"Teachers can change lives with just the right mix of chalk and challenges."
In order to engage and support all students in learning, it is very important to create a safe space in which children feel comfortable expressing themselves and taking risks, both academically and socially. Teachers must focus on social-emotional growth in addition to academic development, work with fellow teachers and grade-level partners, and structure content and behavioral expectations to be developmentally appropriate for their students.
In one first grade class I observed, the teacher uses flexible seating as a method of fostering creativity and supporting social and emotional growth. Where some students have regular chairs and desks, others have Weeble-Wobble chairs, standing desks with swinging foot bars, knee pads for kneeling at the table, pop up chairs, beanbags, and large floor pillows. She encourages students to check in with their bodies and evaluate what they need in order to be successful. As long as students are completing the tasks assigned, she doesn’t mind if they prefer to sit on bean bags and floor pillows with clipboards. In the interest of fairness, she rotates the flexible seating weekly.
Additionally, she has a Quiet Corner where students can request to go when they need an emotional timeout. In the corner, there is a small, child’s arm chair, stuffed animals, books, and quiet toys. She also provides a few index cards of different feelings to help students check in with themselves emotionally.
To foster social growth and interactions within the classroom, the same teacher starts each morning with Community Circle. The children sing the "Honesty Song" and then each student shares an appreciation about another student by pulling a popsicle stick from the jar. In another first grade class, the teacher used Community Circle time to deliver morning announcements and for the children to sing various songs about being a good citizen at school and in life.
At one school, the motto is "Kinder Than Necessary" and each grade teaches that concept a little differently. In 1st grade, the classes focus on fairness and the students learn and discuss what fairness looks and sounds like in their lives. As a tangible reinforcement of the concept, when the students behave positively or fairly by helping each other, being exceptionally respectful, etc. students get to put a marble in the jar. Vice versa, when something negative happens, a marble is removed from the jar. When the jar is full, the class has a party. While I don’t think I would use the negative consequence of removing a marble from a jar, I do think a marble jar is a good way to motivate students to work together for a common goal.
Another way teachers can create supportive learning environments for their students is in how they monitor and/or regulate student behavior. At both schools in which I observe, I haven’t seen many, behavior charts used to monitor or regulate student behavior, which is a welcome shift from my elementary school years. The focus is mostly on "safe" behaviors. For example, if a student has trouble sitting on the carpet during whole-group discussion, teachers often offer the squirmy student the option of returning to their desk/chair to listen to the rest of the discussion if they cannot "safely participate on the carpet."
At one school, behavior is regulated through the Zones of Regulation. This theory of behavior regulation originated in the Special Ed community but pursuant to its success, has transitioned into a general ed classroom as well. The idea is that students should reflect individually on how they are feeling and have agency over what they need to do to regulate their feelings and behavior. The Blue Zone represents feelings of boredom, hurt, exhaustion, sickness, tiredness, and sadness. If a child is feeling those feelings, they should take some time to rest and recuperate before they move back into the Green Zone. The Green Zone is the zone where the most productive learning is thought to occur. A student is in the Green Zone when they feel calm, good, proud, okay, ready to learn, and content. A child is in the Yellow Zone when they feel frustrated, anxious/worried, excited, silly, overwhelmed, or scared. This zone focuses on slowing down mind and body to get back to the Green Zone. Finally, the Red Zone is the zone in which children behave aggressively or meanly and when they are terrified, mad, or angry. If a child is in this zone, they need to stop their behavior and recalibrate back to the Green Zone. They may move through multiple zones in order to get back to the Green Zone.
At the other school, they use what is called the TOOLBOX™ program. This program supports children in understanding and regulating their own emotions and behavior to achieve academic success. One’s "toolbox" is comprised of 12 human "tools," all of which are easily and individually accessibly if we so choose (see photo). The children are taught the TOOLBOX™ tools starting in Kindergarten and with such simple and common language, the students adopt them quickly. These skills of self-awareness, self-management, and relationship building become valuable personal skills as well.
Another important aspect of engaging and supporting all students in learning is applying developmentally appropriate instruction and behavioral expectations for students. In the younger grades, particularly in TK, Kindergarten, and 1st grades, these students can’t sit on the carpet for more than 15 min at a time, often less. Activities tend to focus on body movement and repetition, using songs and videos to engage students with active practice. This is also a way to improve their motor skills. For example, in one Kindergarten class I observed, the teacher used a few videos to practice the alphabet, the letter sounds, and counting to 100. All videos required the students to move their body in some way, whether it be with hand movements or whole body dancing. When teaching activities, there is a strong focus on going over appropriate behaviors, rules, and procedures, and everything is repeated over and over again so children internalize the information. For young children, learning how to share materials and take turns must be included in the explanation of activities. In the same Kindergarten class, during free choice time, a bunch of students wanted to play magnet tiles on the carpet. However, there was no review (or explanation) of the rules of playing fairly with each other. Subsequently, there was a lot of whining and crying and I had to have a lot of conversations about sharing, taking turns, not grabbing, asking to borrow, etc.
As the students progress in the upper grades, there is more of an expectation of knowing how to interact with each other appropriately and less time is spent on rules and procedures. This is when conflict mediation becomes more prevalent in a classroom setting however. As students mature, they begin to decide who they do and do not want to spend time with and this can really test some friendships. Teachers often mediate conflicts of misunderstandings and miscommunications between friends.
In order to implement all of these practices to create a safe space in which to engage and support students, teachers must work together. In one school I observed, there are only two teachers in both 4th and 5th grades so they split up their students for certain subjects. In 4th grade, they split their classes up by math level, with one teacher teaching the more advanced math students and the other working with the students who need more individualized attention. In 5th Grade they split up by certain subjects. One teacher focuses on science while the other teaches social studies. Often teachers work with their grade-level partners to lesson plan and share successes and challenges. I’ve seen teachers use Google Classroom as a way to virtually create and share interactive templates between grade-level partners.
As I move closer to having my own classroom, it will be important to keep in mine the benefits a safe space can provide to a learning environment. I think social-emotional learning is just as valuable as academic curriculum and I will do my best to incorporate it wherever possible. Often when children are social-emotionally more successful, they are in a better position to learn and retain the academic knowledge coming their way.