Students are better able to take the needed risks for growth when they feel safe and listened to in their classroom. The more at ease they feel, the greater the potential for success in school. Consequently, the classroom needs to be a healthy environment for all participants. Developing a community of support is the best way to ensure success.
What Makes a Classroom a Healthy Environment?
Students need to see themselves as part of the classroom. They need to understand that what they are learning is relevant to their lives and deepen their understanding by interacting with the content being taught. To do this properly, the following components are essential to best optimize a healthy classroom.
Everyone in the class needs to feel safe. Students need to know that no physical harm will come their way. Emotionally, students need to feel accepted and know that they are accepted for who they are. The classroom should be clean, an appropriate temperature, and students should have access to needed materials. Routines and protocols have to be in place so that participants know what to expect in their classroom.
Students must feel part of the group. The classroom should welcome and celebrate all students. Efforts to include all members regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual preferences, religious backgrounds, and socio-economic status are vital. The classroom participants need to have a vested interest in each other, and they need to attempt to understand each other. If students do not feel part of the class, they could become ostracized, making learning all the more difficult.
Culturally Relevant Lessons
Students need to understand and see themselves in the lesson. Having resources, texts, and/or focused experiences similar to their own background or cultural experiences allows students to identify with the curricula. It affirms students’ place in society and makes the learning more meaningful. With lessons and resources that resonate with students, motivation and understanding will increase. In addition, culturally relevant lessons reinforce the inclusive nature of the classroom.
Values Students’ Choices
A key component for students to take charge of their learning is to be involved in decision-making. If students are able to make decisions, then they will feel more invested in their choices. This can range from a variety of decisions depending on the content. A shared ownership will help students be involved, Students will like an essential part of the classroom resulting in a healthier environment.
If an unhealthy atmosphere exists, student learning becomes more difficult. Without a safe environment, students are too worried about their wellbeing to focus on learning. If people do not feel a part of the room, they will feel further removed from the process, not see themselves represented, and will have a harder time connecting with their learning. Without having input on their studies, students become passive receivers of content, and the lack of knowledge depth will reduce retention and motivation. Simply put, students need to see themselves and believe they are part of a healthy community to make the most gains.
Ways to Create a Healthy Classroom Environment
There are clear strategies to apply to assist in creating and maintaining a healthy atmosphere.
Classroom Rules and Expectations
If students know what to expect while in the classroom, the more comfortable and safe they will be. Clearly defined expectations and rules makes it clear for everyone how to behave and how the rest of the community members will act. This helps to develop a trusting, predictable environment for all. Involving students in the creation of class expectations allows further buy-in as students see their role in the development of their community. In addition, phrasing the rules as action items sets a tone of what behaviors are encouraged. For example, instead of “Don’t talk when others are speaking”, phrasing it as “listen to one another” tells students what to do, focusing on the proper behavior.
Just as students need the predictability of behaviors, having clear procedures also sets a clear tone of the norms of the classroom. Whether it is academic procedures (collecting work, use of feedback/grades, rubrics) or more general routines (walking in the hallway, tools needed for class), students’ ability to understand the expectations and know what the teacher is requiring of them assists in positive interactions within the classroom.
SEL is the ability of one to understand how emotions impact development, decision-making, and interactions for themselves and others. Classrooms that value and include time to teach students and staff to check in with their feelings and recognize how to deal and process stress while seeing how emotions impact behaviors helps foster a better insight into oneself and others. This allows for better opportunities for a clearer mind and learning. Mindfulness is one technique within SEL allowing people to replace potentially negative behaviors with positive coping skills such as breathing, positive reframing, and even rewiring your brain.
Earlier it was discussed that when students have a say in their learning, they feel more comfortable. Student choice can happen in many ways – from a choice of tool, how to present information (written, visual, oral presentation, art project), or even within the content being studied (i.e. choose any character from history, media, or a book and discuss the impact on the essential learning target). It can also be as simple as pick any eight math problems to do, choose where you want to sit or even stand! In a healthy environment, the teacher shares control with the students. Students respond by making decisions that matter to them, resulting in increased learning.
Procedures and routines help students know what to expect. However, we all know that things are never routine! Embracing those unplanned events promotes flexible thinking and a positive response to change. Whether it is a global pandemic, an unexpected fire alarm, or a teaching point that students struggle to understand, adjusting to the situation allows students to see that it is possible to encounter and deal with change.
When feeling safe, everyone performs better. As a community, developing a healthy classroom environment allows for clear expectations, enhances opportunities for learning, and allows for risk-taking in a safe manner for students. Allowing students to see themselves within their education and the power to have choices for their learning will yield a better outcome for all.