Thursday, May 19, 2016

Building a Culture of Caring in Your Classroom

By Karen LeVasseur, LCSW, owner and therapist at Calm4Kids Therapy Center, LLC

Building Character
Having worked as an elementary school teacher for many years I know the importance of building character in your classroom. I learned over the years that time spent on character education, in particular at the beginning of the school year, was time well spent. Think about it. To engage successfully in academic learning, the following skills need to be in place:

- Emotional regulation
- Problem solving
- Communication
- Teamwork

Students don't always come to school with the skills that they need and it is up to the educator to support kids in learning the "how" of getting through their school day. If you have ever read The First Six Weeks of School by Paula Denton and Roxanne Kriete, you will agree that spending time at the beginning of the school year, setting expectations, modeling and practicing socially acceptable behaviors, establishing a routine for identifying and resolving conflict and solving problems as a team will set up your students for success and allow your classroom to run like a well oiled machine. 

Setting Kids Up For Success
I remember one year, when I taught fifth grade. I was excited for the year, having been in fourth grade for many years. I was eager to dive into the fifth grade curriculum and set up a great academic program for my kids. Unfortunately, the twenty five youngsters in my class were not as excited as I was. The school year started off with problem behaviors, arguments, yelling, teasing... It was not the happy school year I had envisioned. About three weeks in, I brought academics to a screeching halt and put a heavy emphasis on character building. During the next month and a half I started holding a morning meeting each day, used the time right after recess for meditation and created an "Acts of Kindness" Wall. Everything we did academically involved practicing team-building and problem solving skills and assertive communication. By the end of October, my students not only knew what to expect and what to do, they also knew how to do it well. My well oiled machine was achieved!

Morning Meeting
Holding a morning meeting is an important part of your classroom culture. Starting each day as a community, interacting positively with one another is a great way to start off the day on the right foot, for students and for the teacher! There are many different activities you can incorporate into your morning meeting. Be creative and add activities that feel right for you and for your kids. Some ideas include:

Class Pledge- Write a pledge that speaks to the core values you want at work in your class. An example is "I pledge allegiance to my class, that I will try my best, to make good choices and try real hard to be responsible like the rest. I care about the others here and I care about me. I want school to be a special place where I learn and want to be!"
Greetings- One year I taught my students to greet one another using both Spanish and American Sign Language. Students would pair off and say/sign "Good morning, how are you?" The student would respond with "Good morning, I am (happy, mad, tired, sick...). How are you?" The kids loved the bilingual challenge!
Circle of Friends- Ask your students to sit in a circle either on the floor or in chairs. Pose a question such as "How will you be successful today?" or pose a challenge such as "Compliment the person next to you on something nice they did yesterday" and have each student respond. Emphasize active listening skills and use a talking stick if needed.
Problem Solving Box- Set up a box in the classroom with problem sheets that students can fill out indicating the following: I have a problem with... It is a problem because... I have tried to solve it by.... Each morning pull out one problem sheet and read it to the class. Allow the kids to generate possible solutions to the problem. The person who wrote the sheet can remain anonymous or they can identify themselves. Either way, the child with the problem will leave the circle with many new ideas to try!
Minute to Win It- Put kids into pairs and give them a 60 second challenge to complete together. Use riddles, math problems, rebus puzzles or have them complete a physical or building task like on the tv show. Allow the students to be noisy and have fun while they build teamwork skills!

Calm Kids are Productive Kids
I think one of the best decisions I ever made as a teacher was to add meditation to my schedule. I have used the technique at different times of the day but found that right after recess really helped kids to recharge and refocus, allowing success for the second half of the day. The meditation does not have to be long. Even a few minutes of mindfulness to breath and stillness can calm an active or emotionally labile child allowing them to make good choices with their behavior and with peer interaction. Try some of these techniques. I'm sure you will notice a difference in your students' affect as well as your own!

60 Second Vacation- Have the kids lay on the floor or relax in their seats. Ask them to close their eyes and imagine a place where they feel happy, calm and safe. Guide them in using their senses to explore this place, envisioning themselves doing something to be focused, calm and successful. After about 60 seconds of quiet visualization and deep breathing refocus students on the classroom environment and their job as a student.
A Moment of Stillness- Have kids relax as above and guide them in taking slow, deep breaths (belly breaths) filling up their lungs and expanding their abdomen like a balloon on the in breath, then releasing on the out breath. Once a breathing pattern has been established, ask the kids to continue breathing, remaining as still as possible for a minute of meditation. It is helpful to have them imagine sinking into their chair or melting into the floor. When time is up ask the kids to open their eyes and focus on your face (or a point in the room), taking one more cleansing breath.
Breathing Buddies- Students lay on their back on the floor with a small stuffed animal on their bellies. This is called their breathing buddy who helps them learn to take belly breaths as described above. Model for students how to take a belly breath, saying "On the in breath the belly goes out and on the out breath the belly goes in." Guide students in taking slow, deep belly breaths for a few minutes then collect the buddies and get back to work feeling refreshed!

Meditation for Kids

Being Kind is Cool!
It is helpful to teach kids the importance of being kind and caring toward others. I helped my students learn this valuable lesson by first identifying acts of kindness in literature, providing roleplay scenarios and by inviting the "Note Fairy" to visit my classroom (she secretly leaves notes for students who she witnessed acting kindly toward others). Once the term "Act of Kindness" was well understood and students were regularly engaging in AoK's I set up an "Acts of Kindness" Wall where students could note the kindness of others or post their note from the Note Fairy to celebrate their own success. Each week a different student was honored on the wall with a brief description of how he/she went above and beyond in helping our classroom be a kind and caring environment. Regular celebration of success really helped to motivate kids to be kind to others and to themselves!

Random Acts of Kindness
Welcome | Random Acts of Kindness
Kindness stories, quotes, ideas, classroom resources and more.

Try some of these ideas and please share the wonderful things you do in your classroom! Be creative, have fun and remember, "What you notice will happen more!" Celebrate your students' successes and help them to build the skills they need to be able to add to the culture of caring you have established in your classroom.

Karen LeVasseur is an LCSW and is owner and operator of Calm4Kids Therapy Center, LLC in Bradley Beach, NJ where she offers hypnotherapy, play therapy, EFT, and mindfulness based psychotherapy for clients ages 3 through adult. Karen also has vast experience as a School Counselor, Elementary School Teacher, School Social Worker and School Anti-Bullying Specialist.


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