Sep 22 / Panagiota Giaouri

Get ready for an exciting school year! Icebreakers set the tone and build connections. Read this post to to help you choose the best icebreaker for your classes!

It’s that time of the year again when teachers flip through their notes or browse through the Internet in search of the best icebreakers to kick off the new school year. Icebreakers can be an effective way to get to know each other in a new group and they are often used on the first day of a new course. When they are used in moderation, they can create a sense of community and establish a more relaxed and positive atmosphere in the classroom.

What I find particularly useful when it comes to icebreakers is that they can set the tone and the nature of the course. It becomes clear from the very first day that the students will learn/practise the new language through engaging activities and group work and that’s something that all students do appreciate.

Icebreakers can be of great benefit provided they are not ritualistic and certain parameters are taken into consideration. What can be problematic is that some teachers feel obliged to fit them in their first lesson and they often choose random activities that they have heard of or come across online or even worse they use the same icebreakers for all age groups.

What is essential when teachers select their icebreakers is to make sure that these fit the profile of their group. This might sound quite challenging considering that most teachers meet their students on the first day of the course. However, although you might not know details on the individuals, you can still make some assumptions and select your icebreakers based on their age. This seems to be quite a good principle since different age groups respond to them in different ways. For example, young learners love them whereas most adults want them to be over fast. Finally, if age is your criterion you need to remember that the older your students, the more cautious you need to be when you select icebreakers.
Young learners:

Young learners respond positively to almost any icebreaker that involves moving around, playing, drawing or singing. They love talking about themselves and their families and they are very enthusiastic and curious about their classmates and their teacher. Even when there is a language barrier, this doesn’t seem to be a problem. Kids come up with many different ways, such as miming or drawing, in order to find out if their classmates like the same PC games, sports and celebs as they do. By the end of the first lesson, young learners will have found the students with whom they have most in common and they will have formed new friendships. The only thing that teachers need to make sure is that there aren’t any students who have been marginalized from their peers. These students might be the silent ones who possibly need more time to bond or the ones who have been dominated by the more lively students. In such cases, the teacher needs to act fast and give equal opportunities to all students. It’s also a good idea to pair those students with someone who seems to have the same interests just like them. This needs to happen in a subtle and discreet way, such as regrouping all students or introducing a new game. Changing the group dynamics is something that young learners enjoy anyway.

Teenagers: The selection of icebreakers for a group of teenagers on the first day of a course can be quite crucial as it can determine the rapport between the teacher and the students. Their attitude towards you and your lesson will probably depend a lot on that first lesson and the activities you have designed for them. If you choose childish or random icebreakers, such as say your name and something that you like that starts with the first letter of your name, they will probably switch off. If you choose something interesting and relevant to their own world, they will probably be intrigued and interested to see what is coming next.

When your students are teenagers you need to choose icebreakers that will give each one of them the chance to show off to their peers and say something interesting that will make them stand out. After all, they want to make a good impression on their classmates and not the teacher. Therefore, you need to make sure that your activities on the first day do not involve any kind of embarrassment, such as miming, imitation of sounds or getting messy with food. These could be great fun once you know your group well so that you can decide who can take it and who not.

Competitive games might also be a bad idea on the first day depending on the group. You don’t want anyone to leave the classroom feeling like a winner or a loser. As a teacher you want to create a classroom environment where everyone feels comfortable and everyone leaves the room with a positive attitude.
Teachers who have taught adults do know that, unlike young learners and teenagers, adults come to class with strong and specific expectations. Some of them might not even expect an icebreaker on the first day or they might want their teacher to cut to the chase right away. When my dad joined his first English lesson at the age of 64, he came back home quite disappointed that instead of reading texts and grammar rules he spent almost the whole lesson talking about himself in his broken English. I could get his frustration since all these icebreakers and personalization activities did not match the teaching he received earlier in life. Using his broken English for almost an hour to talk to people he had never seen before must have made him feel quite uncomfortable. When you select icebreakers for adults, it’s advisable to keep them short and sweet. If you have a large group, split them in smaller groups. Don’t feel obliged that everyone has to speak to everyone. Icebreakers that drag on too long cause frustration and boredom. Choose activities that are mature and relevant to your group’s interests. Avoid icebreakers that can be demeaning, threatening or involve any kind of physical contact. So, on the first day try to avoid icebreakers, such as the human knot, post-it notes on foreheads or line up from the youngest to the oldest. You don’t know your students well and you don’t know how they might react.
To sum up, icebreakers are a good way to bond the students with each other and the teacher and they can be a fun and enjoyable experience. However, when they are treated as part of a ritual of the first day at school or when they are chosen randomly, they can get off the wrong foot and bring the opposite results.