Starting the New School Year Right: Grabbing Your Students By Their Brains

Starting the New School Year Right: Grabbing Your Students By Their Brains

By LouAnne Johnson

Grab Your Students by Their Brains

You can do much to ensure that your first day goes well, regardless of accidents, delays, and interruptions, by making a student-centered activity the first item on your agenda. Instead of starting with a teacher-centered activity that requires all your students to sit and listen to you, choose an activity that students can continue on their own if you must attend to some administrative detail.  A good opening activity reduces the chances of misbehavior because students will be actively engaged. And if they cooperate the first day, they are far more likely to cooperate in the following days.

You have literally hundreds of options for your opening activity, including:

  • Place name cards or file folders labeled with students’ names on desks before they arrive, along with colored markers or crayons placed randomly on desks. Ask students to find their names, take their seats, and decorate the cards/folders. Sharing markers or crayons will help them bond in a non-threatening way.
  • Design a “bingo” style game where students must find other students in the class to match the squares on the bingo card (who has a puppy? who can tap dance? who likes green jello?).
  • Provide art materials and ask students to create “me” dolls that reflect their personalities (tack the dolls to a wall in your classroom and admire them).
  • Group students into threes or fours and give them an a short, fun project to complete, such as creating a model, completing a jigsaw puzzle, matching pictures with words, putting together silly sentences that have been cut into sections.
  • Place different objects on tables spaced around your classroom (sports equipment, games, books/comics, electronics, etc). Ask students to enter the room, look at the objects and go to stand near the table that holds items that interest them the most. This will help them look at ways they are similar instead of viewing each other as strange and different.
  • Distribute air-filled balloons and see who can keep his/her balloon in the air the longest using just noses or elbows to bump them up when they start to fall.
  • Have students form a circle. Say your own name, and then toss a bean bag across the circle to a student. She says her name and tosses it to another student. Continue until everybody has participated.
  • Teach a Call & Respond that you have pre-posted on the board or on a handout. A good format is the military-style chant where the teacher says “One, two” and students respond “three, four,” followed by something such as “We are here to/learn some more. Five, six/seven, eight. We are awesome/we are great.”

Once students have completed the opening activity and the first-day frenzy has had time to fizzle a bit, it’s time to grab your students by their brains. Certain events disable the brain’s cognitive security system–the brain does a “double take” which leaves it open to suggestion. When something funny or unusual happens, brain activity increases in the amygdala (the brain’s emotion center) and the temporoparietal junction (the novelty detector). For a split-second after something unexpected occurs, cognitive function is disabled, which provides a perfect opportunity for a persuasive person, such as a teacher, to introduce a suggestion. Surprised brains are far more likely, biologically, to follow the suggestion.

For example, students may expect you to go over your rules and discuss the consequences for a variety of misbehaviors. Instead, I entertain them with a slide show or a film excerpt, tempt them with a brain teaser, engage them with a logic puzzle, ask them to draw a picture of a dog that likes to eat poems, challenge them to beat me at a game of Scrabble–the entire class against me. I do anything except what students expect me to do.

What you choose to grab your students’ brains will depend on your subject, your personality and your students. Whatever you choose, tweak the assignment to add an unexpected element. I am not suggesting that we use novelty for novelty’s sake or that our job is to entertain students. But the first days of class are important — just as the first dates in a romantic relationship are important — because they set the tone for the long-term relationship. We use science to our advantage in creating that relationship.

LouAnne Johnson is a former U.S. Navy journalist, Marine Corps officer, high school teacher, and college instructor who speaks all over the country about current educational issues.  She is also the author several books, including The New York Times bestseller Dangerous Minds (originally titled My Posse Don’t Do Homework), Teaching Outside the Box, and The Queen of Education, and soon to be released Kick-Start Your Class. Visit her website at

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