Build Community Faster With These 5 First Week Activities

Family Tree
Welcome back and welcome new readers!
We all (kind of) know how important relationships and community building are to our classrooms, teams, and buildings. We know strong relationships help students and faculty feel safer and more included – and are a vital part of culturally responsive teaching and trauma informed practices.

But how important is upfront community building, really?

According to Kit Miller of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, some schools in Rochester, NY put it to the test.

Contact without connection breeds hate.png

In a pilot last year, some teachers spent their ENTIRE FIRST WEEK OF SCHOOL DOING ONLY COMMUNITY BUILDING ACTIVITIES. No curriculum. No academic content. Just relationship building, classroom norms, getting to know each other, and building trust.

The outcome? By November these classrooms were caught up with their non-participating colleagues. By December, the restorative classrooms were ahead. 

I bet that took some faith and courage to do, as August, September, and October came and went and it LOOKED like they were “behind’ on the curriculum.

However, those who practice relationship building in their teams and classrooms are probably not surprised. We now know that people in organizations that feel connected and interdependent learn faster, are more creative, more productive, feel more included, connect better across differences, experience less time on conflict, and get through their conflicts more constructively and effectively.

All Rochester schools have now committed to spending the first week of school building relationships and investing in their school communities.


Below are five activities you can do in your first week (or two) of class to begin building a positive classroom environment.

There are FOUR MORE below that for those who want choice or want to keep it rolling.

Name Game

Day 1: Play a Name Game


As Kit Miller says “Contact without connection breeds hate.” A classroom has a lot of potential for contact without connection!

It turns out students take longer to learn each other’s names than we think – and knowing a bit about each other is the first step in creating that connection.


Always think about the vulnerability level of a question when doing ice-breakers and community building circles. Getting too vulnerable too soon may open some kids up for ridicule and teasing before they have a chance to bond with each other.

For instance, I might leave a “deeper” name game like “What does your name mean to you or your family?” for October.

For the first day of class, I might play a simple (and positive) name game such as “Say your first name and one thing you like that begins with the same letter.”


Ask students to sit where they can see everyone’s faces. Give everyone a couple of minutes to come up with their answer first – so they are able to listen to each other. Then go around, one at a time, starting with yourself.

Example: “I’m Miss Elaine and I like Empathy.” “I am Cherise and I like Cats.” “I am Phil and I like Playing soccer.”

Then, be the vulnerable one and go first – trying to remember everyone’s names and what they like – in order. Laughter and ease will spread through the room as you make mistakes. After that, have other students try it until there is comfort with everyone’s names in the group.

Family Tree

Day 2: Classroom Values


Lots of research on motivation and change has shown that underlying values are more effective at creating change and increasing positive interactions than rules or guidelines. For instance, people are more likely to quit smoking or keep jogging in order to stay alive for their grandchildren (or to help their dog lose weight) than because they are shamed into it or afraid to get in trouble.

Classroom values can also be used all semester long when people are struggling. It’s powerful to point to a value hanging on our wall and remind students what our community created at the start, rather than talking about a handbook or school rule.


For adults or older students, hand out paper plates or other shapes (fish, leaves) and ask them to finish the sentence “I want to be in a classroom where…” or ‘I want to be on a staff team where…” or “I love learning in a classroom where…”

For those who cannot write, use a marker board to generate a list and create the plates or leaves yourself.

Hang the words around the space you are in. Use the values to give appreciations and reminders throughout the semester. Add to them as needed!


This is also great exercise to do with staff teams or in your family. The tree pictured above is one that we created with our kids a few years back (it’s actually time to update it!). The top says “We want to live in a family where…” and the leaves are contributions from everyone in our family.

Would You RatherDay 3: “Would You Rather”

I love using this activity with adult and young people. It can be adjusted to be emotionally safe, pretty deep, or on academic or relevant topics.It allows introverts to show how they feel without having to speak – while allowing the more outgoing people to talk about their choices.

As a facilitator or teacher, I always learn a lot about the group and myself when I do this exercise.


Begin with these questions and add your own.

Clear a passageway in the space for people to stand. Make the first choice in every pair a specific point in the space (e.g., window) and the second choice in every pair the opposite point in the space (e.g., bookshelf).

Start with a few easy warm up questions. Then go on to some deeper ones if you think your group is ready. End with some pointed ones about learning styles or academics.

Let people know they can stand anywhere between the two points to show how they feel. After each question, ask a few people from each cluster to volunteer why they are there. Then go on to another question. Model being non-judgmental and curious. Ask people what they notice about the way the group is lined up and help amplify learning and connection (e.g., “That’s right. We got a LOT of night people here but it’s a morning class. We will need to be patient with each other!” or “Look how diverse our learning styles are! We will need to help each other learn.”

This activity is a great one to keep in your pocket for those unruly or gloomy days. You can always throw in academic questions along with the fun ones.

Community Building CirclesDay 4 and 5:
Community Building Circles

For day 4, choose three or four questions from this tried and tested list of 42 Youth Led Circle Questions from Restorative Rochester and circle up!

Aim for an opening and closing question, with one or two in between.

On day 5, let a student (or two) lead a circle with 3-4 questions they choose. Consider doing a youth led circle such as this one every Friday, even if it is one question per week.


1. Two Facts and a Myth (more culturally sensitive for kids where “lying” is not ok)
  • Can make great variation as academic game about math, science, geography, history, etc.
2. Blobs and Lines (a variation on Would You Rather described by Jennifer Gonzalez)3. Commonalities and Uniquities (great team building game)

4. Never Have I Ever  (to build community reverse the game to show SIMILARITIES between people by having them step forward if they have ever… been to Chicago, killed an insect, helped out a friend, gotten brain freeze, etc.)

HAVE A FAVORITE ICE BREAKER THAT WORKS WELL WITH KIDS? Tell me about it and I will feature it in future Restorative News and Tips.

Community Building circle at READY.jpg

Community building circle at READY Alternative Program in Champaign, IL

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