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4 tips for building a strong classroom culture this year

The past two years have been very difficult for students and teachers in our nation. In the wake of the isolation and trauma caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health and behavioral challenges are growing as students continue to grapple with unprecedented amounts of stress, anxiety and grief. The decline in child and adolescent mental health has been so significant that the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Association of Children’s Hospitals have declared it a national emergency.

These mental health issues have translated into increased disengagement, conflict, and bullying – and, as a consequence, disciplinary action – in classrooms and hallways across the country.

As the dean of culture at a public school in Queens, New York, until recently, I saw these challenges for myself. I also know that traditional discipline methods fail to address the root cause of behavioral problems. Many forms of disciplinary action do more harm than good. This is especially true when research shows that black students are disciplined far more often than white students for the same crimes, perpetuating and perpetuating cycles of inequality in our schools.

Rather than continuing to create a culture of punishment, I’ve worked with my school to craft a unique blend of mindfulness strategies and social and emotional learning — informed by Breathe For Change, a 200-hour Wellness and SEL coaching and yoga teacher training for teachers — creating a safe and engaging space for children.

As we teachers – weary from two years of stress, fear, and uncertainty – begin a new school year, it can be tempting to fall behind with punitive disciplinary action. But it is important to start the year on a positive note. Here are four strategies that can help create a positive classroom culture as the school year begins:

Create a calm environment
It is important to create a welcoming space that invites students to feel calm and safe. This can include adjusting the lighting, putting on aromatherapy, and playing soft, wordless music. When a student is struggling, teachers can bring them into this space to de-escalate the situation and give them time to process what they are feeling. Before bombarding them with questions about what happened, give students the opportunity to write a diary, guiding them through the process with thoughtful stimuli. The student may also want to sit quietly for a moment, and that’s fine too. When discussing what happened with the student, be sure to validate their point of view with empathy and understanding – even if you don’t personally agree.

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