The Power of First Impressions
August 12, 2019
When Ivan Barclay recalls his first day of fourth grade, there are certain things that stick out in his memory.
There was an ant farm. And a snake aquarium. And of course, his teachers.
“I remember teachers smiling and saying, ‘How are you?’ Or kneeling down and looking me in the eye and asking me my name,” he says. “I felt excited to be at school.”
Those first impressions of school stayed with Ivan, a 2002 Metro Atlanta alum who has spent the last decade as a child therapist at an Atlanta-based practice he co-founded with his wife, called Barclay Light & Wellness.
In addition to working with children and families at his practice, Ivan also partners with a number of low-income Atlanta schools to offer part-time counseling services. He coaches children on behavioral issues and supports teachers with classroom management and literacy. He knows the start of the school year is a time when students are forming a ton of impressions about what it means to be at school.
“Children are excited to matriculate to the next grade,” Ivan says. “It's a sign of maturity. But they want to know what that new grade is like and how they fit in. Are the assignments difficult? Can I relate to this teacher? Do I measure up to my peers?”
Psychologists have found that we form our first impressions of other people in a matter of seconds. Our appearance, the way we dress, and our body language all play a role in forming these first impressions. In fact, children as young as 3 are already forming judgments about a person’s trustworthiness and competence, simply by looking at a person’s face. By the time children start kindergarten, they are well versed in sizing up the adults in the room.
From the moment students first walk into the school building to their first interactions with teachers, principals, and fellow students—it all has an impact on how they perform in school throughout the year and shapes the mindsets they will carry through life.
Starting the Year With Strong Relationships
By the time children enter kindergarten, some may be spending more time during the day with their teachers than with their family. Teachers, therefore, have a big influence on a child’s perception of school. Students are looking for cues from teachers. What does their body language convey? Do they make eye contact? Is this someone who I can relate to and trust?
Building strong relationships with students is a two-way street. That means making time to connect with each student and also opening up and sharing about yourself.
Chiquita Puckett (Metro Atlanta ‘02) has taught at Dobbs Elementary School in Atlanta since 2002 and currently serves as an early intervention teacher. She works with students in grades 3-5 who are behind in reading and math. Carving out time to cultivate relationships with students helps build a strong foundation for when their work gets more rigorous throughout the year.
At the start of the school year, Chiquita meets one-on-one with each of her students to get to know them and understand their needs and interests. This includes everything from learning about their academic interests and areas of growth, what kinds of rewards they find most motivating, their favorite color, and whether they prefer to end the day with a handshake, high-five, or hug.
She also shares personal details about herself that are relatable for her students. She shows students a slideshow with photos of herself when she was their age, along with shots of her family, her dog, and her sorority.
“I think it's important for kids to see you were once their age, too, and you have a mother and father, sisters, and brothers, just like them,” Chiquita says. “Kids sometimes forget that you are a whole person.”
Dealing With First-Day Jitters
These initial interactions with teachers are especially important for younger students, who may be experiencing a school setting for the first time. This is something Sandra Clarke Lynaugh (Las Vegas ‘04) is quite familiar with.
Sandra teaches at Dennis Ortwein Elementary in Las Vegas and is entering her 15th year as a kindergarten teacher. Every year, she helps her young students navigate a huge adjustment in their daily routine.
“Mostly, their first impression is just fear, because everything is so new,” Sandra says.
During the first few weeks of school, Sandra focuses on helping kids understand what it’s like to be in a school environment. One of the things she does right away to help alleviate that fear is to establish her role as the adult in the room who will keep things safe and under control. She does this by acknowledging her students’ emotions, while also balancing compassion with firmness. When students act out, she calmly pulls them aside for a little pep talk.
“I explain to them—I understand your emotion and I respect it,” Sandra says. “But here at school, it causes this impact on everyone else. The kids can see that I care about the student who's distressed but I also care about them.”
Meghan McDoniel (St. Louis ‘10) says this initial fear is “very normal” for kids who are forming their first impressions of school. Meghan is working on her Ph.D. in psychology at Penn State and studies early anxious behaviors in young children, especially as they make the transition from preschool to kindergarten. Meghan says that by modeling socially appropriate ways of dealing with “big feelings,” teachers can help students see school as a safe place to learn and grow, which will set them up for success as they move up a grade level, and into adulthood.
“Kids pick up on a ton of social-emotional learning cues from their teachers,” Meghan says. “A teacher who models vulnerability shows students how to talk about feelings, rather than acting out.”
“When parents come to you and say, 'My kid really loves the school. They feel comfortable here. They’ve already made friends.' That makes me feel we did our job.”
Setting Expectations… And Sticking to Them
Positive first interactions with teachers are the first step in helping kids adjust to their new environment and manage their feelings so that they can learn in class. Setting clear expectations on Day 1 also helps students form an impression that school is a safe, organized place that is setting them up for success.
Chiquita gives a lot of thought to communicating clear rules and procedures for her elementary students. This includes how to turn in work, what to do when you need to go to the restroom, or if your pencil breaks, and everything in between.
“I script them out so I know how I will explain and practice them with the students,” she says.
Chiquita has recently shifted away from using the phrase “class rules” and now refers to them as “class agreements.” Her students are directly involved in coming up with these expectations for what would make a safe and fun learning environment. Chiquita says this shift has helped students feel ownership over their day-to-day life in the classroom.
“We come up with agreements that we all feel would help us achieve the ideal class,” she says.
In addition to setting clear expectations for her kindergarteners, Sandra says continually enforcing them—often over and over again—is also critical during the first days of school. This consistency is the key to helping students see their teacher as someone they can trust.
“A lot of the repetition can be tiresome and tedious, like you’re not explaining yourself well enough,” Sandra says. “But I just project a calm demeanor and remain consistent.”
Clear expectations are as important for high schoolers as they are for younger students.
Jonathan Synold (Las Vegas ‘04) has served as assistant principal and is now principal of Advanced Technologies Academy in Las Vegas. The magnet high school draws students from over 40 middle schools across the Las Vegas valley each year. So everything is new for its students—new neighborhood, new building, new teachers, and new friends.
“It's like college,” Jonathan says. “You might know one or two kids from middle school, but the reality is, you're on your own.”
Making a good first impression on students who are navigating so much change means having the entire school go all-in on setting clear expectations. On the first day of school, students attend an orientation where they learn about the school and meet their teachers. The counseling department ensures that all students receive printed copies of their schedules so they know what their day will look like. Upperclassmen pair up with freshmen to walk them around to each class. Teachers set expectations for their classroom procedures. There’s also an orientation night for parents during the first week.
One month into the school year, Jonathan can tell whether the school’s efforts to make a positive first impression on students is working, when he meets parents at open house night.
“When parents come to you and say, ‘My kid really loves the school. They feel comfortable here. They’ve already made friends.’ That makes me feel we did our job,” Jonathan says.
Helping Students Feel a Sense of Belonging
The first days of school are also an opportunity for students to start forming mindsets about school as a welcoming place.
Because students commute from across the city to attend Advanced Technologies Academy, it’s important for them to see school as a place where they belong, even if they are traveling a long way to get there, Jonathan says. At the beginning of every school year, the school prints out a giant Google map showing points for all of the students’ home addresses. It’s a way to show students that they are all in a similar situation—coming from different places, but part of one community at school.
At Dennis Ortwein Elementary, Sandra starts every school year by printing out photos of each of her kindergarten students. All of the students receive binders with their photos on them, to keep track of their work. She also tapes their photos to the classroom walls and work tables. During the morning song circle, the class will sing songs while she holds up each student’s photo, so students can begin associating names with new faces.
“When they can physically see themselves in this crazy new environment that they're in, it tells them, ‘This is my place. This is where I belong. I see myself here,’" Sandra says.
Students’ first impression of the classroom environment will stick with them in the long run, and ultimately set them up for success later in life, Sandra says. Classroom rituals, the rules, and the decor all go toward building a community where students respect each other and work together, and aren’t afraid to try new things.
“As the year goes on, when things get more difficult socially and academically, they know that we can handle that together, Sandra says. “And I can be the rock for that.”