Why teachers should give pupils a warm welcome

Enthusiastic and elaborate ways of greeting students at the classroom door are constant viral hits, but do they actually make any difference to what goes on in the classroom? Chris Parr finds that a word at the door is more powerful than you might think
27th November 2020, 12:00am
Why Teachers Should Give Pupils A Warm Welcome
Chris Parr


Why teachers should give pupils a warm welcome


TikTok users love a video showing greetings at the classroom door. You get thousands of likes and comments for videos of teachers high-fiving students, shaking hands with students, doing individual short routines with students, even dancing with students.

It's nothing new, of course: such videos existed on other platforms long before TikTok rose to social media royalty. One viral video, of US primary teacher Jerusha Willenborg, who memorised an individual handshake for each and every one of her pupils as they came through her door, has now been viewed more than 9 million times on YouTube (see bit.ly/WillenborgShake).

In another video, South African primary teacher Zuleka Smit offered her five- and six-year-old pupils a menu of possible greetings - including a high-five, a fist bump or a hug. It has attracted thousands of reactions and hundreds of comments (see bit.ly/SmitGreeting).

How do other teachers see this viral phenomenon? Many embrace it and adopt the strategies themselves. They see it as a key cog in the machine of building relationships with pupils and showing your respect for them.

Others, however, are less keen. For them, these routines are, at best, a pointless distraction and, at worst, a heinous robbery of potential learning time.

Is there any actual research to suggest who is right?

Well, in its 2019 publication, Improving Behaviour in Schools, the Education Endowment Foundation stated that greeting students positively at the classroom door "can help teachers to positively and personally connect with each student…and deliver behaviour-specific praise".

Misbehaviour often occurs in schools around the start and end of lessons and when moving around the school building," the research states. "By intentionally promoting and practising successful transitions into the classroom, teachers are empowered to help their students to be ready to learn."

This report was based on the findings of a 2018 research paper co-authored by Clay Cook, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota. His work suggested that a door greeting strategy "produced significant improvements in academic engaged time and reductions in disruptive behaviour".

In addition, teachers found the approach "feasible, reasonable, and acceptable".

So there do seem to be potential benefits from a relatively easy-to-implement intervention at the door - although, it is not quite as simple as you might think.

"There is more to the strategy than standing at the door to say hello," says Cook.

What does "more" mean, exactly?

"It is about connection, pre-correction and restoration," explains Cook. "Standing at the door provides the opportunity to connect with kids relationally and to get on the front end of things by providing reminders of expectations as students transition into the environment - and restore any relationships with students who the teacher may have had a negative interaction with the previous day."

The combination of these strategies is what Cook believes can lead to increases in student academic engagement and "positive perceptions" of the school environment, ultimately reducing those behaviours that can interfere with learning.

But not everyone thinks that the greeting has to be quite so complex. Allan Allday, an associate professor in the Department of Early Childhood, Special Education and Counsellor Education at the University of Kentucky, has also conducted research into how greeting pupils at the door impacts on their classroom work.

His work with middle- and high-school students in South Carolina sought to determine how teacher greetings affected the "on-task behaviour" of learners who exhibited problematic behaviour. The study found that personal greetings - simply saying hello to students by name as they came into the class - resulted in an increase in students' on-task behaviour at the start of class by more than 25 per cent.

The reason why it works - even among postgraduate students, apparently - is "because it begins the day with a positive interaction", Allday says.

While greeting by name is commonplace at elementary school level, it happens less and less as children get older, Allday explains - which is why he focused on older students.

"I'll always remember one pupil, on the first day that we did the intervention," Allday explains. "He came in - let's say his name was Chris - and the teacher said, 'Hi Chris, I'm glad to see you today.'

"He had this [surprised] look on his face for about an hour. He went, and he sat down at his desk, and he kept that look on his face - as if he couldn't understand what just happened. And then he picked his pencil up."

Allday says he does not want to overstate the impact of a simple greeting by name, but that his experience suggests that it is a simple, low-cost technique that he believes can have very positive results.

"We like to overcomplicate everything in education, but you don't need any training to do this. You can just start right away - and you don't necessarily need to do it for every child. You need especially to do it for the children who engage in a lot of problem behaviours in class - those will be the ones to start with," he says.

So greetings are definitely good, but there is some disagreement over how complex they should be. What of those viral videos? Is there anything to suggest that a more elaborate approach to classroom greetings is any more effective when it comes to improving behaviour and engagement?

Cook says that there is "limited to no research" to demonstrate that saying a polite hello is inferior - or better - than a more enthusiastic form of greeting.

"That being said, we do know that the ultimate goal of the 'greeting'…is to cause students to feel like they belong and are a valued, respected and wanted member of the classroom," he adds.

"We also know that the greeting interaction needs to be authentically experienced, developmentally appropriate and culturally responsive, which means teachers use their creativity and autonomy to bring to life those interactions in ways that students authentically experience, and they feel like the teacher values them and wants them in their class."

Enthusiasm, humour and creative individualised greetings for each student are all "potential ways to grab student attention and bring them into a relationship with their teacher to get class off to a strong start", Cook adds.

In short, the elaborate routines are fine, but only if they fit your context - simply copying the latest 7 million-views viral video is not a free ticket to productive classrooms.

And Cook says that the thing to remember with greetings of any kind is that they need to be as much about you as they are about the students.

"What we don't want to impose on teachers and students is a cookie-cutter way of standing at the door and greeting students. Positive greetings at the door are ultimately about science and art," says Cook.

"While the science would say that teachers need to be proactive in their support of students as they transition into the classroom by greeting and welcoming students into the classroom and pre-correcting issues before they emerge, the art part is about teachers being their autonomous and creative selves to bring [the greeting] to life."

So, does that mean you can greet every child in Klingon, should it take your fancy, and still get the impact? Erm, we'd recommend you keep that particular passion to yourself, and maybe try something a little more accessible first…

Chris Parr is a freelance journalist

This article originally appeared in the 27 November 2020 issue under the headline "Tes focus on… Greeting your pupils in class"

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Register for free to read more

You can read two more articles on Tes for free this month if you register using the button below.

Alternatively, you can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

Already registered? Log in

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Subscribe to read more

You can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters