The Emotionally Safe Classroom

St. Paul’s Teachers Foster a Caring Learning Environment

Jovita Nack, a fifth grade teacher at St. Paul’s Lutheran School, says that when a child does not feel safe, they cannot learn.

“I came across a professor in college who understood classroom anxiety and said, ‘Think of me as someone who is like an editor and it won’t be as stressful.’ I flourished and came out of that experience and she helped me grow,” she adds.

Brain research backs this up, highlighting how a child’s stress response system causes them to feel danger and impairs their ability to focus on anything else. Creating an emotionally safe classroom, where students can learn without having overwhelming stress, is the key to allowing students to flourish.

She says there are three things that will foster an emotionally safe learning environment:

  1. A caring relationship and community
  1. Music, humor and movement
  1. An environment of relaxed alertness

“The biggest thing is establishing caring relationships. The one thing I do everyday is smile at my kids,” Mrs. Nack says. “You don’t know what kind of morning these kids have had. Smiling and laughing make them feel better.”

She emphasizes that establishing a relationship of trust is foundational to lowering their stress response in class. “That relationship is so important,” she adds. “They need to know you’re not going to embarrass them. You’re not going to point them out. You can choose to berate them or you can talk to them about making better choices.”

These techniques include using humor as well as movement to keep students engaged. “Movement is important for ADHD kids,” Mrs. Nack adds. “They have to be engaged. Take that five minute break to do a stretch exercise. I also take a softball, wind it up like a pitcher and then when they catch it, they decide on a physical motion for the whole class, like jumping jacks.”

Reducing stress helps to balance the neurotransmitters that control things like stress, well-being and calmness. “This all involves the brain God gave us. He knew we’d need the fight or flight response. All these things are there for a reason. But it’s not good to be there all the time. When the students live with that, they can’t remember things. The limbic system hijacks it.”

So what can teachers do to relieve some of the stress responses in their students? It starts with making some simple changes.

“There are so many things you can do in the classroom. I allow students to grade a paper and it eliminates a stress. It’s a learning tool. It gives them responsibility. Students need some control.”

She also uses humor as a way to connect with students. “There are so many ways to redirect a student by using humor and implementing it into teaching techniques. Any chance you have to put humor in, it breaks the ice.”

Mrs. Nack says as a result of using these techniques, she’s become a more relaxed teacher and that makes for more relaxed students.

“After all the research, I realized if we don’t get to something today, I can do it tomorrow. The kids won’t be stressed out and I won’t be stressed out. It made me more aware of why we’re doing things.”

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