This is post #3 in a 20-post series designed to disrupt outdated behavior management models and help you create the classroom culture of your dreams. This post contains excerpts from my book Take CHARGE of the Classroom.
When teachers change the lens through which they view procedures, their understanding of them will crystalize. The primary function of teachers in the classroom is to teach. While this might seem obvious to you, the scope of the teaching is sometimes limited by a lack of vision. More than simply teaching students how to read, solve multi-step problems, or execute the quadratic equation, teachers also have the privilege of teaching behaviors.
Routines are merely those – expected behaviors. Whether it be how to enter the classroom, where to find missing work, or how to ask for permission to use the restroom, there are many behaviors that students engage in every day or even multiple times a day. While these sound simple, they can vary greatly from classroom to classroom.
Some teachers have no expectation for how students should enter the classroom, so students can enter quietly and noisily as long as they are in their seats before the bell rings. Others want students to line up in the hall and wait until the teacher has signaled for them to enter. Some teachers have work on the board and expect students to come in and get started right away while others have a series of prescribed actions to perform, such as hanging up backpacks, turning in assignments, and sharpening pencils.
The scary part comes when all of these varying expectations exist within the same classroom and shift from day to day. Some teachers are fickle and their lack of procedures creates wildly changing expectations. When students don’t know what is expected of them, they feel insecure and untethered. Behavior that was acceptable yesterday brings a strong reprimand today. This lack of clarity creates anxiety and tension.
Routines, then, are not restrictive but expansive. They teach expected behaviors in the classroom and the school. This, in turn, provides consistency and predictability. These are two qualities that students need in abundance because it helps to answer a fundamental question they ask subconsciously every day, “Am I safe?”
What can you do tomorrow?
Reinforce routines. Consider the procedures you already have in place. Commit to practicing them a few times this week and explaining to students why they are important. If there are some procedures you’d like to put in place, it’s never too late to start.
Make them visible. Provide visual support for students by taking and printing a picture of the completed procedure. This might be a picture of students lined up quietly and placed above the door or a picture of a neat and orderly library center placed on the library bookshelf.
What does this look like in the classroom?
The teacher establishes and consistently practices routines that are:
· Clearly structured and explained;
· Visually depicted for easy reference; and
· Reinforced and revisited when correct execution begins to diminish.
I first learned about safe places when reading Conscious Discipline (Bailey, 2015). This procedure is actually five separate actions all rolled up into one. And even before teaching students the steps to use when they need to regulate themselves, teachers have to first create a physical safe place for students to use when upset.
The safe place is the hub of taking charge in the classroom. If students don’t learn to regulate themselves, you as the teacher are left to constantly chase after them, attempting to calm and soothe them in-between lessons and small group intervention sessions.
Teaching students that they can affect their own emotional states with conscious action is the key that unlocks their limitless potential. The first step in helping students achieve this goal is to provide a physical anchor for them and to teach them how to use it.
Typically, safe places have some type of comfortable seating, such as a cushy chair, beanbag, throw rug, or even a few pillows. Instead of being a punishment, safe places should be viewed as welcoming areas that help students tackle their inner feelings. In addition to a location to sit, safe places should have tools to use for the calming process. These vary from classroom to classroom but typically include some type of poster or visual to help identify emotions, glitter jars, and other tactile objects, even stuffed animals.
The first step in using the safe place is for students to go there voluntarily when they feel upset or overwhelmed. To keep the safe place safe, it should never be used as a time-out or any type of punishment. Once it becomes associated with these negative feelings students will not want to go there on their own. At the beginning of the year, introduce the safe place to students and discuss its function. It’s not a part of the regular station rotation and it’s not a secondary library or reading center. It has one use and one use only, to give students an area to think about and change their emotional states when upset.
The second step in the safe place procedure is another routine all in itself. It doesn’t really do students a whole lot of good to simply sit on a beanbag when they’re upset. This changes their physical location without doing much to their internal reality. When arriving at the safe place, students should begin using a breathing technique of their choice to begin transforming their emotional state. Obviously, this step is a non-starter if breathing practices are not a regular part of the classroom.
After students use a self-selected breathing strategy and have begun the process of self-regulation, the next step is to identify what emotions are present. This is typically aided by something available to students in the safe place, such as a mood meter or feelings poster. Depending on the age of your students, it can be as wordy or pictorial as fits their developmental level. The key idea is not to mull over the synonyms of distressed to find the perfect one to fit the occasion. Instead, the very act of trying to identify emotions helps students take the first step toward recovery.
Next, after breathing and naming their emotions, students can choose to engage in a calming activity, again selecting from items available in the safe place. Whether it be blowing on a pinwheel, playing with a glitter jar, or rubbing some type of tactile implement like a sequined pillow, students need a few minutes for their nervous systems to calm down enough to rejoin the class.
Yet just because the students are more visibly calm at this point does not mean that the crisis has passed. Waiting for children outside of the safe place is the same problem that drove them there in the first place. It is here where adults can step in and help children solve their problems. If thrust back into the classroom immediately, another meltdown might occur without some type of teacher intervention. Helping students solve the initial problem is the final step in this intricate yet life-altering procedure.
What can you do tomorrow?
Create safety. If you have not done so already, create and share the safe place location and procedure with your students. Ensure that you have a specific location with comfortable seating and a visual guide for identifying emotions.
Personalize it. Provide tactile soothing objects and begin to practice breathing techniques with students daily so they can use them in the safe place when needed. Students are more likely to use the safe place if they feel welcomed there.
What does this look like in the classroom?
The teacher helps students regulate their emotions by:
· Teaching a safe place routine;
· Leading/participating in daily breathing exercises; and
· Helping students resolve problems.
To read more posts in this series, click here.
Bailey, R. A. (2015). Conscious discipline: Building resilient classrooms. Oviedo, FL: Loving Guidance.