Creating a positive classroom environment for students living with adversity

childhood adversity

Nearly one in two children have experienced serious adversity such as abuse, neglect, the loss of a parent, or mental illness. Here are five steps for creating a classroom environment that fosters a sense of belonging and capitalizes on students’ strengths, from ACSD:

According to large bodies of trauma-related research, this relational approach is more effective when it occurs in an environment that fosters a sense of belonging and of feeling valued, competent, and safe. How can we create a classroom environment that reflects these characteristics and capitalizes on our students’ individual strengths?

Positive Asset-Based Relationships Are Visible Among All in The Classroom

The importance of our relationship with students cannot be overstated. It begins with getting to know them and building trusting relationships. An important goal from the very beginning of our work with students should be identifying their strengths and qualities, in the form of values and assets, and reflecting them back to students. Gathering information about students is a good way to build and strengthen our relationships and personalize our interactions with them.  One example of this relationship-building practice is greeting individual students as they enter the classroom. Think about how a student would feel when her teacher greets her by saying: Good morning, Lucy. Great to see you after that tough game last night. I heard you were very determined on that court!

Students Have Voice and Choice in Matters That Pertain to Them

Students living in adverse conditions are more likely to experience a loss of control and feelings of powerlessness. Classroom environments that promote empowerment do so by providing many opportunities for students to build their confidence and capacity to speak up, address issues, take risks, and make decisions about what works for them. Welcoming students’ voice and choice helps them to be involved in decisions that impact their learning.  Asking a small group of students to suggest solutions to a challenging situation that affects them directly, is just one example of how educators can bring in student voice to our classrooms.

Lessons Are Made Relevant By Connecting the Curriculum to Students’ Lives

It is essential to develop lessons that meaningfully connect to students’ experiences and encourage them to become emotionally invested in learning. For example, linking literary characters and literature to students’ personal, cultural, social, and world experiences can validate students’ strengths and interests. Further, characters and their actions can be discussed at great length to help students learn what others have done to overcome challenges.

The Classroom Physical Environment Responds to Students’ Learning Preferences

A classroom is a haven for many students living with adversity.  It is also a place that is conducive to learning because it takes into consideration students’ needs and preferences. For instance, students should have input in the arrangement and design of their classroom including desks and wall space to facilitate collaboration, discussion, and individual work.  This type of environment fosters a sense of belonging and of feeling valued, competent, and safe.

Routines and Practices Have a Predictable Rhythm

Classroom activities that use routines and rituals are critical for alleviating the unpredictable nature of living with adversity. They help students to reclaim normalcy and control by supporting a downshift from a fearful state to a calmer and more positive one. An example is a routine opening meeting to describe the day’s schedule and discuss how students will transition from one activity to another.

Learn more about social-emotional intelligence in the classroom and its role in learning:

Source: Five Elements of a Positive Classroom Environment for Students Living with Adversity | ASCD