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The first day of school is my favorite day of the year. However, I understand that firsts are uncomfortable for many others, and few firsts are as nerve wracking as the first day of school. Whether you are a caregiver preparing a child or an educator preparing a learning environment, there are so many different considerations. Academic pressures aside, classrooms are places where names can be butchered, feelings can be damaged, fitting in can seem like a challenge, and differences might be viewed as issues instead of causes for celebration. A good educator will spend the first weeks building community and helping students share their authentic selves with their classmates. Caregivers can also set their children up for success.
I have children who feel big feelings and struggle with anxiety, and at our house, first day of school prep includes an early return to the school night routine. This is one less thing to struggle with as we return to early wake ups and adjust to new teachers and classes. Leading up to school and for the first few weeks, we also place an extra focus on asking each other the high and low of our day. It can feel corny, but it keeps a flow of conversation going and it is much harder to dismiss than the similar “how was your day?” These simple steps help connect us and alert me quickly when problems arise. Issues will ebb and flow in any school year, but a strong transition from summer to school fortifies all of us.
As you might have guessed, another one of my strategies is to fiercely guard our time for reading together. If you or someone you love is nervous about any aspect of the school year, there is likely a picture book for that. Books about the school experience have blossomed over the past few years, going from a general overview of a school day to a vary array of titles that hone in on specific experiences and situations.
The Queen of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes, Vanessa Brantley-Newton
I’m overjoyed at this companion to the wildly popular The King of Kindergarten. MJ is overflowing with confidence and excitement going into her first day of school, knowing what greatness she brings to her classroom and her new friends. A perfect read-aloud to remind new students that they are royally ready to shine in kindergarten!
KINDergarten: Where Kindness Matters Every Day by Vera Ahiyya, Joey Chou
Ahiyya, known for her love of children’s books and expertise as a kindergarten teacher, has blended these talents to bring us a title to help introduce social expectations on the first day of school or any time throughout the year. Leo is worried when his teacher asks them to think of something to add to their kindness pledge, but after one day with his classmates, he learned he really does know about kindness, after all.
Our Class is a Family by Shannon Olsen, Sandie Sonke
While I hesitate to compare my colleagues and administration to family (teaching is my career and not at all something I commit to from a motherly heart or sisterly obligation), it is true that students and their teachers spend more waking hours together than the people they live with. Knowing this makes a classroom family mindset important. In some cases, school is the one place where students feel safest. In others, school is the place where they encounter their greatest struggles. In any case, having a trusted support system and unconditional love is beyond necessary. This book reminds students that family is more than who you are related to, and that they are loved at school.
The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson, Rafael López
Students feel so many different ways on the first day of school, and this lovely book is a reminder to educators that their new charges are tackling so much more than books and classes when they return from summer break. On the first day, differences may feel stark, but as students are given the chance to introduce themselves to the community, common ground can be found and celebrated, even if it feels lonely on the day you begin.
The Blur by Minh Lê, Dan Santat
Keep tissues nearby, adults. This one will get you in the feels. Our main character is super in many ways, but the most amazing thing is the way she speeds through the years, her parents barely able to keep up as she bounds from the first day of school to her high school graduation. The book embodiment of “the days are long but the years are short,” The Blur celebrates the sensory explosion of childhood while gently mourning that it goes so fast.
Our Favorite Day of the Year by A. E. Ali, Rahele Jomepour Bell
I adore this book for so many reasons. It’s perfect for the first day of school, community building, and highlighting celebrations of all kinds. Musa and his friends can’t believe it when their new teacher says the first day of school is her favorite day of the year. It’s so nerve wracking to meet new people! Over the months, different students share their favorite special days with the class, teaching and uniting the students into the best of friends.
Your Name Is a Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, Luisa Uribe
There is no overstating the importance of correctly pronouncing a child’s name. This book celebrating non-Anglo names is not only gorgeous, it’s the perfect opening for educators to ask for feedback about correct pronunciation. The illustrations are stunning, and the message is equally profound. Don’t leave it up to kids to correct you, and don’t slack on learning these musical names.
I Promise by LeBron James, Niña Mata
This is the book I always use when tackling the “rules” discussion. A classroom community is built together, and so we discuss what would help us succeed and build our own class promise that includes safety and respect for each other. James’s book is a beautifully illustrated list of promises that people can make to their community and themselves to show up at their very best. The fact that it’s penned by a super famous NBA star is another way to draw in kiddos and build excitement as we build our classroom family.
All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold, Suzanne Kaufman
This book does what it says. Bright illustrations and simple rhyming text introduce a thriving community where students from different backgrounds and family structures live and learn together. I love to use this book as an open ended I Spy activity — there is so much to explore in the illustrations. Ask students what they notice and take it from there!
The Boy with Big, Big Feelings by Britney Winn Lee, Jacob Souva
Big, big feelings are where most of my time is spent as an educator. In a post-school-shutdown world, it is more crucial than ever that educators recognize and explicitly instruct about overwhelming feelings without shame or frustration. In this book, feelings are linked to the way they are felt in the body, strategies are shared to regulate emotions, and overall, recognizing emotions is celebrated.
Hopefully you’ve found a book or two that will help to soothe and celebrate any first day of school emotions that spring up. If you’re looking for more, check out this list of back to school picture books. Happy reading, and have a great school year!