Building Engagement with Distance Learning

DL #19: The First Days of School


Deborah Taub, Ph.D.

Elizabeth Reyes, Ph.D.

Jessica Bowman, Ph.D.

Preparing for the 2020-21 school year is a perfect contradiction: both the same and different from past years. The structures and practices teachers have always used to start the school year are just as important as ever. At the same time, the processes and flexibility needed may feel very different than in past years. Similar to one of the 5C Process principles, the need to create classroom norms and rules, build relationships, and develop routines remains the same even if the learning environment changes. After checking out ideas and strategies to help before school begins, look here for some ideas, tools, and scripts to help get your inclusive classroom started on the first few days of school. 

First Days of School Checklist

  • Setting class norms
    • Involving students who use Augmentive and Alternative Communication (AAC)
  • Supporting student relationships
    • Ideas for initial student relationship-building
    • Ideas for ongoing relationship-building
  • Basic guidance on accessibility 

Teachers help set themselves, other educators, and families for success by beginning with an outlined plan for the first days of school. These steps also reduce anxiety because everyone feels like the “ground has firmed up” to some degree when there is a plan in place.  

The First Day of School

Setting Class Norms

Consider building whole class norms that allow for continuity between online and in-person delivery. For instance, The Center for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) has a resource on Creating a PBIS Behavior Teaching Matrix for Remote Instruction that focuses on “safety, respect, and responsibility” These three big ideas could easily be the framework for both online and in-person delivery with specific differences explained. Here is an example of how to pivot norms across learning delivery

How to Involve Students Who Use or Are Learning AAC
  • Consider sharing a picture, video, or describing a situation while you are making class norms. For instance, “Jose and Maddie both want to talk to the teacher. The teacher can’t hear them both at the same time. What should our class rule be when two people want to talk at the same time?”
  • Make sure students who use AAC have some key core and fringe words available to them. Check out Project Core for some ideas.
    • Core words such as “help”, “good”, “play”, “stop”, “I”, “you”, “want” can be used to create class norms such as “play good”, “I help you. You help I”.
    • “Good” can be used to vote for a norm. “Stop” can be used to vote against a norm.
    • Collaborate with a speech-language pathologist and the family to identify and add new words.
  • Have class Core Boards posted for everyone to use (on the classroom wall, on each student’s desk, shared on the screen during online meetings, sent home for every student so they can all model using it during class, etc.). 

More examples and ideas can be found in the TIES Resources such as Distance Learning and Communication Systems and TIP 4 Successfully Using Communication Practices in the Inclusive Class

Supporting Student Relationships

Building and supporting student to student relationships is something that is valuable and a core ingredient of effective classrooms, both when students are in the same space and when they are not physically with one another.

Ideas for initial student relationship-building

When students are not in classrooms, building relationships takes even more intentional planning. Having one-time and ongoing activities planned for students to get to know each other is essential. Here are some possible ideas:

Use the Identity Map activity you sent out prior to school and have students delve deeper into each other’s maps. Students can find someone who has something in common with themself and/or ask follow up questions. Use breakout rooms and/or small groups to let students interact with one another around a topic, task or theme (for example, interviewing each other, sharing something they did over the summer, favorite hat day, pajama party with snacks and pillows, create a group with a name or mascot ). Use one of many icebreaker activities . Teach all students about any AAC systems in use in your classroom as well as how to communicate with it so they can model. (Peer modeling is a research-based strategy for increasing the use of AAC devices.) TIES TIP 5: Connecting Core Words, Aided Language Modeling and Literacy is a good resource to check out on this topic. Create a class discussion board, padlet, etc. on which students can share their hobbies, cool videos, etc. (We strongly suggest that all submissions must be approved by an adult from the school, such as the teacher, aide, etc.). Make sure students know how to contact each other using the learning management system or school platform. 

Ideas for ongoing relationship-building

  • Use breakout rooms and/or small groups to let students interact with one another around a topic or task (for example, a collaborative social studies or English project).
  • Take your class on virtual field trips and allow them opportunities to interact over chat or audio.
  • Hold an optional virtual lunch bunch or virtual game time for students to join.
  • Include partner and teamwork as a part of regular class times.
  • Continue to model AAC use and have students continue to do so, too.
  • Use morning meetings and check-ins to connect students. TIES DL 1 Morning Meetings is a good resource.

Basic guidance on accessibility 

By making a plan to ensure that classroom materials, activities, and instruction are easily accessible to all students and families, teachers ensure that the benefits of their hard work and planning are available to all. 

  • Share all documents in multiple ways
    • Send in an email with a materials list for the day
    • Share in the chat
    • Create a shared folder
    • Activity in a bag with explicit instructions and all materials
    • Mail directions as part of a weekly or monthly packet
  • Use high contrast colors
  • Be aware of colors that are difficult for people who are color blind
  • Use large font for presentations (minimum of 20 point font)
  • Describe all pictures and visuals you share on a screen
  • Use resources that allow text-to-speech
  • Use active language such as “he threw the ball” rather than “the ball was thrown by him”
  • Provide glossaries, dictionaries, picture dictionaries, and translators
  • Use wait time
  • Ensure all families have the needed materials
  • Work with families and occupational therapists/physical therapists to make sure students can physically access materials

You may also want to check out the DL #12 Promoting Engagement for Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities on Group Learning Platforms resource for other accessibility ideas.


The beginning of a school year is often exciting and can be a bit nerve-wracking. There are many things you can do to set the stage for a strong school year whether you are in-person, online, hybrid, or another form of distance learning. 

We look forward to hearing your stories about the first days of school. 

Disclaimer: The information in this Brief is not an endorsement of any identified products. Products identified in this Brief are shared solely as examples to help communicate information about ways to reach the desired goals for students.

Distance Learning Series: DL #19, August, 2020

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Taub, D., Reyes, E., & Bowman, J. (2020). The first days of school (DL #19). TIES Center.

TIES Center is supported through a cooperative agreement between the University of Minnesota and the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education (# H326Y170004). The Center is affiliated with the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) which is affiliated with the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) at the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. The contents of this report were developed under the Cooperative Agreement from the U.S. Department of Education, but do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) leads the TIES Center partnership.  Collaborating partners are: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North-Carolina–Charlotte, and the University of North Carolina–Greensboro.

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