It is important to create a safe and inclusive environment that fosters creative expression and openness. This can sometimes be a delicate balance to achieve. It is important to recognize that students’ seemingly inappropriate or undesirable behaviours or responses (inappropriate humour, acting out) to some of the healthy living concepts may be behaviours that they have adapted in order to cope with past situations that were upsetting or traumatizing and/or to protect themselves from feeling unpleasant emotions such as hurt, blame, shame, anger, and frustration.
Examples of situations that may have been upsetting or traumatizing might include a loss, neglect, a parent’s divorce, moving, bullying or social rejection, harassment, cyberbullying, stigmatization, racism, gender stereotypes, identity development, embarrassing events, changing appearance, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, and domestic violence.
A situation that may have been upsetting or traumatizing is unique to the person experiencing it. Factors such as age, other past traumatic situations, family dynamics, and support systems may inform how a student reacts.
If triggered or alarmed, students may act out or become disengaged and will not be able to learn well.
By keeping students calm and alert, they will be able to think clearly, do creative work, and enjoy productive classroom interactions.
The effects of an upsetting or traumatizing situation often decrease when the educator recognizes and understands inappropriate or undesirable responses and responds to meet the student’s needs.
Simple strategies can be used to optimize student engagement and learning.
Tips to manage the classroom environment for optimal student learning:
- Recognize that inappropriate or undesirable responses and seemingly inappropriate behaviour are normal adaptive responses to abnormal events, such as situations that should not have happened to them (e.g., abuse).
- Adopt a “strength-based” lens (e.g., focus on the skills students have and bring to the learning).
- Listen to and talk with students.
- Ask students to reflect on their activities, behaviour, and feelings can help them become self-aware and regulate their emotions. (“What’s it like to do this right now?”)
- Normalize and be with, don’t fix emotion.
- Help students name and tame strong emotions. By having students acknowledge their emotions verbally or in writing and validating them, escalation may be avoided.
- Help students develop more adaptive coping mechanisms, such as belly breathing, grounding exercises, and mindfulness.
- Recognize and promote acceptance of difference, the ideas that 1) everyone has the right to their own thoughts, beliefs, feelings, needs, and wants and 2) that these will be different for different people.
- Model healthy boundary setting and encourage students to set their own boundaries.
- Model and teach appropriate communication, respect, and conflict resolution.
- Try to understand behaviours before addressing punishment or consequences: negative reinforcement may increase a student’s sense of insecurity.
- Ask them to explain the behaviour. (“Why did you react this way / say this thing?”)
- Validate any emotions expressed.
- Explain any actions or consequences.
- Encourage and practice assertive communication, as opposed to aggressive or passive communication:
- Describe the situation, stating facts (no blaming or accusing).
- Express how you feel about the facts or situation, using I statements and non-verbal communication.
- State what you want or need, using I language.
- State any consequence to their action.
- Help students develop self-care plans. (These may include physical, emotional, spiritual, lifestyle, and people support.)
- Support students in connecting to experts in the community (including your administrator) who are able to assist them further.