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Through centering social-emotional learning, we can safely address mental health and guide students through this historically turbulent time.

4 tips to build a strong classroom culture this year


Through centering social-emotional learning, and focusing on mediation and compassionate conversations, we can safely guide our students through this historically turbulent time

The past two years have been immensely difficult for our nation’s students and teachers. In the wake of the isolation and trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health and behavioral challenges are on the rise as students continue to process unprecedented amounts of stress, anxiety, and grief. The decline in child and adolescent mental health has been so great that the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association have declared it a national emergency.

These mental health issues have translated into increased disengagement, conflict, and bullying — and as a result, disciplinary action — in school classrooms and hallways across the country. 

As a Dean of Culture at a public school in Queens, New York, until recently, I saw these challenges first-hand. I also know that traditional discipline methods fail to address the root cause of behavioral issues. Many forms of disciplinary action are doing more harm than good. This is especially true when research shows that Black students are disciplined far more than White students for the same offenses, perpetuating and sustaining cycles of inequity in our schools.

Rather than continue to create a culture of punishment, I worked with my school to enact a unique blend of mindfulness strategies and social-emotional learning–informed by Breathe For Change, a 200-hour Wellness, SEL and Yoga Teacher Training for educators–to create a safe and inviting space for kids. 

As we educators–exhausted from two years of our own stress, fear, and uncertainty–begin a new school year, it can be tempting to default to punitive discipline measures. But it’s critical that we start the year on a positive note. Here are four strategies that can help create a positive classroom culture as we begin the school year: 

Create a Calming Environment
It’s important to set up a welcoming space that invites feelings of calm and safety for students. This can include adjusting the lighting, setting out aromatic scents, and playing tranquil music without lyrics. When a student is struggling, teachers can bring them to this space to deescalate the situation and provide them with time to process what they are feeling. Before bombarding them with questions about what happened, offer students the opportunity to journal, guiding them through the process with thoughtful prompts. The student may also just want to sit quietly for a moment, and that’s okay too. When discussing what happened with the student, be sure to validate their perspective with compassion and understanding–even if you personally disagree. 

Related:

One district’s push to help students feel like they belong
How to transform your school culture

Offer Opportunities for Pause
These discussions can be stressful for students as they work to make sense of their emotions and stressors. Pay close attention to cues in body language and speaking tone and create ample opportunities to pause the conversation and allow for opportunities for students to re-ground themselves. If a student seems to be growing more stressed, suggest you both take a break.  Sometimes it’s helpful to frame the suggestion as you needing a break yourself. This both protects students from embarrassment and provides them with a clear model of how to use breaks as an effective coping strategy.

During these pauses, allow the student to go on a short walk in the hallway, drink some water, or simply take a few deep breaths. Teachers can also demonstrate to students how to use the 5-4-3-2-1 coping technique to help control their anxiety and the body scan method for promoting mindfulness. 

Enact the Peace Process
When the student has had a moment to calm themselves and reflect on the situation, ask them to describe the facts and their feelings about what happened. Allow for plenty of chances to express how they feel, then ask the student to state the specific needs that were not met at that moment using just one to three words. This should help illuminate for the student exactly what they were reacting to so strongly, and it will hopefully help them realize what could be done differently in the future. Wrap up the Peace Process by asking the student what they need to make themselves and the relationship feel better moving forward. Help them phrase the answer as a request. 

Close Out with a Two-Word Check-In
Before you and the student return to the rest of the day, close out the conversation with a two-word check-in. Tell the student to take a few more deep breaths and to soften their gaze or close their eyes. Then ask them to think of two specific words that capture how they’re feeling now. This step serves several purposes, from re-grounding the student back in the present to ensuring the teacher has an understanding of how effective the previous strategies were in helping the student. It could also help reveal unresolved emotions that still warrant further discussion.

We’ve all seen the headlines and know the challenges at hand: staffing shortages, teacher burnout, student trauma. But through centering social-emotional learning—and focusing on mediation and compassionate conversations over discipline—we can safely guide our students through this historically turbulent time as they make sense of the complicated emotions they are experiencing.

As a new school year kicks off, it is vital that schools work to prioritize the emotional needs and mental health of students over their punishment. We can do this.

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