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Classroom Environment – Proactive and Pretty, Part 2

I think it’s important to note, before even starting this segment, that there are many dimensions to students’ lives which are out of our control and they carry this multitude of experiences into the classroom with them. Even when we extend our best efforts, there are going to be times when our efforts fail, and it’s not your fault or the students’ fault; sometimes it is nobody’s fault. There will be times when a sound or smell will trigger a terrible memory for a student and there is no way to know, in advance, that your favorite perfume is the same scent the student encountered during a traumatic event. Or maybe the lovely classical piece you’re streaming in your classroom triggers the memory of an abusive experience for the boy in the back of the room. Perhaps one student was chewing grape bubblegum when he was in a terrible automobile accident which took the lives of his parents. It is often impossible to know what might trigger a student; even if a student can identify a sensory trigger, that information might not have been shared with you.

Recognizing that there are unknowns, we can still give our best effort in providing sensory experiences that will create an atmosphere of felt safety.

In Part 1 of Proactive and Pretty, I promised that I would explain some ways that we can address the sensory needs of students in the classroom through the senses of smell, hearing, and taste. Did you ever think, as a beginning teacher, that you’d have to consider these aspects? Didn’t you spend the majority of your time developing sound lesson plans, assessments, methods, etc? Those are still important but even the greatest lesson plans will fail if we neglect the sensory needs of our students; particularly if we are working with students who have been traumatized.

Science tells us that our sense of smell triggers memories almost immediately. And I’m sure many of you have heard that popcorn is a comforting smell and helps kids to relax in testing situations. Maybe you’ve read that peppermint enhances recall of information. The truth of those claims depends on context. There is no conclusive evidence that peppermint improves memory but it has been shown to aid in focus and attention. Greater focus and attention could help students do better on tests. According to a study by John Medina, subjects recalled twice as much information while smelling popcorn as those who did not smell popcorn. However, it really only affects emotional memory and does not have quite the same effect on declarative memory. (Brain Rules p. 174) While, in academic terms, we’d like to enhance declarative memory, the emotional memory plays an important role with students who have experienced trauma.

Since the emotional memory and therefore the emotions themselves are so profoundly influenced by smells, we would be wise to control the scents in our classrooms to the greatest degree possible. I constantly employ essential oils in my classroom. I keep the oil diffuser going at all times. I like to use Geranium oil in the diffuser. It’s claimed that geranium oil balances hormones, relieves stress, and reduces depression. I think it has a really great earthy yet floral scent. I also am liberal in the use of lavender oil. I often lightly massage a bit onto students’ necks in the area just behind their ears. I also place 2 drops in their hands, have them rub their hands together for a second, cup their hands over their noses, and inhale/exhale slowly for 3-5 breaths. The students really enjoy this nurture as well as the scent and it seems to have a regulating effect. Not only do the students enjoy the nurture but it’s good for them. Human beings need nurture; we need touch. Nurture is sorely lacking in many homes. Your classroom might be the only place some students receive this attention and nurture. Don’t be afraid to dole it out in abundance.

“A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.” –Brenè Brown

Another component to our multi-sensory approach is the sense of sound. This one is pretty obvious and fairly accessible. If you’re lucky, you’re allowed to load a streaming site to your computer and enjoy a Spotify playlist which is free of commercials. I have to rely on YouTube. I play different music for different purposes and at times I adjust my music plans to better suit the behaviors I’m noticing in students. If students walk into the room after lunch and slump into their chairs then I know I’d better get them on their feet, volleying a balloon to the rhythms of Bob Marley. Three minutes of some happy music and a little movement usually gets them primed for a quick lesson. On the other end of the spectrum, I might have a group hustle in from PE and observe that they’re keyed up and altogether unprepared to settle into focusing on Anne Bradstreet’s poetry. In that case, we stream Chopin and practice deep breathing.

There is some interesting research demonstrating that the “Mozart Effect” was a myth but that some music can help improve certain cognitive skills. The evidence tells us that it’s best to play music before and after a “studying” activity but that silence is best during activities requiring mental focus. Yet another researcher found that listening to any type of music while studying will impede serial recall, even if you love the music selection.

I’ll bet you’re wondering how I can possibly make my classroom taste good. That’s easy. Treats. Ignore those party-poopers who claim that giving candy to students is bribery – you don’t need that kind of negativity in your life. I’m not saying that you should provide a constant stream of edibles but make an effort to offer some chewy bits of sugary treats…or crunchy sweets…or even savories. These sensory events help contribute to the nurturing effect in your classroom and can be conducive to creating a room that’s both desirable and secure- feeling for students.

Chewing gum is another way to provide a pleasant sensory experience. Studies indicate that it’s not just a good-tasting experience but that it can aid in alertness. According to Professor of Psychology, Gary L. Wenk, Ph. D., chewing gum does not improve focus but does improve alertness while chewing. This is great information to have if you occasionally have students falling victim to that afternoon slump. Just hand them a piece of gum and watch them wake up. They will need, however, to keep chewing to maintain the sharpness.

Remember that all of this sensory work and nurture should take place within the context of a good deal of structure. Way back in Education 101 we learned the importance of creating a structured environment and the value it has in providing a place of safety and security for students. If you employ all of the important sensory activities in a chaotic setting then your efforts will be in vain. Make sure that you’ve created an organized classroom management system and conveyed your expectations to the students. Students might occasionally complain about the rules but that’s normal; they’re not going to admit, nor perhaps even realize, that they are more comfortable having the rules – they’re kids. Just smile warmly and ignore their protests.

You have endless options when it comes to creating a classroom that smells, tastes, and sounds appealing. When you plan for and address all of the senses your students will feel secure and will be better able to focus on academic work. They’ll feel safe and your classroom will be a place in which they find comfort and in which they look forward to spending time. You might be creating the safest haven they know.

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