• Michelle Bickhaus

Classroom Environment – Proactive and Pretty, Part 1


Setting the tone for your classroom is the easiest and most important strategy in your repertoire. Atmosphere. Ambience. Mood. The character of your room is your best defense against behavior problems. My claim that it is easy does not mean that it’s simple or that it doesn’t require thought and effort. I mean that it is “easiest” because it is the one factor over which you have the most control. And it is the trait that can have the biggest impact on students’ behaviors.

Often, when we think of setting the tone

of the classroom, we hearken to the concept of starting the year with extreme structure and an almost robotic persona. You know that old philosophy: the teacher should not smile until Christmas. This is not the spirit I recommend, nor does the research substantiate such an attitude.

Students who have experienced trauma in their lives are frequently operating in a primal state. They have learned that the world is not a safe place; trusted adults and life experiences have taught them that the world is dangerous and they must be on constant alert – always ready to fight or flee. If a child is in such a state of hypervigilance, their minds are altogether hijacked by their basal impulses and rendered unable to concentrate on academics.

How do we get past this state of hypervigilance and ready their minds for the task of scholastics? First, we have to create a sense of safety for the students. Students must feel safe. To be safe and to feel safe are two different concepts. Telling a student that they are safe will not help them to feel safe.

So how do we create felt safety? There may be many approaches to this but the one that I’ve found best is to consider an infant and the way we comfort and protect an infant. This makes sense because when children are in a heightened state of vigilance as they are when they arrive at school after a night of watching one alcoholic parent abuse their siblings or other parent, the world certainly seems unsafe through their eyes. In this state they revert to operating from the oldest and most basic part of the brain. This area of the brain regulates basic survival functions, such as breathing, moving, resting, and feeding, and creates our experiences of emotion. When a student is operating from this area of the brain, they are helpless to access the areas of the brain that will allow them to process academic concepts and tasks; they are very much like a baby who has an underdeveloped nervous system and must be comforted and taught how to regulate. Naturally we do this by rocking, patting, and softly speaking reassuring words. And, quite naturally, we can’t pick up this 12-year old student and rock them. However, we can create a space that says, “You are safe here.” We must create this safe-feeling space before we can teach them to regulate.

When I set about to create a safe-feeling classroom and I consider that my students’ brains are often functioning as an infant’s would, then it seems logical to think of a baby’s nursery. The rooms we create for babies are soft, pleasant, and not overly stimulating; the sounds are comforting and the smells are inviting; textures are both appealing to the eye and to the touch. This is what I strive for in my classroom.

Since my budget is limited, I do not have my ideal classroom – that one is in my fantasies and I could spend hours describing every feature to you. But I’ll be practical and explain the affordable ways I bring nursery elements to the classroom.

I do have the luxury of a dimmer switch in my classroom. But in the ten years I taught before the dimmer switch, I strung many strands of icicle lights from my ceiling and had a couple of table lamps in the room. This was a glorious improvement over the glaring (and altogether inappropriate-for-the-classroom fluorescent lighting).

The balance of my examples is quite feminine but can be adapted to a more gender-neutral theme or even a masculine theme. In fact, a nature-themed environment would be lovely. Think plants in the classroom, a grouping of large prints of trees/mountains/wild animals, a faux animal skin rug, etc.

I use lovely billowing feathers in small amounts throughout the room to conjure the sensation of softness, lightness, warmth, and general comfort. I use florist tape to secure the feathers to pens and group them in vase/bottles with pens and pencils which have flowers affixed to them. The flowers serve not only an aesthetic purpose but they prevent people from walking away with my pens.

I drape sheer curtains and allow them to puddle on the floor in front of my desk. I simply stuck a couple of Command hooks on the front of the desk and set a lightweight curtain rod into the hooks. Pretty easy. Again, it’s a soft and comforting effect with a nod to the softness and security of the baby’s nursery.

It was disappointing to me when budget constraints did not allow for carpet in our sparkling new school. After a few weeks of going without carpet, my wonderful para brought in a 3’ x 12’ carpet and we tossed it out on the floor in front of the interactive board. It’s the first thing that greets one upon entering my room. The first day we had the carpet, students walked in and threw themselves on the carpet and smiled; reveling in the comfort. I am not exaggerating about this. It’s true. We were astonished at the reaction; most pleasantly astonished. If you do not have a carpeted classroom, I implore you to throw out a post on Facebook and ask for a donation of a carpet remnant. No need to spend your own money when there are so many people out there who want to help others and often do not know how to do so.

As I mentioned earlier, I have the luxury of a dimmer on the classroom lights. Still, my lovely para brought in a strand of icicle lights and we strung them against the wall at the ceiling. When the overhead lights are off and our two table lamps are on, it is still light enough for students to read and write, yet relaxing and comforting. I find that if the energy in the room is too high, simply turning off the ceiling lights results in the immediate easing of tensions and a more balanced energy in the students. I do have to keep an eye out for sleepiness in the students. Constant monitoring and planning for problems such as this allow me to suggest that sleepy-looking students should sit on a stability ball to prevent napping in class.

This brings me to seating. I have six adorable pink, 75cm stability balls in my classroom. These stability balls are wonderful for allowing students to wiggle and they are also a perfect way to prevent napping. When one sits on a stability ball, the core has to be engaged in order to keep from falling. This core engagement is the trick to keeping kids awake. As an aside, I’m never offended if students are sleepy. I, too, get ridiculously sleepy when reading, even when I’m riveted to the story. And if it seems that I am actually boring them to sleep, well…it’s a boon to my humility and it causes me to reflect on my methods which is something we teachers should be doing at all times.

Thus far, I’ve discussed a few of my favorite ploys for addressing sight, kinesthetic needs, and touch in order to create an atmosphere of felt safety. I’m left with smells, tastes, and sounds. These sensory experiences are vital and shouldn’t be left to chance if you want to create an environment that is most conducive to helping students feel safe.

Watch for part 2 in the coming days where I’ll explain how I make my room sound, smell, and taste irresistible…a space that helps students feel safe.

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