Immediate Solutions and Harmful Habits:
How to Make the Classroom a Thriving Learning Environment
In the bustling atmosphere of a busy classroom, the strategies and behaviors that shape our learning spaces are paramount. But what makes them stick? The key lies in rehearsing, repeating, and reinforcing strategies that are both fun and effective, while also keeping the classroom safe and engaged. Additionally, educators must examine any unintentional behaviors of their own that may unknowingly provoke and reinforce negativity. This article will shed light on both positive and hidden routines, offering multifaceted approaches that create and define the classroom experience.
Positive Proactive Practices
Positive routines are essential for shaping a thriving learning environment. Far from mere tools for controlling behavior, they foster a sense of community, encourage student participation, and promote a culture of respect and collaboration.
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The 3 R's: Making Routines Stick
To create effective routines, educators must focus on three key principles:
Rehearse: Practice is crucial. Teachers must model both the desired behavior and what it is not, allowing students to role-play the routines. For example, a teacher might demonstrate how to ask for help respectfully, contrasting it with inappropriate ways to seek assistance.
Repeat: Consistency and regular practice are vital. Teachers should set clear expectations and provide opportunities for students to practice the routines until they become second nature. One powerful example is the "Freeze in 5" strategy. Teachers can randomly announce for the students to get up and walk around the room, say hello to friends, and then call “Freeze in 5, freeze in 4,” counting down to a freeze. Students race back to their seats, and before the final “Freeze,” they take a deep breath and focus their eyes on the teacher. This engaging routine is both fun for students and valuable for teachers, and repeating it several times a day for the first few weeks is essential to its effectiveness.
Reinforce: Positive reinforcement can be a powerful motivator. At first, reinforce individual students, using their names, then groups, sides of the room, and the whole room. Strategies like "Freeze in 5" can be reinforced in this way, creating a super powerful proactive strategy.
Incorporating Fun and Creativity
Adding elements of fun and creativity, like the 'racing' aspect in "Freeze in 5," can make learning routines engaging and enjoyable. This also helps to make routines stick, as the release of dopamine and a shot of cortisol into the system makes kids happy and alert.
By focusing on these principles, educators can create routines that not only shape the environment but also enhance the overall learning experience. These routines become the heartbeat of the classroom, setting the rhythm for a productive and positive learning experience.
Successful Positive Practices
The below strategies are designed to foster a positive classroom environment, promoting both joy, safety, and self regulation. They fall into the SEL category and can be easily weaved into your everyday routines.
Press Pause - This is a must see video demonstration - "Press Pause" is a different variation of ‘Freeze’ that teachers and students alike will love. Quick to teach and super effective, it's a strategy that can instantly bring focus and calm to the classroom.
The Power of the Breath - Incorporating mindful breathing as a daily ritual equips students with a lifelong tool for self-regulation and focus. It's a simple yet powerful practice that can transform the classroom atmosphere.
Stone Conversation Starters - This collaborative strategy models and practices expectations for talking with peers and moving around the room. Whether used for social-emotional learning or academic engagement, it fosters respectful and meaningful interactions.
Move for Attention - Need to refocus students' attention and re-energize their brains and bodies? This fun break can be used frequently to achieve just that. See this in action and discover how movement can be harnessed for learning.
These routines are more than just techniques and strategies; they are integral parts of a holistic approach to education that recognizes the importance of emotions and connections in the learning process. By implementing these strategies, educators can create a classroom environment that is not only conducive to learning but also nurturing and empowering for students.
Hidden Routines and Harmful Habits
Hidden routines are those reactive behaviors and habits, that are often unintentional, yet can play a significant role in shaping the classroom environment in negative ways. They create barriers between teachers and students, hinder learning, and disrupt the sense of community. Here are some common hidden routines, and strategies to address them:
Impatience and Negative Body Language
For some educators, impatience and negative body language may be a habit so ingrained that they are unaware of how often they are displaying them. Consider this scenario: You give directions, and for the third time, a student asks the same question. In response, you make a big deal of rolling your eyes, sighing, and saying, "For the third time..." This reaction, although understandable, sends a clear message to all of your students.
The underlying message is that if you ask a "stupid" question, you may be humiliated. This teaches most students to either forge on without understanding or shut down entirely, fearing embarrassment. These behaviors create a sense of rejection and undermine trust in the teacher-student relationship.
Being mindful of body language and practicing patience is essential in fostering a more positive connection. Recognizing these habits and actively working to replace them with more supportive responses can create an environment where students feel safe to ask questions and engage in the learning process.
Inconsistency in enforcing rules or expectations can lead to confusion and frustration among students. Imagine a classroom where the teacher's response to the same behavior varies from one student to the next. For example, Elijah may come in late one day, and the teacher says nothing, but when Ethan comes in late, the lesson is paused, and the student is grilled as to why they are late, possibly even receiving a consequence. This inconsistency creates a sense of unfairness and undermines the very routines that are meant to shape behavior and engagement.
Consistency is key to creating a fair and predictable environment where students know what to expect. When expectations are clear and consistently enforced, students can focus on learning rather than trying to navigate an unpredictable set of rules. This consistency should extend to all aspects of classroom life, from academic expectations to behavior management.
Inconsistent expectations can also erode trust between teachers and students. If students feel that rules are applied arbitrarily or unfairly, they may become disengaged or even defiant. On the other hand, a classroom where expectations are clear and consistently applied fosters a sense of fairness and respect, laying the groundwork for a positive learning environment.
Sarcastic Remarks and Name Calling
Sarcasm and name-calling, while often intended to be humorous, create fear and mistrust in many students. Imagine a scenario where a teacher responds to a student's incorrect answer with a sarcastic remark like, "I’ve only said this like 10 times, who can tell Not Listening Lorence the correct answer?" While the teacher may see this as a light-hearted jest and peers may chuckle, the student will feel ridiculed or belittled.
The use of sarcastic remarks and name-calling not only undermines the supportive and respectful culture that educators strive to create but also models for students how to bully classmates. This behavior is wrong on so many levels, as it erodes trust, fosters a hostile environment, and teaches students that it's acceptable to demean others.
Educators must be vigilant in their language and tone, recognizing the profound impact that words can have. By fostering an environment where students feel safe to express themselves without fear of ridicule or humiliation, teachers promote a more positive, engaging, and empathetic classroom experience.
Ignoring Positive Behavior
Focusing solely on correcting negative behavior and neglecting to acknowledge and reinforce positive behavior is a common mistake that can lead to a lack of motivation and engagement. Students crave attention, and when they see that only disruptive behavior garners a response, they may learn that acting out is the way to be noticed.
"Positive reinforcement improves behavior, while criticism stabilizes negative behaviors and blocks change." —Virginia H. Pearce
In contrast, consistently recognizing and praising positive behavior sends a powerful message. For example, if Daniel and Cecil are talking during work time, a teacher might specifically thank those students who are working quietly, rather than reprimanding the talkative ones. While it may seem time-consuming, this approach is incredibly valuable in the long run. By paying attention to and reinforcing the behaviors you value, you are able to create an environment where students are motivated to meet expectations.
This positive focus not only fosters a more joyful and engaging classroom but also builds trust and respect between students and educators. It's a proactive strategy that emphasizes what students are doing right, rather than what they are doing wrong, and it's a vital component in shaping a positive classroom culture.
Unconscious biases can subtly influence a teacher's interactions with students, leading to favoritism or unequal treatment. These biases may stem from preconceived notions about a student's abilities, background, or behavior. For example, a teacher might unconsciously give more attention to students who excel academically, overlooking those who might be struggling but are equally deserving of encouragement and support. When students perceive a lack of fairness in the classroom, it can create feelings of resentment and disengagement.
Teachers must be mindful of their own biases and strive to treat all students equitably. Reflecting on personal biases and actively working to ensure that every student feels valued and included is essential in creating an inclusive and supportive classroom environment. This requires ongoing self-awareness, empathy, and a commitment to fostering a culture where every student has the opportunity to thrive.
The classroom environment is shaped and reinforced by both our intentional practices and the unintentional messages we send. By being mindful and aware of these dynamics, positive routines can become the super power of your classroom, propelling students forward in unexpected ways. These routines not only create a joyful and safe space but also address students' holistic needs, helping them develop positively and preparing them for future challenges.
At the same time, recognizing and addressing hidden habits that may unknowingly impact the classroom negatively is essential. Being attuned to these underlying factors fosters a sense of community, trust, and engagement, empowering students and nurturing a thriving learning environment.
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Until next time,
For those interested in diving deeper into these concepts, here are some recommended resources:
"The Power of Positive Teaching" by Dr. Jane Nelsen
"Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness" by Deborah Schoeberlein
"Classroom Management That Works" by Dr. Robert J. Marzano
BrainZones App: A comprehensive tool designed to support educators through lesson design, incorporating brain network neuroscience, the science of how people learn, and psychology.
About the Authors
Debbie Leonard M.Ed. and Marcey Aronson
Debbie and Marcey are seasoned middle school educators and state-certified Master Teachers, each with over 30 years of experience. Their instructional journey began in challenging environments where lock-up rooms and physical restraints were part of their everyday experience. Out of desperation, they developed CoreTex, a unique brain-inspired approach that has proven successful across various classrooms and content areas. By tapping into the emotions that drive learning, cognition, behavior, and motivation, they have created a dynamic learning environment that helps all students achieve their full potential. With years of reading, researching, and collaborating on neuroscience, psychology, and emotions, Debbie and Marcey are innovative educators who inspire others with insights to become more effective practitioners.
Marlon Wayne has spent the past decade leading consumer goods & services companies, and leading venture finance and analysis initiatives across Salt Lake City, Fort Collins, and San Francisco. As a technologist and supporter of new ventures, he brings the analytics skills sharpened by his time at Google and market dynamism developed by his years as a founder to the BrainZones team.
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