There is a strong neurological and psychological need for people to feel at home and familiar with their environment. The neural connections created and strengthened by a cornucopia of smells, sounds, feeling, sights and tastes, as well as the energy over time has a profound effect on the immigrant in a foreign land. To alleviate this physical yearning by the brain and psyche, people who share common customs tend to gravitate to the familiar, hence the formation of micro-communities such as Chinatown, Little Italy and other urban and suburban confluences of cultures. People not only prefer to be among others who share similar interests but according to neuroscientists, the brain yearns for the recognizable stimulation of the senses. The absence of those stimuli are at the neurological root of homesickness. Being homesick is not an immature psychological response to an overindulged child or adult. It is a physical absence of the neural stimulation experienced by a person. When I was a young man traveling around the world, I would pack a few pillowcases that were washed in the detergent my mother used for our laundry. It was a small remedy, but comforting. It feels better to be in a place one is accustomed to. Maybe Dorothy Gale was right. There is no place like home.
The same must hold true for students who enter classrooms each fall, especially the younger ones. As a teacher, ask yourself, is this my classroom or our classroom? If your answer is the former, consider making changes. What objects are in the room that give students a sense of ownership beyond the essays stapled to the bulletin boards? Do the children feel that they are guests in their classroom or is there a sense of proprietary participation?
A good friend, who I will refer to as Mr. "C", and I started teaching fourth grade together in the 1990s. After a couple years he moved across the hall and started teaching the first grade. I visited his class the following fall. The walls, windows and students' desks were adorned with pictures and drawings of the youngsters' families, friends and scattered about were stuffed pets and objects. The instant any guest walks into their room, the visitor is greeted with a high-pitched chorus of "Welcome to room one!" Mr. C and his students spent ample time organizing the classroom environment into a place that is comforting and inviting, not only for guests, but for the students as well.
There are plenty of research articles to support and explain the connections and correlations between student performance and a healthy, organized classroom, but common sense works well too. Where would you want to spend six hours a day? Would it be in a warm, familiar environment, or a cold, sparsely-decorated room ruled by a monotonous palate of uniformity?
The more the students feel at home, the more the brain builds synaptic connections and the better off the students will be. Students who feel safe and comfortable will allot brain functions to thinking and learning instead of stress reduction. Give it a try!
A few steps to make a great learning space
- Make the room inviting for students by having them decorate it with things from home.
- Create a "We" feel to the classroom whereby students are responsible for the physical condition of the space.
- Make sure the students truly believe the room is theirs and not just yours. Ensure they take ownership.
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