Structuring the Classroom Environment to Support Returning Students

By Coleen Vanderbeek, Psy.D., LPC

Schools all over the country are preparing to welcome students back into the classroom after a full year of remote learning, hybrid schedules, and shortened school days. A year without in-person learning has exacted a heavy toll on students’ motivation to learn, and on their ability to focus, to self-regulate, to tolerate distress, and to interact with others. Many students are eager to resume their typical school schedules, while others are highly resistant to the idea, and are already showing signs of increased anxiety as plans to return to full school days are discussed.

Besides the ongoing threat of infection, there are numerous reasons why students might resist the idea of returning to the classroom: social anxiety, difficulty separating from parents/caregivers after a year of constant togetherness, the expectation of increased academic pressure, worries about being able to cope with the heightened stimulation, and a reluctance to return to early rising and long, highly structured days. Students’ worries, coupled with the understandable fears of parents and school professionals about exposure to the virus and their own post-quarantine “re-entry” concerns, are contributing to highly stressful transitions in many school districts.

Following a year of pandemic-related trauma, the return to the classroom, whether this spring or this coming fall, will be in many ways traumatic in and of itself. For this reason, Effective School Solutions (ESS) is drawing heavily upon its trade-marked Trauma-Attuned Model® (TAM®) to assist school districts as they navigate these choppy waters. This model combines evidence-based best practices from both trauma recovery and sensory regulation research.

An SSC Approach

To help students cope with the aftermath of the pandemic and the return to school, educators are encouraged to adopt an SSC Approach, that is, to place an emphasis on Safety, Security, and Confidence.

1. Safety involves the clear communication and consistent enforcement of the school’s rules, policies, and procedures, including those that preceded the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g., policies related to bullying, about the safe use of equipment, about entering and exiting school grounds, etc.). COVID-related policies and safety measures will include rules for social distancing, hand sanitizing, building cleaning procedures, mask-wearing, contact tracing, the use of air filtration equipment, etc.

2. Security involves the development and consistent maintenance of familiar routines and rituals that serve as a source of predictability and comfort. These routines and rituals occur on both a school-wide and classroom-specific basis. School-wide rituals can include how students enter the building and are greeted each morning, daily announcements over the PA system, Friday morning assemblies, lunchtime routines, weekly student recognition awards, etc. Classroom-based rituals can include the Pledge of Allegiance, morning sharing circles, stretching and mindfulness breaks, a summary/wrap-up at the end of each day or each class, etc.

3. Confidence refers to the stance that teachers, parents, and other adults adopt in relation to students. Despite the ongoing uncertainty generated by the COVID-19 crisis, it is critical that adults project calm and confidence for the children under their care. Children can easily detect anxiety and dysregulation in their caregivers and teachers, and this contributes to their own dysregulation. Students look to teachers and other adults for guidance on how to respond to stressful situations, so it is just as important for teachers to adopt and practice their own security rituals to help them stay regulated as they navigate through the school day. This is both a district and a personal responsibility: the district is responsible for recognizing teacher stress and putting supports in place, and individual educators must cultivate self-awareness and self-care to effectively teach and nurture their students.

District-Wide Preparations

Administrators can ease the transition back into the classroom for both students and staff by offering a variety of pre-entry activities and services. These ideas were discussed in detail ESS’ article entitled C.O.P.E 2.0: A Blueprint for Addressing 2021’s Mental Health Challenges. Some actions suggested in this article include:

1. Identifying and filling gaps in the district’s school-based mental health services within a Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) framework.

2. Offering specialized Tier 2 clinical services such as short-term groups to address key pandemic-related issues such as trauma, bereavement, substance abuse, and anger management.

3. Upgrading or re-vitalizing the district’s social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum.

4. Creating “return to school” workshops for students and parents at each grade level to provide a forum to discuss, normalize, and address concerns.

5. Sponsoring grade level “socials” to give students time to re-connect before resuming regular school schedules.

6. Creating a phased approach to the return to in-person learning, e.g., staggered start dates, shorter school days for 1–2 weeks, gradual increases in workloads, extended lunch and study periods, etc.

Creating a Classroom Environment that Helps Students Regulate

Teachers typically put considerable effort into setting up their classrooms to welcome students back at the beginning of each academic year. Students resuming full-day school schedules after a year characterized by dysregulation, social isolation, inconsistency, and reduced structure can benefit greatly from a classroom environment that is designed to be both inviting and soothing. Sensory regulation research and trauma-attuned approaches can inform these adjustments to classroom set-up.

Sensory Regulation occurs when all our sensory systems are working in concert to allow us to take in, process, and respond appropriately to the world around us. There are five familiar sensory systems (vision, smell, taste, hearing, and touch), and three that are less well known but are equally important: proprioception (muscles and joints), vestibular (balance and movement), and interoception (what goes on inside us).

Everything we learn about the world comes through our sensory receptors, and should occur in an automatic, effortless way. There are, however, certain neuro-biological conditions (e.g., autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, learning disorders, dyslexia, etc.), psychiatric conditions (e.g., bipolar disorder, psychotic disorder, PTSD, etc.), and medical events (e.g., head injury, stroke, COVID-19, etc.) that can disrupt sensory systems. This disruption, in turn, can contribute to cognitive disorientation, and to both behavioral and emotional dysregulation. For many students, even those with no prior mental health or learning issues, the traumatic aspects of the pandemic along with environmental changes that impact sensory systems (e.g., sleep changes, reduction in exercise/movement, dramatically increased screen time) have contributed to sensory dysregulation.

Evidence-based Trauma-Attuned Approaches teach us to pay attention to the environmental triggers that give rise to physiological and emotional trauma responses. These models also offer strategies for guiding traumatized individuals through grounding and calming practices once they have been triggered.

Our bodies are wired for protection and survival, and the brain is constantly evaluating sensory input to assess for potential threats. If danger is perceived, the nervous system prepares the body for fight or flight, or to freeze if intense overstimulation causes a shut-down response. Many returning students have lived in a constant state of threat for over a year and can benefit from surroundings that both minimize triggers and offer multiple ways to calm the nervous system.

Research has shown that most “elopements” from the classroom are triggered by environmental factors, many of which can be removed or modulated ahead of time. Some things that teachers can consider when creating a non-triggering, calming classroom environment are:

1. Clearly post daily schedules and agenda. Establish and maintain routines for class arrival/dismissal, seating, participating in discussions, asking questions, submitting work, going to the bathroom, getting a drink. Consistently communicate rules and expectations.

2. Use natural, dim, or soft lighting whenever possible.

3. Request low-arousal colors like creams or pastels if the classroom is scheduled for painting.

4. Avoid the use of cleaning supplies with harsh smells; assess for paint, garbage, or unpleasant outdoor odors.

5. Decrease clutter: visual (on bulletin boards, desks, tables, e.g.) and spatial, leaving clear pathways so students can move around desks and other objects without bumping into things or other students.

6. Create regular opportunities for student movement throughout the class period/day.

7. Use mindfulness practices as transitions from one activity to another (e.g., deep or paced breathing, stretching, running in place, throwing/catching a bean bag or rubber ball, blowing bubbles, yoga poses, sing a song, tap out the rhythm to a piece of music).

8. Create a neutral space for students where they can calm down and self-regulate (e.g., include Take-a-Break handouts, coloring supplies, fidget items, noise cancelling headphones, etc.).

9. Make sure that instructional materials are neat and clearly written out with easy-to-read font sizes and high contrast colors (e.g., dark ink on white paper).

10. Ensure that instructions for all assignments and activities are clearly communicated verbally and/or in writing. Multi-step instructions should be reinforced in writing.

11. Use a variety of ways to check for understanding (e.g., explain to a partner, show thumbs up/down, rate your understanding on a 1–5 scale) and avoid asking general questions such as “Does everyone understand?”

12. Check in with each student individually multiple times throughout the class or school day.

De-escalation Tips for Talking with Traumatized Students

Despite one’s best efforts to create a calming and welcoming classroom atmosphere, there may be times when a student might lose the ability to control his/her emotions and/or behavior. For their own safety, as well as the safety of the agitated individual and other students, it is important that educators learn de-escalation strategies that can either avert an outburst or help an agitated or aggressive student calm down.

First and foremost, teachers can invite mental health and/or behavioral management observers to help them identify possible triggers for each student. Once these pre-crisis indicators are identified, teachers can be on the lookout for them, and possibly intercede, before a situation escalates to a crisis. When a situation does escalate, however, the following are some tips to follow when talking to an agitated individual:

1. Minimize the “audience factor”. Pull the student aside or just outside the classroom door and speak in low tones so that others cannot overhear the conversation.

2. Respect personal space, standing at least 2 to 3 feet from the student. Position your body at an angle rather than toe-to-toe and eye-to-eye as this is a challenging posture.

3. Allow the student to release stress and energy with verbal venting if possible.

1. Ask “what happened?” and “how can I help?” rather than saying things like “what’s wrong with you” or “don’t you ever follow the rules?”

2. Be empathic, withholding judgment and criticism, and validate the student’s perspectives and feelings even if they are being expressed in a problematic way.

3. Try to clarify the message behind the emotional or behavioral outburst. Did he/she feel scared or humiliated, for example, and did that trigger the outburst? Use silence and re-statement of the individual’s comments to allow him/her to feel heard and understood.

4. Ignore questions that challenge your authority, redirecting the student’s attention to the issue at hand. State limits and directives calmly and clearly, offering choices where possible.

5. Keep non-verbal communication as neutral and non-threatening as possible: use a soft voice, maintain a calm and neutral facial expression, avoid power postures such as crossing your arms or placing hands on hips, avoid abrupt or rapid movements, avoid pointing your finger or waving your arms at the student.

Foster Adult Resilience in Order to Support Student Resilience

After a full year of experiencing the traumatizing effects of the pandemic, many school professionals are probably tired of hearing about the need for self-care. However, while it may sound like a cliché at this point, it could not be truer that teachers must attend to their own stress and well-being in order to be effective with their students.

Children learn to handle stress and to self-regulate by taking cues from the adults around them. Highly anxious parents often have anxious children. Highly stressed teachers can also convey a sense of anxiety or threat to students unless they actively work on modeling calm and emotion regulation. Even before the pandemic, teachers could expect at least half of their students to have experienced at least one traumatic event or situation in their lives, and those numbers are much higher now.

As educators plan to welcome students back to in-person learning, it is important that they prepare themselves as well for the return to the classroom. They should actively articulate and implement personal wellness plans that include health and well-being practices outside of school, as well as daily preparation and calming rituals that can be used throughout the school day to help them self-regulate.

Likewise, district administrators must recognize the need to expand supportive services for teaching and other staff. Mental health awareness campaigns, expanded Employee Assistance and/or mental health benefits, and professional development training and coaching opportunities should be part of every school’s re-entry plan.


Helping Traumatized Children Regulate

Using De-escalation Techniques Effectively

About Effective School Solutions:

Founded in 2009, Effective School Solutions partners with districts to provide in-school clinical programming for students with emotional and behavioral challenges.

Reinventing K-12 Mental Health Care. Effective School Solution partners with school districts to help develop K-12 whole-school mental health programs.

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