Setting Them Up to Thrive
Danny Stock
Establishing foundational routines can seem like a tedious aspect of back-to-school in the elementary school classroom. It’s certainly not fancy. It’s like air in your tires before a road trip. Or rebar before concrete. It’s “On belay?” before “Climb on!” And it takes up much of the first weeks of Lower School.

There’s nothing freewheeling about intentionality, after all. Still, when it’s done right, when it’s done masterfully, the outcomes—like those for the car, the concrete, and the climb—are faster, higher, and stronger. What we see at the GDS Lower School after our first weeks in session: a trusting classroom community develops faster when expectations, boundaries, and procedures are explicitly and firmly established; students experience higher levels of confidence, achievement, and sense of wellbeing when they know for certain that they belong; and as for stronger—class unity, resilience, individual assertiveness, care for materials, people, and purpose are all strengthened when students recognize their own agency and responsibility in the shared space.

In one PK/K classroom on Tuesday, 18 students practiced moving calmly through their classroom, selecting learning centers, including a dramatic play space, classroom library, and math explorations table. Teachers wove their way among the students, praising the way they walked purposefully and respectfully among their peers. After placing their name tags on the velcro signs in their chosen centers, they settled into their chosen spaces—some cozy between couch pillows with picture books, while others knelt on the rug arranging magnetic tiles between them. There were no arguments or disappointments. Students knew they would need to be patient and flexible, but more importantly, they knew how to be patient and flexible and why that would lead somewhere good because they had helped their teachers demonstrate.

In 2nd grade, students entered their classroom on Wednesday past a collage of welcome cards arranged on the door. Students had produced the cards for each other as part of an ongoing series of empathy-building activities by listening as their partner shared favorite colors or activities. Students then illustrated the places, pets, or purple clouds their partner had named. When students received the cards, they knew that their partner had cared enough to pay attention—as they had to theirs—to make a great, personal welcome card.

Inspired by a lesson from Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation’s Welcoming Schools, a resource to combat bias and bullying behaviors while celebrating family diversity, 3rd grade teacher Jessica Ahn read Daniel Pinkwater’s The Big Orange Splot to her students. The students then created dream houses to help them practice noticing and celebrating differences, and chose to give their class the name “Dream Street.” Later, they read through our school’s “A GDS student will…” statements and considered what kinds of classroom rules might help their class fulfill those expectations. A poster made of their drawings, handwritten rules, the original GDS document, and the signatures of all the students now hangs in the classroom.

Over the first several days of 5th grade, teachers helped students explore the differences between “sympathy” and “empathy.” Among the resources they had prepared with LS counselor Meryl Heyliger, students had the opportunity to explore various quotes by well-known individuals. Later, students wrote their own quotes, which are now displayed on the 5th grade hallway bulletin boards.

Back inside the 2nd grade classrooms, teachers led their students through class discussions of classroom expectations, stemming from their “hopes and dreams” for the year. “We should have flexible hearts and minds,” they said. “We should shake hands after a game and show sports citizenship.” “We should trust ourselves and others.” And they will.

After creating their classroom agreements, establishing routines, fostering empathy—and many more good beginnings in every learning space throughout the Lower School—our youngest students will be better prepared to move through their days with care, respect, and responsibility. Whether tackling complex problems in kindergarten, communicating powerfully in 2nd grade, or building networks through a 5th grade social venture, they will be better prepared to thrive.
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Young students on the ground playing.

5th graders show empathy and sometimes some good silliness.

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