Will I know what to do?
Will I have friends and feel comfortable?
The new school year is starting and your students are all undoubtedly asking themselves these questions. You, their teacher, probably have many detailed plans to make sure that the answer is YES for every child. Non-educators might be surprised that the first few weeks of school are not about jumping right into the curriculum. We go slowly at first, so we can learn faster later. We know that we need to build a community of learners, who know each other and watch out for each other. We know that we need our students to understand the routines and expectations of our classroom. Everyone needs to know what to do and everyone needs to have a friend and feel comfortable.
But what’s the best way to do this? In this post, we want to talk about some common start-of-year activities that teachers use to help students get to know each other and the routines and expectations for their classroom. Guess which ones are stress landmines for introverts! Guess which ones bore extroverts to the point of meltdown?
From the Introvert: Susan’s Perspective
If you guessed that ice-breaker activities stress out introverts, I can tell you from personal experience that you are right. I just attended a few faculty welcome back meetings. In one meeting, we had to stand up with hands on our heads and make loud, strange noises as we exhaled and squeezed our arms together. I believed our leader about the scientific benefit of loosening up our muscles and vocal chords, but I was in the front row and wanted to crawl under my chair. I’m sure I could think of 26 years’ worth of adult ice-breaker activities that did not break my ice! But it always seemed to me that everyone else was having a great time.
Turns out, I bet quite a few of my colleagues were feeling as uncomfortable as I was. Activities that are meant to relax and open us up make some of us want to close down. Scientists who study introversion and extroversion say that there are chemical reasons for this. One explanation has to do with dopamine activity. Dopamine is a brain chemical that is associated with pleasure from anticipated rewards. Scientists have hypothesized that extroverts have more dopamine receptors than introverts do — so extroverts need more external stimulation to trigger the feelings of pleasure.Extroverts gain pleasure from lots of social interaction. Introverts are more sensitive to external stimulation and too much feels uncomfortable, rather than pleasurable.
Many children’s first days in school are dotted with these same types of externally-stimulating activities. Let me just list a few common ones that I see:
- Greetings where the class stands in a circle and each child takes a turn in the middle, doing a special dance move, as the class sings and greets them.
- Activities where everyone has to walk around interviewing as many kids as possible, looking for kids who give certain answers
- Class chants where one person gets picked to show their dance moves and then they get to pick the next person to boogie down
I’m not saying that these aren’t fun and totally appropriate. And I believe that introverts need to stretch themselves and learn to be more comfortable in front of others. Loosen up, already! But I also think that maybe a better balance of types of activities might help maintain the energy levels of both our intros and our extros.
Here are a few alternative ways to melt the ice, rather than break it, at the beginning of the year.
- People Sorting: Physically sort the group into different sides or corners of the room. Children walk to the side where they belong. (those who love Harry Potter vs. those who don’t; those whose favorite special is art / music / gym; those who prefer paper books vs. those who like e-books, etc…)
- What’s the same / what’s different?: Put children in small groups. Have them figure out one thing they all have in common and one thing that is different about each of them. Share out, allowing the group to decide who will be their spokesperson.
- Written introductions: Post several questions on large sheets of paper around the room. Ask questions such as: what’s your favorite school activity, name a book you like and why; what’s your favorite animal. Students walk around silently writing their answers all over the sheets of paper, sign their names, then walk around and read everyone’s answers. Then discuss, what surprised us? What did we notice?
- Speaking of written introductions, I can’t express how much I love this opening activity from Brian Kissel. I happened to read his blog post today and the introvert in me cheered. Read his post about using maps (similar to Georgia Heard’s Heart Maps) to spark writing and sharing as an introduction activity. Here’s Brian Kissel’s Blog. (Bonus: He recommended a picture book that I immediately ordered on Amazon!)
- And when you are using the Boogie Down greetings, maybe have duos go to the center together, to allow the introverts to share that spotlight. Sharing the spotlight is always easier that having it to themselves for our introvert friends.
Just becoming aware that certain activities are depleting some students of their energy and motivation is the best first step teachers can take. If you plan an active social activity, follow it up with a quiet, reflective activity. Allow some recharging to happen. Your introverts may end the day a little less worn out! (And if you’re an introverted teacher, you may end the day with more energy as well!)
From the Extrovert: Johnny’s Perspective
The beginning of the school year for an extrovert can be super exciting but also quite boring. There are many things to be accomplished those first few weeks. The teacher needs to explain and set rules/expectations, there needs to be some exploration of where to find and how to use materials in the classroom (markers, crayons, glue, scissors etc.) and just learning the day-to-day routines. This can be very teacher directed and frankly boring for an extroverted student. I can remember thinking “I’ve used these things, get on with it!” or “Just tell me and let me play already!” I am sure there are many of you out there that would agree with me. For those students who are itching to touch all the materials and use every single marker just to make sure it works- why not allow them? What is wrong with giving the freedom to show what they know? I would have loved the opportunity for my teacher to hand me coloring materials and say “go!” without a big explanation about how it needs to be used the “3rd grade way”. It’s a marker… put it to paper… pretty simple right?
There are programs out there that urge the teacher to spend a lot of time practicing over and over again how to use these materials but also how to walk in line, how to sit, and how to raise a hand to speak. While I practiced all of these as a teacher, I must have forgotten how horribly boring and difficult that was as a student. Why did I have to learn how to walk in the hall again in 4th grade? The hallway didn’t change, it was in the same spot just a few yards farther down the hallway than before. I wonder now, what it would be like had my teacher not spent that time. These are things to think about and wonder along with me. What can we do to help our extroverted students not to feel bored? As I myself am still exploring this topic I wonder if we give them the amount of stimulation they need to be successful without disrupting the world, what then? I wonder, what would this look like? Where is that line that I image (like most lines) is fine?
There is also the excitement of getting to know new people and learning about a whole new set of classmates. For me this was (and still is) the most exciting part of change. Think of it, a room of 20ish brand new kids that I could learn what makes them tick! And several of them might like the same things that I do! I couldn’t wait to jump into conversation and find out if they liked. This fit my agenda perfectly as a kid, but teachers didn’t see it that way. I was getting in trouble left and right for talking so much through most of my school years. However, getting in trouble all the time took it’s toll, and by high school, I became a very quiet student in class but loud when I was allowed to be. Chorus class, gym, lunch, and after school were my times to shine. I didn’t have to sit and be silently working. I was able to shine for my talents, and work with others. I am not saying that teachers should allow students to talk all day long- that could end badly- what I am saying is that it would be nice, and helpful, to allow times for extroverted students to meet with one another and discuss what is going on in the lesson. This would allow students, like me, to not have a complete meltdown by the end of the day and talk their mother’s ear off when they get home.
So I want to leave you with a few suggestions that might spark your interest as we start back to school.
- Allow your students to have some ownership of these first few days. Let them make decisions and choices, it’s not all about the teacher (though some of us love the stage!)
- Allow a time and place for students to “escape” and discuss what is happening while setting up routines.
- Allow them to give you feedback, and genuinely accept their feedback. A happy classroom is a classroom that will function as a whole.
- Allow students to explore the materials in your classroom and give suggestions on how they can use them, where they can be placed, and maybe how to take care of them. After all, it’s their classroom as well.
As you being your new school year, think of incorporating some of these suggestions to help lessen stressors for your introverts and extroverts. Everybody falls somewhere on the continuum, and limiting controllable stressors is a sure fire way to keep a happy classroom.