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Do you remember your first day of kindergarten? Follow this student through his.

Kindergarten teacher explains the secret to the first day of school

A kindergarten teacher at Alhambra Primary School in Illinois explains the strategies she uses to set up a safe learning environment for her new students. The school had its first day of kindergarten on Aug. 16.
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A kindergarten teacher at Alhambra Primary School in Illinois explains the strategies she uses to set up a safe learning environment for her new students. The school had its first day of kindergarten on Aug. 16.

Early in the morning last Thursday, Lucas Hubbard was snuggled up with his iPad, trying to soak in the last minutes of summer vacation with a quick round of Minecraft.

The six-year-old was the first person awake in his house, and as the device lit his face, Lucas prepared himself for what he knew would be a special day — his first day of kindergarten.

His father, Justin Hubbard, found him playing the game and told him it was time for breakfast. Lucas usually wavers between cereal choices, but today was a Fruity Pebbles kind of day.

As the rainbow-colored, crispy rice cereal swirled around in his bowl, Lucas took the first bites of his last meal as a preschooler.

His mother Dawn had laid our his clothes for his first day before leaving to teach at Highland Middle School.

“He was a little nervous getting ready,” Justin Hubbard said.

But how could anyone be nervous when they look as sharp as Lucas? He was ready for action in a gray, pixel basketball shirt, black athletic shorts, Velcro-strapped, blue-gray sneakers and a red Under Armor backpack.

By the time he was ready to go, Lucas’s stomach was grumbling again. So Justin popped some biscuits in the microwave, and rallied his young scholars into the car. First stop — Grantfork Upper Elementary School.

Lucas wasn’t the only one heading to his first day at a new school. His sister, Kallie, was off to fourth grade at Grantfork. The drive gave Lucas time to nibble on his biscuits, while he practiced memorizing his lunch number.

“We went over it probably about 20 times,” Justin said with a chuckle.

As Lucas watched the countryside roll past his window, every minute brought him closer to Alhambra Primary School. But some encouragement from his father helped him shift from nervousness to contained excitement.

The distant sound of bass could be heard inside the cab as the Hubbard’s truck pulled into the parking lot.

When Lucas opened the doors, Suvivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” blasted over the school’s courtyard.

Hand in hand, Lucas set off with his father towards the entrance of the school.

Gravel lightly crunched under his sneakers as his feet brought him closer and closer. With each step Lucas gradually slowed his pace, so he could trail behind his father, using his arm as a shield from the line of teachers waiting before him.

Then Lucas realized something, the teachers were dancing and clapping. A tall woman nearest to him, Cynthia Tolbert, who Lucas would later learn to be his principal, was holding her hand out. It was time for Lucas’s first task as a kindergartener. He darted around his father—still holding his hand—and gave a high five to a smiling Tolbert.

“Welcome to school Lucas. Are you ready for your first day?” She asked.

With a tight-lipped smile, he nodded. Then he rushed through the double doors, into the school.

The high-five is an easy strategy to starting the day off right, according to Tolbert.

“We let them know this is going to be a great year. All students we welcomed on this day were smiling from ear to ear, very excited and loved all the attention they received,” Tolbert said.

Though he shyly passed up the rest of the high fives from the waiting teachers, each of them received a nervous smile and glance from his blue eyes. Ahead of Lucas was a yellow, metal gate stretching halfway across the hall. On it, there was a sign that said, ‘No parents past this point.’

Lucas turned to his dad with a smile, and his father instantly captured him in a large bear hug that lasted ten long seconds.

“I love you buddy,” Justin said.

Departing from his father, Lucas hung a left around the corner and walked toward the gym, which was already bursting with noise.

With wide eyes he took in the site. Some children were nervously gripping their lunch pails with eyes darting about, while others compared backpacks. Old friends reunited, and their was a hum of anticipation as the young students waited for their first and second days of school.

Seeing that he was unsure of what to do, a teacher approached Lucas and asked who his teacher was.

“Mrs. Grigg,” He murmured quietly, barely audible over the excited children.

She guided him to his line and told him to sit at the end. As he made his way to his spot, Lucas eyed a familiar face. He walked past his friend Carson and bopped him on the head. The two classmates shared a smile, and Lucas continued on to the back of the line.

“I met him a long time ago,” Lucas said, referring to the beginning of this year.

Lucas sat, taking in everything around him. His eyes kept traveling up overhead to the basketball hoop hanging over the gym.

Then a bell rang over the ruckus, and the two kindergarten lines slowly followed the example of the older children, who one by one held up peace signs to signal silence.

Mrs. Tolbert stole the room as she welcomed the students back to school. Together, the students recited their morning character building pledge named the Peace Builder Pledge, the kindergarteners absorbed the whole sequence quietly, not knowing what to do. Then, with their right hands over their hearts, the students recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

The next few minutes moved quickly. Lucas’s teacher appeared at the front of the line waiting to teach the first of many lessons of the day.

After assembling the children in a single file line, they set off for the classroom. Resembling a line of baby ducks following their mother, the kindergarteners toddled after Mrs. Grigg, with their large backpacks swaying their stroll.

Setting the stage to learn

This first day of kindergarten is a long one, according to Lucas’s teacher Mrs. Brenda Grigg.

Grigg has taught kindergarten for about 22 years, and the seasoned veteran said the first day of kindergarten is no walk in the park. The student takes in a lot.

From the moment they walk into the school until the moment they walk out, Grigg said kindergarteners are seeing and processing new experiences. In other words, to a kindergartener, a school can be a big scary place, where they do not know where to go or what to do to get what they need. Questions swirl around the students head like where do I go to the bathroom? When do I get to eat? Or will I ever see my mom again?

All of this can be very overstimulating and overwhelming, which is why Grigg said the first day is all about setting up a safe environment to learn.

“The first day is all about rules and procedures and where things go, where you should be to learn and where you are safe,” Grigg said.

In kindergarten at Alhambra Primary School, they take the first day with baby steps. Classes are actually split in half for the first two days. While technically the students don’t officially start their curriculum until the first combined day, which is the following Monday, Grigg said they still hit the ground running on rule day.

“I want a safe learning environment. That is my priority and I’m trying to set the stage for that,” Grigg said.

There is a rule or lesson for just about every tasks. Grigg said the young students need to be walked through just about every task of the day as the enter the new environment.

As soon as they step into the classroom, Grigg got started with the rules. She taught the boys and girls what is called “unpacking,” where they take off and unload their backpacks into their locker, unzip to grab their take-home folder,and place it in a box on the teacher’s table in exchange for their first assignment.

That first lesson was the start of a day filled with controlled chaos.

Lucas, took a beeline straight to his locker. He immediately put up his backup, and unveiled his folder from the zippered compartment. Next, he was off to the teacher’s table. He was just putting his folder in the box when Mrs. Grigg exclaimed “Lucas wait!”

Lucas froze, and confusion crossed his face as he briefly wondered what he was doing wrong.

“Stay right there. You are perfect,” Grigg said.

A bashful smile reappeared on Lucas’s face. As he finished placing his folder in the box, he clutched his hands in front of him to wait for the teacher. Mrs. Grigg gave Lucas a coloring with six large crayons, and directed him to his table. There he sat coloring as the rest of the kindergarteners worked to put their stuff away.

For some it was easy, while other students were a little more distracted. A few students forgot to put their lunch pails away, and had to walk through the process again before they could get to coloring, others were instantly captivated with iPads sitting on a nearby table.

While it took a few minutes, everyone eventually made it to their seats. In those minutes, it was made evident that Grigg has eyes in the back of her head.

“A lot of things don’t throw me for a loop,” Grigg said.

She said it is the little things you have to look out for in the first few days, like the ‘Pop’ of a properly secured marker, uncapped glue sticks or assignments being carried home in the wrong backpacks, because it is the little things that add up to a successful student and a cohesive classroom.

The day would be full of these little lessons. But for the moment, Lucas sat strategically planning his next color. His eyes rarely left the page. As other students began coloring, they peeked hesitantly over their classmates shoulders, just to make sure they were doing it right.

As Lucas was about halfway through his coloring, Mrs. Grigg called on him, and his classmate Cale to complete a special task. Cale was to show Lucas where the office was, so they could take a special message to Linda Hooks, the school’s secretary.

The boys exited into the hallway, and started to bond. Cale said he was excited for lunch.

“I feel like I’m already hungry already,” Lucas said.

“Me too,” Cale agreed.

After dropping off the note, to a very friendly Mrs. Hooks, the boys hurried back to their classroom—walking of course.

Once they were back, Lucas got right back to business. His table partner Cecelia, was almost caught up to his progress. As they continued coloring, it seemed like many students were having a hard time staying in their seats. They wiggled about, yelling things to Mrs. Grigg to get her attention.

Again, Lucas was the first to finish. His coloring showed rainbow-colored crayons, with yellow wrappers. Mrs. Grigg instructed him to flip his page over and draw on the back.

“I’m going to draw a mouse,” Lucas said.

Before anyone else could finish, Mrs. Grigg asked the students to line up at the door. After exiting the room, Mrs. Grigg’s class met Mrs. Grotefendt’s class, the only other kindergarten group. Wondering what they were going to learn next, the two lines moved quietly down the hallway on to their next lesson.

Learning the fun stuff

After a vivid lesson over how to use the bathroom and proper hand washing, the children were told they were going outside.

Eyes widened with the realization of playtime and smiles spread across faces as excited glances spread between the classmates.

To get outside, the two classes had to pass through the exit. Each door had to be held open by at least three kindergarteners, who each had both hands on the door.

Once outside, the students attempted to listen to the next instruction. Mrs. Grigg was explaining what the Safety Zone was, a pathway around the parking lot, marked by a yellow painted line, but this was the first time the students were having real trouble listening.

Across the parking lot stood a large playground complete with a climbing wall, slides, swings, a merry-go-round, jungle gym, and monkey bars. The shining pieces of equipment started to gain the attention of Mrs. Grigg’s audience, student by student.

“I’m losing them,” she said.

The lines of students carefully traveled through the Safety Zone. Every student looked as if they had to resist the nagging urge to bolt away from the group and on to the fun awaiting them.

The students were told that the green line of grass was the threshold that freed them to run. As they reached the field, Mrs. Grigg ran ahead to the playground, as small groups were released to sprint to meet her.

When it was Lucas’s turn, he took off at a dash. As one of the tallest in his class, he easily pulled ahead of his classmates.. A final hop over some tree roots brought him to a halt in front of Mrs. Grigg.

When everyone had made it to the playground, the teachers took volunteers to safely demonstrate how to use each piece of playground equipment. The kindergarteners learned they would get to play on everything, except the dreaded merrygoround, which is forbidden to students until they are in first grade.

Mrs. Grigg started with the swings where she asked “Should I jump from the swing?”

While the majority of the answers were “No,” a few scattered yesses sounded, followed by concealed laughter.

As his classmates demonstrated how to play, Lucas waited patiently for his turn. He watched, attentively perched on the balls of his feet. He soaked in the many rules coming from his teacher. Other students found the urge to play a little too strong, and shot out of line towards the various play areas. But the teachers were quicker, and snagged the students back to their seats.

When it came time to show how to play on the domed jungle gym, Lucas was chosen.

He climbed all the way to the top of the dome, and dropped straight down and immediately climbed out—a perfect demonstration.

For the rest of the examples, the largest set of monkey bars stole Lucas’s attention. His gaze kept wandering back to the structure for the remaining 10 minutes of instruction time. His teacher said that the bars might be too high for their grade level. But he knew he could take them on.

Once the students were finally given the chance to play, Lucas dodged the students as they ran every direction. Some chose the swings, or went straight to the slides. Some students just ran around in a circle, unable to commit to a decision. But, Lucas knew right where he was going.

He climbed the set of metal bars, and stretched to reach the first monkey bar. He held on with both hands and swung his legs to gain momentum to reach for the next bar. He did this over and over again, his body swinging wildly as he hung high off the ground.

“I can feel myself slipping,” He gasped when he was about two-thirds through the bars.

But, he persevered. Breathing hard, Lucas made it to the other side. He was the first kindergartener of the year to make it through the challenge.

“Mrs. Grigg I made it through the monkey bars,” He yelled.

After the short play session, Mrs. Grigg’s class was whisked off to their first session of Physical Education, where the kids ran two grueling laps around the gym with Mrs. Heather Luitjohan. They also learned what exercise meant and shared their favorite physical activity over summer vacation.

When Mrs. Griff reappeared, she stole the students away for a quick tour of the school. The itinerary took the students through the second and third grade wing, where they were treated to a peek at the oldest kids in the school.

The next stop was the school office, where Lucas’ class officially met Mrs. Hooks and the principal Mrs. Tolbert.

During the tour, it was evident that food was on the mind. The students called out many times, asking if they could go to lunch. But unfortunately for them, the last stop on the tour wasn’t the cafeteria, it was back to the classroom. There was still a little bit of time before the children could fill their bellies. So Mrs. Grigg gathered the class on her green, tree-lined learning carpet for a quick story.

Time to eat

The lunch bell finally sounded at 11:30 a.m., so much had already happened in this long first day of kindergarten, and the students were itching for a break.

Kindergarteners who brought their meal grabbed their lunch boxes and eagerly lined up at the door. As for Lucas, he was buying his lunch today.

Mrs. Grigg’s class made the short trip down the hall to a cafeteria that was already exploding with chatter. The kindergarteners were the last ones to make their way into the lunch room. Other students were already digging in to their meals. Mrs. Tolbert stood with a microphone monitoring the loud room, and uttering instructions for the kindergarteners.

Lucas made it to the lunch line. Unlike other students, Lucas grabbed a white, low-fat miniature milk carton over the chocolate milk with little hesitation.

“I only like the way my grandma makes it,” He said in explanation.

Next he grabbed a chicken patty sandwich, while looking shyly at the lunch ladies behind the counter. As he made his way to the healthy snacks, Mrs. Grigg told him he could choose one fruit and one vegetable. He passed up on the fruit, vehemently shaking his head, and grabbed a bag of carrots as he apprehensively stared down the checkout counter.

Now was the moment when his rehearsal with his father paid off. Lucas relayed his lunch number without falter. Pride shone on his face as he savored the tiny victory.

In comparison to the rest of the room, which sang with the loud conversation of primary school students, Mrs. Grigg’s table was fairly quiet as the ravenous kindergarteners devoured their meal.

“It’s good,” Lucas murmured between bites.

However, some students were too distracted by curiosity to eat. Mischievousness played when the teachers weren’t looking. Small bits of food were thrown and silly faces were made across tables. A few brave youngsters even tried to venture out of their seats, only to be ushered back to the table when apprehended by a teacher.

“It’s organized chaos,” Mrs. Tolbert said.

Staring at an empty tray waiting for what came next, Lucas turned to some conversation with his classmate Logan.

“This place is a cold machine in here,” Logan said.

“It turns you into ice,” Lucas agreed.

But then the kids heard what they were waiting for. Time for recess.

The cafeteria fell quiet as tables were dismissed on good behavior. Naturally, the older kids were dismissed first for their exemplary demeanor. Kindergarten headed up the rear.

When he finally got outside, Lucas wasted no time. Remembering the rules, he speed-walked through the Safety Zone and shot towards the playground as soon as he hit the grass.

This was the busiest part of the day. Lucas was everywhere.

First he made a trip back to the monkey bars.

“Oh my gosh I made it two times. I’m only six,” He said after another successful trip.

Next, he sneaked into a small yellow tube. Inside he played gate keeper, stopping the girls playing inside from passing through. Then he was off again, climbing to the highest point on the climbing wall, and jumping from platform to platform on the Wiggly Worm. A quick trip to the swings was followed by a short game of basketball, where he stole the ball from the older boys and went for a shot.

As the final whistle blew, Lucas tried to squeeze in a little bit more play time. He sped off to the slide, and rode it down three times. Before he could be caught, he cheerfully ran to meet his class.

Building the fundamentals

After lunch, the students took on one of their more serious assignments for the day. To complete this task, Mrs. Grigg needed to unveil her magic bag.

Sitting criss-cross-applesauce, the students watched as school supplies were mysteriously pulled from the paper bag. Grigg uses this technique to introduce students to tools they use throughout the school year, such as crayons, markers, scissors, glue and pencils.

As each material was revealed to the class, Mrs. Grigg asked the students to complete a different task relating to the supply. Each task built on the next to form a completed assignment. When the bag was empty, the students had colored three shapes in three different colors, cut them out and pasted them to another sheet with correlating shapes. Finally, the students wrote their name on the assignment.

“I put a 5 there,” Lucas said giggling as he pointed to what was supposed to be the “S’’ in his name.

The assignment seems simple, but Mrs. Grigg said she uses little tasks like these as the building blocks in the foundation to a year of exponential growth. By the end of the school year, Grigg said many of these kids will be educationally unrecognizable.

“You are going from a few kids that have never held a pencil to somebody that is going to have to start writing letters, words and sentences right away,” Grigg said.

By the end of the year, Grigg said students are expected to know how to write simple paragraphs, and learn how to read dozens of sight words.

Grigg said students change socially and emotionally as they gain more confidence in their learning, and self regulation The change can also be seen as students begin to reach out to each other.

For example, during the students’ separate playtime Lucas, and many of the other kids went straight for the iPads. But, as the months in the school year pass, Grigg said students will ditch the iPad and prefer interactive play with each other.

“Their minds open up and it’s just amazing,” Grigg said.

However, in the first few weeks, Grigg said the amount of learning these children go through can be very stressful, especially on an exhausting first day of school.

On this particular day, the waterworks started to flow after lunch.

“You could tell that we were taking the downhill slide,” Grigg said.

A few students broke down, asking for their mothers with tears bubbling down their face, others asked for favorite toys that could not be seen and began to lose focus in their work. Students cried openly and others concealed the emotional breaks by shaking off tears.

“That’s why I end my day with snack and resting because then they know that they can deescalate,” Grigg said.

With about 30 minutes left in the school day, the students sprawled out on towels in assigned resting spots. They had carefully selected books to help pass the excruciating final minutes before the bell.

Lucas burrowed underneath his towel in a secluded corner spot. Snuggled up with a giant Lego book, Lucas’s fidgeting began to slow as he lulled away the last minutes of the school day.

A familiar face

One last time Lucas sat criss-cross applesauce in his final destination. He was staring at the large metal doors of the parent-pickup in the Alhambra Primary School gymnasium.

Parents slowly filed in, and the students scanned the group of strangers for a familiar face.

When their guardian finally appeared, faces would light up—some in disbelief. Siblings yelled “Mom is here,” while other students rushed in wordless joy for a reunion hug, squeezing tightly and refusing to let go until they were out the door.

Lucas watched all of this with his elbows on his knees, resting his head in his hands. The students sitting all around him were slowly disappearing.

Lucas’ mother teaches at Highland Middle School and has to pick up his sister prior to coming for Lucas. He was the last one in the pickup lane, when she walked through the door.

“Mom,” he said jumping to his feet.

Lucas took a short hug before looking up and saying “You’re late,” in pretend anger. It was the smile turning up the corners of his mouth that gave him away.

He walked out of the brightly lit doorway and into the afternoon. As he crossed the threshold, his first day of kindergarten was officially at a close. His mind brimmed with all of his countless new experiences, but he could wrap the day up in just one word.

“How was your first day of school,” his mom asked.

“Good,” he said smiling.