Setting up a classroom for a new school year can be exciting! It’s hard not to get excited at the prospect of a fresh start. But that doesn’t mean you always know what’s best to do. How do you set up the classroom to facilitate a successful year?

In today’s episode, you’ll hear from Alisha Saunders-Wilson, a Teachstone CLASS® Specialist who has experience coaching other teachers in many things, including setting up classrooms. Listen in as she and Kate discuss Classroom Organization, Behavior Management, what materials to put out and when to rotate them, and what to do when materials are sparse.

About Alisha

Alisha has worked in early childhood education for over a decade. She has served in a variety of roles in early care environments including teacher, center director, education coordinator, and curriculum specialist.  

After leaving the classroom, Alisha has continued to pursue her passion of creating accessible, high quality early education experiences for all children. Before coming to Teachstone, she served as a Child Development Specialist and the Infant and Toddler Coordinator at ChildSavers in Richmond, VA. While there she supported Family Day Homes and Early Childhood Education Centers to enhance their quality through several grants including Advancing the Business of Childcare and the Virginia Quality: Birth to Five initiatives. Through these opportunities Alisha has designed and facilitated a variety of trainings on infant and toddler development, mentored teachers, conducted assessments, and provided coaching and support on quality interactions. 

Alisha is currently working towards her endorsement in Infant Mental Health to become a certified Infant Family Specialist. When she is not working, you will find her spending time with her husband, son, and fur baby, Storm. 


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Kate: Hi, everyone. I'm Kate Cline from Teachstone. Welcome to the Teaching with CLASS podcast. Well, it's that time again. We're gearing up for the start of a new school year. It's always such an exciting and busy time.

In my experience, whether you're new to teaching or a seasoned professional, you view setting up your classroom as one of the most important things you do all year. You want a classroom setup that sets everyone up for success. There are so many things to consider in order to do that.

Today, Alisha Saunders Wilson joins me to help us all think through the many start of the school year decisions we're facing. Alisha is a class specialist here at Teachstone.

Before joining Teachstone, Alisha has spent more than a decade serving in a variety of roles in early care environments, including teacher, center director, education coordinator, curriculum specialist, and child development specialist. Alisha is passionate about the importance of creating effective classrooms for children and educators. Let's get started.

Okay, let's dive in. I want to say welcome, Alicia, to the Teaching with CLASS podcast. I'm really excited to have this conversation with you today.

Alisha: Thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here.

Kate: Yeah, it's going to be fun. Let's talk about setting up classrooms for success. Before we go deeper into that subject, I'm really curious about what excites you about a new school year and setting up a classroom. What excites you about that?

Alisha: There's just something very special about bringing in a new group of kids into your space and the energy that that brings behind it. Every classroom is its own little mini community. You're bringing in new personalities and setting up the space to suit all of those new pieces. It's really exciting, and it's kind of like a refresh to start the year.

Every classroom is its own little mini community. 

Kate: You have supported people in setting up classrooms. Tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you came to the early childhood field and what you'd like to do with teachers.

Alisha: I started working in early care right out of college as a part time teacher and worked my way up through the director role and all of the different pieces, but my favorite has always been being the classroom teacher. I eventually became a coach and a mentor to support other teachers who were needing those resources, needing that extra support. It's one of my favorite things to do.

Kate: Awesome. The excitement that you have about the new school year comes from that love of teaching, but also the support for teachers that you've given as a coach and all of these different perspectives that you bring too. Before the students or the young children even get there, what we can do to make sure that we're really setting ourselves up for success. I thought we would take this class-based approach to having this discussion.

Let's start with Classroom Organization. Since we're talking about classroom setup, many teachers start by thinking about like, okay, where am I going to put everything? Where does the shelves go or the desks, or whatever age level they're working in? What kinds of things do you think teachers should keep in mind when we think about Classroom Organization, specifically, maybe Productivity and Behavior Management?

Alisha: I think flow is the first thing that comes into my mind. We want to make sure that children are able to have enough space to work without being interrupted, because somebody has to walk through their center to get to the next space, things like art. Obviously, if you've got a sink or something nearby, you're going to want to put art pretty close to there. But then also thinking about noise level.

If we've got block center, and we've got dramatic play, and there's lots of loud, exciting things happening there, but then we've got the reading right in the middle between those two, it doesn't quite allow the children to really dive into what they're interested in or what they're working on. So thinking about those pieces. We want to separate those quieter spaces to allow those children to really get involved in their work and then have our louder spaces maybe on the other side of the room or have some type of barricade.

The other piece when you think about flow is the movement in the classroom. Are children able to move through the space and have defined spaces, or do we have runways where we can go taken off across the room, and go running that encourages some of those challenging behaviors, and we're looking for more of the walking feet in the classroom? You're going to want to have spaces that encourage that as well.

Kate: Wow. Okay, that gives us a lot to think about in terms of how the classroom setting either makes it easier or more challenging for children to consistently engage in activities in terms of productivity, like you were saying without being interrupted, that they can get to have enough time to do what they want to do, and be able to do it in a clearly defined space. We're not inviting more challenging behaviors, but we're thinking about behavior management from the start.

What are those expectations for classrooms? When you have helped teachers set up classrooms, what are some of the questions that you think teachers should ask themselves around behavior management and how they're going to function within that classroom?

Alisha: That's a great question. For behavior management, I think setting very clear expectations (like you said) is the very first thing. Standing there and asking themselves, what are my expectations of the group? Especially at the beginning of the school year, because we have a new group and they tend to be on the younger end of our age range, they're going to be at a different developmental level than the children we just had move up to the next classroom.


We might have to shift some of our behavior expectations from the beginning to say, okay, well, this is a fresh group, they haven't learned the skills, how am I going to reinforce and support their understanding of what the classroom expectations are?


Kate: When I'm choosing where to put things or what I want to reinforce as, this is how we live in this community together, how I set up the classroom will give me some basis for the rules that I make, those expectations that I want to reinforce. I'm thinking, you're also sort of suggesting around instructional learning formats, like, what materials I choose to put out and how many materials I choose to put out considering my classroom is a different group of people than it was left at the end of last year. What are your thoughts about that in terms of materials and setup like that?


Alisha: I think when you start out this school year, it's great to have open-ended activities, where the children can show you what they're interested in, they can show you where their skill levels are, and that allows for you to focus on their interests, focus on their developmental needs, and build from there.


I think we can also fall into the trap sometimes of putting too many materials out at the start of the year, because we just want to have options available. But if we have more open-ended options, then it allows for us to really focus in and allows for the children who are in a new environment to not be overwhelmed by how much is on the shelves, but really engage with what is available on the shelves.



If we have more open-ended options, then it allows for us to really focus in and allows for the children who are in a new environment to not be overwhelmed..



Kate: Maybe not too much stuff, but enough different variety of things to kind of figure out where children are at and developmentally what they're capable of, what they're interested in, and those kinds of things.


Alisha: Absolutely.


Kate: What if I have an area of my classroom, I've set it up, it's all beautiful, and nobody's going in that area? All the stuff is just gathering dust. What should I do about that as I'm starting the school year?


Alisha: I think the first thing to ask yourself in that situation is not necessarily is it that they're not interested in the materials, but is it that they don't know what to do with the materials. Sometimes we have to show the children how to engage with those materials. What are the possibilities? Especially with open-ended things that are on the shelves, we have to take that time to say, this is a possibility of what you could do with this.


Sometimes that comes at, if you have a group time, you can introduce those materials to the children or you can engage in their play and just kind of go into the center yourself and start engaging with materials. You'd be surprised what can be sparked when the teacher is down there, really engaged with them, showing those possibilities, and what the children can take off with that.


Kate: That really does bring that ILF to life. Instructional learning formats to me really helps us focus as educators. What are our goals and objectives for the children? How will we facilitate these activities to really engage them and not just sit back and like, oh, they'll figure it out, but really be part of the action.


If I'm seeing an area gathering dust, I need to think, maybe if I got in there, it might bring it back to life. But also, I'm thinking about emotional support. If I'm a person kids want to spend time within my classroom, have I built that relationship with them where I will be an interesting person to come spend time with, since those interactions are really that basis for learning?


Let's talk about Emotional Support. How can we set up a classroom to promote Positive Climate, Teacher Sensitivity or aware of children's needs? We want to minimize Negative Climate. What are your thoughts around classroom setup as it relates to Emotional Support?


Alisha: When we think about the climate of the space, we want it to be a space for children to feel comfortable, where they feel they are wanted. We want them to want to be in the space. Things at their eye level, things that they can engage with, things that they can have ownership over within their space, are really important to them.


As far as Teacher Sensitivity, you have got to be aware. When you're setting up your classroom, are you setting it up in a way that you can be aware of what's going on throughout the space no matter where you are, no matter what you're doing, you can see and you can hear, which allows you to pick up on those cues, be responsive, and really build those relationships with those individual children?


When we think about the autonomy that our children are seeking, unless you are in an infant room, you've got children, toddlers, and up that are, "I can do it, me, I want to do it." We want to set up our classrooms to support that autonomy. That really allows for them to get materials themselves. They don't have to ask every time they want to get a puzzle, they can get the puzzle themselves.


That allows for you as the teacher to free up your time from the managerial piece and really engage in that play. You don't have to stop painting over here to go help over here. You can keep painting, because the kids can access those materials independently.


Kate: Wow. I am really seeing how each dimension of the CLASS tool is related to others. When you're talking about engaging with them and being aware of what's going on, that makes me think of Instructional Learning Formats and Behavior Management, where we can monitor well, and we can be part of the action, and not have to get up from what we're doing to go help children. They can be autonomous. All of these dimensions really do work together so nicely, it's pretty cool.


Alisha: They do.


Kate: Classroom setup is really setting the stage for each of those dimensions then to come to life in the classroom. What if I'm seeing or I'm noticing some negative climate happening in terms of children maybe arguing over materials or not comfortable in this space? Like you were saying, it needs to be a comfortable space, where children can feel welcome to be together. But what if I'm noticing quarrels or problems? What kinds of things could I do to help that?


Alisha: I think the first thing is to get to the under root of what's causing that. A lot of times, it might be that there's just not enough of the material that everybody was really interested in. If I only have 10 Legos in the classroom, but I've got 7 children who want to play with those Legos, then I don't have enough Legos. That's going to be something that the children are going to pick up on pretty quickly, and it can lead to those squirrels, it can lead to those disagreements.


Sometimes, that's where that Classroom Organization, knowing how many materials you have and knowing how many children can probably engage with that material at a time. Those are going to support that issue that can arise there.


Also the idea of Negative Climate when we talk about the teacher having to yell. When you're setting the expectations, that's something that if we set expectations, we're using inside voices in the classroom. Or we're using whisper voices when we're doing story time or whatever that piece is, children will know that expectation.


That keeps you from having to yell. It keeps children from wanting to yell because it's a reminder, what kinds of voices do we use inside? Just setting those different expectations for them help to support navigating around potential behavior issues.


Kate: Yeah, classroom set up is not only about where I put things and how many things are on the shelves. You're saying keep track of quiet spaces, noisy spaces, but also, what are my expectations for how we live and exist in this classroom together? I need to keep both of those things in mind as a teacher as I'm thinking about classroom setup. This is very helpful. It's a lot to think about, really.


I'm wondering about teachers that are maybe in classrooms or programs where there aren't a lot of materials. That's just the way some programs exist. They might depend a lot more on donated things, recyclables, or things like that, because teachers don't make millions of dollars every year. They need their money to go to their own bills and existence.


Teachers are so generous. They always want to provide for the children in their classrooms. What are some thoughts you might have about that in programs where fewer resources is the reality? What are some thoughts around classroom setup in that?


Alisha: I can speak to that personal experience. I've worked in two programs. The majority of my career, I worked in programs like that. Really, I had to get over that hump, initially, where you're like, I want the brand new toys, I want the shiny things that the kids are interested in. But what I found was that it was less about the materials and more about what I was doing with the materials that we did have.



What I found was that it was less about the materials and more about what I was doing with the materials that we did have.



Obviously, we had to scrounge. You find things in various places, yard sales, all of these wonderful things. Parents donate things to the program and we always encourage that as well. But it really came down to, what could we do with it? What were the options?


I think if we support the children with finding various things to do with the resources that we have, those resources stay interesting. They keep life because there are so many options. If we get stuck with we can only build a tower with bricks or with blocks, then yeah, we're going to tire of those really quickly. We're going to see some escalation in the negative climate because we're going to get bored. When kids get bored, they tend to start leaning towards those more challenging behaviors.


What else could we build? What else could we do? Shadow tracing with the blocks? Could we measure how many blocks it takes to get from one side of the room to the other side of the room? There are all of these different pieces. It takes the teacher having to maybe step out of your comfort zone of wanting those new things and really exploring the possibilities with what we've got.


Kate: Really like being creative, and it's okay. It's okay to be creative. The other thing that I was thinking about while you were talking was rotating materials. If you have fewer things or even if you have a lot of things, rotation of materials is an important way of approaching development as children grow and their interest level and things. What are your thoughts about that?


Alisha: I think that's part of not putting everything out to begin with, not putting all your cards on the table at the start of the school year. You want to put out some things and reserve some things. You'll notice when children get tired of a material, it's time for a swap. Swap that material out with something else that might regain their interest. But also, if it's something that they really enjoy, but it's been out for three or four months, and they've kind of exhausted their options with it, swap it out for something new.


If you've got a teacher closet within your classroom or if your program has a materials closet that you can swap materials out, go for it, because that also brings life back into the program into the centers. You'll kind of notice when that happens, because let's say maybe it's the science center and it had lots of activity at the start of the school year, but now fewer and fewer kiddos are wanting to go in there, then that might be a great signal to you. Oh, we need to swap those materials out. That's a great option to support bringing life back into that center.


Kate: Every time, children are growing and learning so quickly, even just a matter of weeks. It means they're often in a new developmental place. Some things go on for a few weeks, come back, they might use it in a new way or in a new combination with some other materials and things like that. They're open to always trying new things if we're ready to meet them there.


Let's think about Instructional Support. We don't want to leave that out of the conversation. What about some tips on setting up the classroom to promote like you were talking about, this sort of thinking and problem solving or Language Development? How does classroom setup influence that?


Alisha: When I think about this piece, I think the first thing we have to ask ourselves is, how engaged as teachers are we while the children are doing their activities? If there's a barrier, identifying the barrier and then, what can I do to overcome that barrier? I think for the first piece, most people struggle with getting down to children's levels in this piece because they're smaller than us and sitting on the floor. It can only go for so long.


I've had teachers who have used a traveling chair from space to space, so that they can really sit down comfortably as a teacher and engage in that play. Because if they're more focused on being uncomfortable on the floor, they maybe not going to ask those questions that get a little deeper. That encourages the children to persist a little bit longer. Having that ability to make yourself comfortable while you're going into those spaces helps.


Another piece, I've had teachers who give themselves question starters that they might put up on teacher level in the classroom on the walls that are just open-ended starter questions. What if we did this? What do you think would happen if we tried this instead? Just to help them feel more comfortable so that they're not drawing in a blank space.


Sometimes we get engaged in those activities and we lose our thinking, teacher minds, because we're having so much fun in the play. But we can support play while also supporting education and learning and understanding. Sometimes you need that little sentence starter to prompt you, oh, here's a good question I could ask about this, which I think helps.


Also, when you're talking about all of these different materials in these centers, asking the kids to brainstorm about it. What are you going to do when you get into the block center? What are you going to do with these new connects? What are you going to do with these? Getting them to really think about, what can I do with them? And then asking them another question to support pushing it a little bit further.


If you're going to build a city, is it going to have small buildings and big buildings? Tell me more about that. Pushing them to ask just a few more questions to really flesh out their ideas. Your classroom materials will support that and how you set up the space to have ample space to do that, so that you can get in the center, and support, and engage, and to allow them the space to grow within the center supports as well.


Kate: That is so helpful. There are times when you get down on the floor as a teacher and you think, I'm never going to get back up. I'm stuck on this floor now. Having that traveling chair would be really helpful so I can get up and down easily and move about, and be comfortable to engage with children throughout the classroom as I move around and interact with them. Thank you for those tips. That's awesome.


Let's think about our three big takeaways here if we summed it up into the three big things we want everybody to think about as they're setting up their classroom. It sounded to me like we had this focus on productivity and behavior management, around where you put things, what the rules are. Just thinking about those areas and things like that. And then emotional support. Any last thoughts about autonomy and relationships in the classroom? Anything else about that?


Alisha: I think as far as autonomy goes, allowing children to really own the community of their classroom really helps to make it that safe place that really makes that emotional support piece so much more attainable for us to really connect with the children when they feel like they have ownership in their classroom, too.



I think as far as autonomy goes, allowing children to really own the community of their classroom really helps to make it that safe place...



Kate: That's so critical. In terms of Instructional Support, making sure we're comfortable as the teacher in the environment to be able to think on our feet with a little bit of support or on our seat if we're sitting down at their level with our traveling chair, where we have that environmental support for what things I could ask or how I could engage with children in this classroom. That is very helpful.


I have been asking people on the podcast to share some encouragement with teachers. It's a challenging profession to be in right now. We're so grateful for the dedicated teachers that come back day after day who really give their life and energy towards making classrooms the best place they can be for the children that are there. What encouragement would you offer to classroom teachers right now?


Alisha: I think it's that what you're doing matters in so many different ways. As an adult, I still remember my preschool teachers. I still remember I hold very near and dear to my heart, the preschool that I went to as a child, because so much of who I am is because of those people who were there supporting me and being my teachers.



What you're doing matters in so many different ways.



I think as a teacher, it's challenging right now. You're absolutely right. But when we think about the impact, especially with our earlier children in those early stages, it's just immeasurable. So hang in there. It is a difficult time, but you are literally changing lives every day.


Kate: Awesome. Thank you so much, Alisha. It's been really great talking with you today. Thanks for sharing all your tips and wisdom with us.


Alisha: Thanks for having me, Kate.


Kate: It's so helpful to have a CLASS-focused approach for classroom setup this year. As an educator, if I think about it as setting the stage for each of the class dimensions to come to life in my classroom, I can consider these important things. How will we use this space as children and teachers? And then, what are my expectations for behavior and routines? And how will I teach those expectations?


What materials will help me learn about the children in my class, their interests and abilities? What might I need to do to set myself up for success in supporting engagement, in learning, and building relationships? All right, everybody, it's time to tackle that to-do list. You've got this. Until next time, take care of yourself and your team, because what you do matters.