Social and Emotional Learning

Creating an Emotionally Healthy Classroom Environment

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Editor's Note: Dr. Roberta Seifert, a clinical psychologist in San Rafael, California, contributed significantly to this post.

As the school year ends and most teachers have the luxury of thinking about ways of continuing to improve their effectiveness in motivating students, I want to throw in some ideas that I've had on my mind.

I sometimes feel like Don Quixote tilting at windmills when it comes to getting administrators and teachers to place the emotional lives of learners on at least the same level of importance as the implementation of new technologies and Common Core. Then I saw the film Palo Alto recently and was reminded again about the lives of adolescents and the emotional baggage so many carry into our classrooms.

A Safe Place for Students

In my role as a guest presenter in high schools and as a small group facilitator in California Film Institute Education programs, I encounter many high school students who wrestle with significant emotional challenges. These range from achievement-related stress, often coming from parental pressures, to overcoming language and social class barriers, family problems, and peer group and personal social concerns. Madeline Levine discussed many of these challenges in her book The Price of Privilege.

Teachers are not supposed to be psychological counselors. When a student has significant emotional problems, teachers should make sure they don't try to play that role and should instead refer the student to a school counselor or a licensed therapist. But what teachers can do is create an environment that helps alleviate the normal problems many students wrestle with and, at the very least, not add to them.

The Most Important Variable

But by far the most important variable is how you relate to the students in your class. The challenge is creating an emotionally safe environment without relinquishing your role as the teacher. To achieve this, you have to find the right balance of being emotionally open and authentic without sacrificing the boundaries and hierarchy that keep you and your students secure. Students need to know that you are in charge of the classroom and of their relationship with you. At the same time, you should be a truly caring person who really is in their corner to help combat the loneliness felt by so many adolescents.

Like a good parent, a good teacher might share personal information to the extent that it is relevant to a particular student and a problem with which the student is grappling. You need to be careful not to change the focus to yourself or share anything that will make the student worry about you. Far too often, they are already worried about the adults in their lives. Dr. Madeline Levine wrote that adolescents tell her how their stress would be most reduced by quality dialogue with a sane, caring adult for 15 minutes a day. As a teacher, you can't give that time to each student, but you make this awareness part of the way in which you interact with the class as a whole and, when possible, with individual students who seem to most need that attention.

Effective Ways to Begin the Semester

There are other ways for teachers to create an effective emotional environment. One is beginning the semester with some ground rules related to classroom interaction. High on my list would be making "killer statements" (put-downs of other students) an absolute taboo. I would tell them that you want this classroom to be a safe place and one in which there is care for each other, yourself very much included, and that for you this is as important as their learning. Assure them that you will never publicly demean a student and that any problems you have with a student will be dealt with privately. You can suggest that they do the same with you when they have a problem with your teaching or your treatment of them. You might ask them to suggest other ideas that would help them feel safe.

Another idea is to have one student or even a small group act as representatives and email you with any student concerns or new ideas for improving the class environment. This makes it easier to give a voice to students who would find it difficult to address you directly.

I used to begin my classes with some easy exercises designed to help them get to know each other, but this must be preceded by some of the above preparation. Otherwise they'll wonder why the devil they’re spending time like this in a science class!

Exercises to Connect Students

These exercises are quickies. I ask them to get together with two or three other students and each share a one-minute autobiography. Time it carefully, and share your own one-minute autobiography once they're finished. Then have them change groups, and encourage them to find students who they don’t know very well.

Do three or four of these group exercises, using topics that you think will engage the class, such as a favorite film or TV show, a recollection of the worst or best teacher they ever had, the best time they had last summer, something they feel very strongly about, and perhaps their highest hopes for this class. In each case, give each person just one minute. Continue this process of personal sharing after they complete each exercise, and include your own personal sharing each time. Do four or five in all, which will take about 20 minutes. Note too that they have to get up and move to do this -- they sit all day. Keep that in mind as your design other activities for the class.

Yes, this takes time away from your subject matter, but I can assure you that time spent creating community and trust in a classroom will pay off in spades in subject matter attention. What you are doing is immediately increasing the students' sense of community, and helping to make the class more like a supportive family.

A Few Other Ideas to Consider

  • Begin each Monday with an opportunity for kids to report on the weekend if you have a first period class.
  • Identify kids who seem withdrawn or listless and go the extra mile of reaching out to them.
  • Provide assignments that enable them to write about themselves and their lives. In language classes, both English and foreign, this is really easy to do. But I know science teachers who have had students write short essays on how they apply varied science-related technology or chemistry to their lives.

The bottom line is to look for ways of tying subject matter to their personal lives as often as possible. One of my favorite moments in a class used to be when I contrasted the relative deadness of a group at the beginning of the semester with energy and what I would describe as "productive noise" and "buzz" later in the semester.

Of course, this is a topic that runs far and deep, with many avenues that can be explored. But even this handful of ideas can help transform the emotional environment of a classroom.

How do you help students feel safe and comfortable in your classroom?