How can you create a therapeutic and calming classroom environment that cultivates learning?
I remember being in primary school, in my classroom sitting with my peers surrounded by brightly coloured display boards to show off our work, large cut-out numbers and letters stuck to the wall alongside our times table’s charts. There were red, yellow and blue cut-out images of various things tacked to the windows while we sat at our tables or on the brightly coloured carpet by the teacher’s chair.
Now as an adult working in education, I find myself walking in to classrooms that look just like those I learnt in as a child more than 20 years ago. However, the more classrooms I walk in to, the more I begin to realise it might be time for a new approach.
Mental health and emotional wellbeing
Increasing numbers of children in education now are struggling with adverse childhood experiences such as domestic violence, abuse, loss and being in care. The NSPCC reports that numbers of children in the child protection system are increasing. These rising numbers have a direct impact on the temperament and culture of your classes.
In 2011, Dr Joanne Faulkner found that in an average classroom:
- Ten will have witnessed their parents separate.
- Eight will have experienced physical violence, abuse or neglect.
- One will have experienced the death of a parent.
- Seven will have been bullied.
That is 26 children who are dealing with traumatic experiences in an average classroom of around 30 pupils. It is important that schools and teachers are aware of these statistics because it means that these 26 children are already more likely to be at a disadvantage in education compared to their peers.
Adverse childhood experiences come with long-term consequences that cannot be ignored. The brain itself is affected by trauma and often develops maladaptive coping strategies in order to help the child protect itself during times of threat. Parts of the brain that we need children to access at school, such as problem-solving, memory and reasoning are programmed to shut down when a child feels stress or fear as a protective mechanism to help them to cope, almost like a trigger. However, this is detrimental to their ability to participate at school. Another long-term consequence of trauma is prolonged stress and having increased levels of stress hormones mean that children struggle with:
- Mood swings.
- Lack of concentration.
- Poor decision-making.
- Poor problem-solving skills.
- Hyperactive behaviours (often confused with ADHD).
When a child is stressed or anxious these maladaptive coping mechanisms are triggered and as a result teachers are dealing with more behavioural issues in class, struggling with the effects of trauma (often without knowing it).
Remodel the classroom
Perhaps it is time we re-evaluate our classroom environments. Brightly coloured classrooms full of different stimulus are not likely to create an atmosphere which inspires learning for a child who struggles with stress, attention, concentration and hyperactivity.
We should instead be creating therapeutic, calming classrooms that feel nurturing and allow children’s brains to be calm enough to learn. The job of the classroom is to silently create the right atmosphere for learning to occur. To be calm and therapeutic is its main task. There are many small things you can do to make a difference.
Note: Before you make any changes to your classroom space it is important that you forewarn the children of your plans. This will ensure that the change itself does not become a trigger for stress.
Natural neutral tones
Replace your bright boxes, tubs and accessories with natural wicker baskets. The browns and beige colours are calming. You might also consider backing your display boards with natural brown hessian instead of coloured paper and use a natural white or brown border. The effect is dramatic and will help minimise distractions in the room. This also allows the work you display to be the focus rather than the whole board.
Replace strobe lights with lamps
Using lamps to create a peaceful atmosphere within the classroom can have a big impact on learning and concentration. Try turning off the main lights and having living room lamps in the classroom instead. This will allow children to focus on their work and elicit feelings of peacefulness rather than it being too bright and clinical. I have seen a few schools who have done this recently and they have reported that noise levels are lower, children are more engaged and the overall feel of the classroom is calmer.
Replace bright rugs with fluffy natural rugs
Instead of having a bright colourful rug with geometric shapes all over it in your reading/register area, try a grey, beige or brown fluffy rug that you might find in a living room. You will find that this type of rug invites children to run their fingers through it as you teach, which will provide a sensory experience and encourage relaxation. The colours won’t distract and over-power the environment and the children may be more engaged as they will be calming themselves down just by sitting on it.
Try the no shoes rule
Try asking the children to remove their shoes when they come in to your classroom. Have a box for shoes at the door. Researchers at the University of Bournemouth observed thousands of children from 25 countries over 10 years and found that when pupils leave their shoes outside the classroom:
- They are more likely to arrive to school earlier and leave later.
- They read more widely – ultimately resulting in better academic achievement overall.
- They are more willing to engage in learning activities.
- The classrooms themselves were quieter, providing a calmer environment.
This idea paired with the fluffy rug will really allow children to relax in their classroom space and in turn encourage a readiness to learn.
Play calm music
Calm music has a positive effect on the brain and body; it can lower blood pressure and reduce cortisol, a hormone linked to stress. Try putting music on when the children arrive in the classroom (as they are taking off their shoes and walking over to the fluffy rug for register). This welcome will allow their body to begin to regulate and calm down.
Remember, you don’t know what kind of morning they have had, it may have been difficult. Your classroom has the power to help reduce the stressful feelings they might bring in and get them ready to learn.
Whole class yoga
Yoga helps children to control their breathing and encourages relaxation. It is said that yoga may help reduce stress, lower blood pressure and lower your heart rate.
Try doing some yoga with the children after break or lunch when their bodies have been busy doing physical exercise. Break and lunch are often times when children are involved in conflict and social challenges.
Yoga has the potential to help pupils to refocus, calm down and gain control of their emotions and internal state. This need only be a five-minute exercise.
A calming relaxation story
“Calming relaxations” help children to control their breathing, heart rates and calm down. They are also a safe way to help children develop self-belief and resilience. Ask the children to sit calmly in a circle or at their desks with their eyes closed. Do some breathing exercises with them to help them feel calm and in control. Then read out a calm story:
Imagine you are stood in a field full of flowers, you’ve got bare feet and you are stood on the cool green grass. There is a light breeze. You can feel it on your face. Raise your head to the sky. The sun is shining down on your face and it feels warm. Your whole body is relaxed. You just stand there for a moment feeling content and happy. This is your safe place. No one can hurt you here. Nothing bad happens here.
You are feeling so happy that you want to stay here a while. You stand in the flowers and relax. As you are standing you feel someone take your hand. This person is a safe person. Someone who cares about you. You look up. Who is it? They smile. Their hand feels warm in yours and you feel safe. Then someone takes your other hand. They make you feel secure, who is it? Maybe it’s a friend, maybe it’s someone you don’t know yet? Maybe it’s someone magical? Someone you need?
Soon you look around and one by one people who care about you, love you, listen to you, make you feel special are surrounding you. They stand in a circle with you. As you stand there your body feels full of love. These people care about you and want you to be happy. You feel very special and you feel like you’re important. You look at all their faces and you feel like everything will be okay. You stand with them for a while. Then when you’re ready it’s time to open your eyes and come back to our classroom.
This article was originally written for Head Teachers update magazine 11.1.2018