George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Fostering a Feeling of Security in Young Students

Simple classroom tips for helping preschool and elementary students feel at ease and open to learning.

January 28, 2022
Elementary students stretching in class
FatCamera / iStock

There are many ways to implement simple modifications to everyday routines in the pre-kindergarten and elementary classroom that can result in significant gains for your students.

The following suggestions and supports offer options to further nurture academic skills in a way that all members of your classroom community can utilize (in the least restrictive manner). I hope you’ll find you can easily embed them into your already busy schedule, resulting in greater consistency, flow, and follow-through.

Setting the Scene for Enriched Learning

Use natural or incandescent lighting: An incandescent light bulb, with a fuller spectrum of light, emits a warm glow that’s notably less harsh than fluorescent lighting. Fluorescent lighting has a limited spectrum and emits a poorer quality of light. Lack of exposure to a broad spectrum of light can affect our bodily functions, such as our circadian rhythm (think sleep).

If changing the lighting isn’t an option, try to open blinds or shades and turn off one of the fluorescent lights.

Provide a variety of soft pillows, mats, and cushions: These should be of different sizes, shapes, and textures for children to access during reading, writing, interactive play, etc. Children spend too much time sitting upright. Consider allowing them to attend to instruction, complete schoolwork, and play lying prone (belly on the floor), standing, or in alternate positions.

Ensure that students aren’t sitting longer than they’re developmentally able to: A good strategy is to use a visual timer set to approximately one minute per year of age (e.g., if the children are age 8, set the timer for 8 minutes). After 8 minutes, allow them to get up and engage in a controlled movement-based activity that incorporates proprioception, crossing midline and vestibular inputs, like cross crawls.

“Mirror-me” movements: Tell the children to copy your movements so exactly that it’s as if they’re your mirror. This process not only forces them to slow down and work on body control but activates mirror neurons in the brain, which are important for overall improved attention.

Consider having your students perform large movement exercises or yoga poses: This can be part of a consistent classroom routine. Large movement exercises are defined as static (holding the body against gravity) or dynamic (movement-based) supports involving the entire body; that is, the child cannot complete these exercises from a seated position. One example of a static large movement exercise would be the downward dog yoga pose; an example of a dynamic large movement exercise would be jumping jacks.

Try implementing this as part of a morning classroom schedule, as an after-lunch/recess cool-down classroom activity, to break up independent work times, etc. This will not only improve overall physical and emotional regulation but provide the consistency and feeling of safety that come with predictable routines.

Think about having  a “proud board” in your classroom: Place students’ names on it, with space to showcase their favorite work that they’re most proud of. Note: If you make it magnetic, they can easily put on and take off their “proud pieces.”

Have a cool-down/sensory area within the classroom and larger school setting: When signs of decreased physical or emotional regulation begin to emerge, direct the child to this area. Some items to possibly include are bean bags (to provide a bean bag “squish”), putty, a lava lamp or aquarium light, a drawing pad and crayons, lavender- or vanilla-scented materials (calming scents), a weighted lap pad/blanket, a sealed glitter jar, a box of kinetic sand, etc.

This area can also be a place for your students to work independently on schoolwork and for them to go when they’re feeling emotionally dysregulated (not able to manage emotional responses well).

Create an emotional-control toolbox: You can stock this with items like putty or Play-Doh, a small notepad and a few crayons, a mini-glitter jar, a small stress ball, etc., for your students to take to certain environments that you know may prove to be triggers—lunch, recess, field trips, etc. Give them the toolbox when you notice the first signs of emotional dysregulation, and coach them in how to use it, with fading prompts. As your students become more familiar with and independent in utilizing this tool on their own, you can decrease the amount of visual/verbal prompts you provide.

Positive affirmations jar: This can provide students with a tangible way to access growth-mindset and emotional regulation supports. In my office, I have a jar with student-generated cards of different positive affirmations, and students can easily access them, as they’re in a place that students can visit frequently.

Using these strategies regularly with your students just might help them to feel more secure and ready to learn.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Classroom Management
  • Pre-K
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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George Lucas Educational Foundation