Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Environment is Key: Keeping it Calm and Positive

I have long believed that environment is critical in helping kids become their best selves. As a teacher, it is critical that I provide a safe place where kids can take risks, grow socially, academically and emotionally and become independent learners ready for 1st grade! 
As I write this, I become even more painfully aware that this environment is in jeopardy each day as more and more cuts impact education. In some school districts, including a district where I previously worked, K-3 classes are going to rise to 34 students and upper grades: 38+ students. My school will go to 24 students in primary classes next year.  Now if all kids were coming to school healthy, emotionally regulated and ready and able to learn, perhaps there would be less of a  problem.
There seems to be a trend that kids are coming to school with more intense physical and emotional needs; many display challenging behaviors requiring intense individual intervention. From Autism Spectrum Disorders, such as Asperger's to serious food allergies, to asthma to ADHD, not to mention emotional regulation challenges, the average teacher has at least a few students who meet such criteria.
In my class this year, for example, I have at least 5 students who are identified as having asthma. When the weather changes, or after even something as simple as an upper respiratory infection many of those students are given medications which make them absolutely bounce off the walls. I have several highly emotional students whose "meltdowns", particularly in the afternoons when they are tired, are stress-inducing for other students.
Although I am not allowed to diagnose and even further, dislike "labeling" kids, there are at least three students who meet the diagnostic criteria for ADHD in my class. These students have great difficulty sustaining attention, cannot sit for more than a few minutes, and disrupt those around them who are ready to learn.  Three of those students are also in the asthma group. Coincidence?
In addition to those with issues of inattention and constant activity, several of my students have recent life changes that impact their daily emotional stability. Divorce, new babies at home, parents laid off or returning to work, parental long-term illness and other issues seriously impact kids each day.  We must arm our kids with tools to deal with their emotions so that they can be in a state of relaxed alertness, ready for learning. 
So, what do we do?
First, we must be sure that we give kids strategies to work through emotions. In class today, we discussed what we can do when we are upset, angry or frustrated. The students came up with some ideas: count to 10, breathe deeply, talk to someone, walk around for a few minutes, get a drink of water, and try to not think about it! Not long ago one of my students came up with a helpful strategy for himself; he says that when he gets upset at school he can "walk around it" in his mind and come back to solve that problem later. Of course, what he says isn't necessarily what he does as he can be observed on many occasions when he doesn't get his way yelling, "I guess you just don't love us!" across the classroom. Although these wise 5 year olds can say what they "could do" they surely need practice and adults who regularly model healthy expression of feelings. 
Not only must we model and explicitly teach healthy ways of expressing anger and frustration, we must also be cognizant of the media influence on young minds. Kids often use video games, movies, tv, and even music lyrics as both models and excuses for their behavior and outbursts. How do they learn to use such excuses at the tender age of five?  Parents may not "allow" their five year olds to play violent video games or watch "mature content" shows, but if someone in the home is doing so with the child walking in and out of the room, the exposure is certainly there. 
Providing a calm, emotionally and physically safe environment must be a team effort between parents and school. The experiences in both environments greatly impact the child and his capacity for learning. We must be vigilant to keep kids feeling calm and safe. Only then will we see optimal growth for each child.
How do you keep the environment safe and positive for your kids, at home or at school? Please share so that we can all learn from each other!

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