds, games, role play, and more to teach, practice, and reinforce skills. 
  5. Reinforcement: Review classwide and individual reinforcement systems. Why they do what they do. We work for a paycheck — what are your students working for? Reinforcement should be contingent upon meeting their daily goal, taught SEL skills, and desired school behaviors. 

And then embed, review, and prompt SEL into your entire school day. 

6. Start with the End in Mind 

One of the things I say to my staff often is that it is our job to work ourselves out of a job!  What do I mean by that?  It is our job to plan, implement, and teach expectations, procedures, and behavioral supports so that when we are finished, it all runs so smoothly we aren’t needed.  Full independence should always be our number one goal for ALL students.  

So when I plan things, I always start with this idea of keeping the end in mind.  We do this when we are planning academic units or IEP goals.  We look at the assessment and determine what it is that the student needs to do to demonstrate mastery, and from there we plan the activities and items that will be needed to make that occur.  When you consider your classroom set-up and the transition back, consider the end goal.  What do you want your classroom to look like, sound like, be like?  From there, decide what and how you’ll make it happen.  You’ll need to decide what visual supports might be needed to be able to eliminate verbal prompts from staff.  You’ll need to decide what visual supports your staff will need because they ALSO need to be able to function independently without your guidance.

I’m known for sometimes saying and doing things that go against the grain.  It’s gotten me into hot water sometimes with former admin who didn’t agree with my evidence-based methods.  I may even get some push back here for saying this, but you don’t have to teach ANYTHING ACADEMIC on day 1.  In reality, it may even be Day 10 before you introduce a new concept to your students.  What you should be teaching is your expectations and classroom procedures.  The structure of your classroom should be in place on day 1.  The idea is to teach the transitions, schedule, procedures, and more before you introduce any new academic concepts.

So if the kids aren’t learning any new concepts what should they be doing? This is prime time to pair with the students!  Review mastered concepts and give students the opportunity to feel success.  This builds a learning history within your classroom that they can be successful so when you do begin teaching new concepts, students have that positive association already in their minds.

7. Create a Break Heavy Schedule 

This isn’t going to come as a surprise to you but these kids are going to struggle to sit and learn. Not because they don’t know how but because for 5 months they didn’t have to sit at a desk for 8 hours a day. Now, I don’t know what your district’s plan is for reopening. I know some districts are strictly stay in 1 classroom, don’t move, stay in place… and others like my own are allowing students to switch classes and go to resource and recess (semi- business as usual). But I do know these kids will need LOTS of breaks. Shoot, I need lots of breaks. I no longer know how to work 8 hour days without taking a walk, getting a coffee, or making an actual breakfast. My first day (week… weeks) back were ROUGH! I am constantly distracted and I need constant movement.  So let’s go ahead and just know that this is what we have to plan for when it comes to our students. 

My advice is small and consistent breaks. First work, Then break. This will look different depending on your class and your students but start small and consistent. Oh we just did a 10 minute lecture. Let’s take a 2 minute stretch break. 15 minute independent work activity, 3 minute brain break. Morning meeting done, 5 minute dance party. 

These kiddos are going to need to move more than ever before so give them the choice proactively! Make movement and breaks a normal part of your day. 

And it’s important to remember these breaks are NOT contingent on the behaviors that came before them. Notice I didn’t say “y’all did such a great job sitting in your chairs, quiet mouths, finished 30 problems, blah, blah blah” I said 10 minute _____, 5 minute break. It is a time system that is just built into your day. It’s an oh the timer went off or the clock says 11:30 so we’re going to dance system.  

8. Create a Year at a Glance Curriculum Guide 

Okay let’s face it… this is one that probably gives us all anxiety and ‘that’s not fair’ feelings.  Most of our general education counterparts are given this by their school district and it’s very rare that we are given our own.  We’re often told to follow theirs or just make our own.  Not fair, I know, but it’s the situation we have.  I operated for 7 WHOLE YEARS without making my own at a glance document.  I used the gen ed scopes to the best of my abilities and it took me forever to plan and figure out where to go next.  Last year I ended up not teaching everything I had wanted to and felt stressed so often because I constantly felt behind.  Mid way through the year, I sat down and bit the bullet to make an at a glance for the remainder of the year.  When I was planning each week, it felt so much easier to figure it out because I already knew what I needed to be planning for.  It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but I promise you, when you sit down to plan your lessons throughout the year, you’ll appreciate that you have it.  

When I sat down to make my at a glance curriculum, the first thing I did was make a list of all the big ideas or big topics we needed to cover (this is where your state standards come into play).  Then I broke down each big idea into all the little things we needed to cover, finding common elements between the multiple grade levels I teach.  In Texas, we use prerequisite skills that align vertically to our general state standards and I have a great tool that one of the region centers put out that helped me.  I made 3 levels within my at a glance to help me with the various academic levels within our classroom.  I also wrote in on my calendar when our assessment window opened.  This was important, because all tested items needed to be covered by then.  Once I had this, I knew how many weeks I had total.  I could look at the calendar and the little pieces of each big idea and figure out how many weeks I would need for each.  Then I could start to plug it all in.  I had to tweak as I went, but now when I start to plan my lessons each week, I know what I should be focusing on.  

9. Prepare Students for Changes and Transitions  

There are sooooo many changes– more changes than I think we even realize. How are you handling the stress of the changes? Not great… cause I’m not. Now think about your students. Think they are handling the changes and transitions well? Maybe. But let’s make sure they do. And the way we do that is to prepare them. Start before they even come to school. Work with the parents to the best of your ability to help transition the kids a little more smoothly back to school. 

Prepare them for what is about to happen. Here is how I am helping my own teachers prepare for the transitions. Send home the following: 

  1. Picture of your with and without your mask 
  2. Picture of your classroom with all the COVID safety things in place 
  3. Video if you can walking through their classrooms 
  4. Create a video model of how arrival and departure will look so the parents can prepare their students and themselves 
  5. Social story and visuals of the day to day COVID and non-COVID related routines. If your kiddos have to wear a mask (some don’t, I know), send a story about wearing a mask to school. If you have specific guidelines for walking in the hallways or resources classes prepare your students for this. 
  6. Create a space for each individual student in your classroom with things they like. I once had a kid who was obsessed with Bob Marley (and boy did I love it) but we created a Jamaican cubicle for him as his safe space. Use their special interests to your advantage by having them create their own space to make the sneeze guards less scary. Set up a zoom meeting or phone call and talk to the student (or parent) to help set this up for an easier transition back to COVID classroom. 

10. Shape Academic Behaviors 

My students left for Spring Break March 6th and we never came back. When they do return to school, it will be September 8th, over 6 months from the day we all left. That’s more than half of a typical school year. We have to be flexible and understand that our students’ stamina will not be the same as when they left. Even a typically developing general education student would likely struggle to maintain the same stamina level for school. 

So what do we do then? We start small and shape academic behaviors. This includes things such as in-seat behaviors, participation, and difficulty level of new content. Like I mentioned earlier, the first days of school are not the days to be introducing new content. Mastered tasks that students can do quickly and feel successful at will be the number one thing you’ll need. As the school days progress, you can add more time, harder content, and reinforce reinforce reinforce. If you start to experience an increase in behaviors, then you’ll know you are going to fast and to slow down again.

The important thing to remember is that you need to go slow so that when your students are ready, they can learn quickly. Behaviors will impede their learning so shaping those academic behaviors will allow you to avoid challenges like that.

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