By Leigh Cline
“Take out your post-it notes. It’s time for a check in. Let’s do ‘What’s Your Number?” I say to my second graders as I look around the room.
Our morning has started, and I’m interested to see how my students are feeling before we jump into our academics. The students pull out their post-it notes, write a number from 1 to 10 on a note, and place them on the white board easel in the back of the room.
Some of them will have names on the back of their post-it notes, and I will be sure to check in with those students and see how I can help. Some of them will write the number 10 or even higher, and others who are having a tougher day may write a lower number—between 1 and 5.
This routine, which I first learned about from a virtual workshop with with educator and speaker Matt Davidson, has made a huge impact on my students and our relationships. The 7- and 8-year-olds who enter my classroom each morning come to school with a variety of feelings, and I want to make sure they are emotionally ready to learn or that I help them to make their day the best it can be.
Building a classroom community
Building relationships with students at any age takes time and hard work, but it can make a huge difference in the classroom culture and opportunities for learning. Instilling routines that give students a voice and feel important is a big step into getting to know them—all parts of them—as well as helping to run a classroom smoothly. However, there are many other ways to positively enhance your classroom through routines and infusing social-emotional learning into academics.
Greeting students at the door as they enter our classroom, leading a morning meeting and establishing consistent routines are examples of creating a safe place for your students and building a classroom community. But you can also establish routines in your classroom that cause minimal disruption and maximize learning time.
The use of nonverbal cues in my classroom helps keep students from feeling singled out and keeps our lessons moving. Students in many classrooms, including mine, use hand signals as a way to communicate their needs without using words.
In my classroom, I teach my students on the first day of school how to let me know that they need to use the bathroom, get a drink, tissue, or pencil, or if they need help, all without using their voice. I also keep the hand signal chart visible throughout the year so substitutes and special guests can also refer to it. In addition, I use certain sign language gestures to let students know they need to stop what they are doing or sit properly, which I can do without stopping a lesson or even saying a student’s name.
During our transition times, we use energy breaks, such as Go Noodle or dancing to a song, because we need to move around, have some fun, and get our brains and bodies ready for the next activity.
On average, my classes complete over 1,000 minutes of energy breaks in Go Noodle in a year. While that might sound like a very high number, when the energy breaks are over, my students are more likely to sit down ready to learn than if I simply moved from one subject to the next.
“How can I help?”
One of my recent favorite TV shows, “New Amsterdam,” focused on a medical director who constantly asked “How can I help?” when his employees came to him with problems.
I use this question throughout the day with my second graders because at times they don’t need an adult telling them what to do or how to do it. Sometimes, they need someone in their corner who is helping them to self-advocate or figure out what can solve a problem.
A break pass
At times, my students need a break in the calm corner, which has fuzzy pillows, small stuffed animals, Legos and other fidgets. Other times, students request to take a break. In our classroom, once they have permission, they pick up a break pass from the windowsill and go for a walk.
Their walk can simply be around the upstairs hallway, or they can go to the sensory hallway and do a few exercises or jumping activities. When they are feeling ready to return, the students simply re-enter the classroom quietly, put the pass back, and get back to learning.
Feeling valued, connected and safe
While the pandemic has changed many aspects of education, including the importance of mental health and the use of technology across grades, some things have always been there, such as the need for students to feel valued, connected and safe.
As a young child, I lost my mother to cancer and grew up feeling different from my classmates because I couldn’t make a Mother’s Day gift for my mom. In my late elementary years, I was bullied by classmates both in and out of school, but I never told anyone because I feared that it would only get worse.
I promised myself that when I became a teacher, I would make a difference for the kids who felt different. I had many amazing teachers growing up, but even they didn’t always know how I felt, and I wanted to become a trusted adult for my own students as well as a safe place for them to be themselves and make mistakes.
Many times, we hear that students aren’t where they should be and the phrase “learning loss” is brought up in countless different ways as we discuss the post-pandemic education world. However, when we focus on building connections with our students and meeting them where they are, as kids, we begin to break down the walls of their trauma and emotional baggage and build up their self-esteem, self-confidence and academics.
Academics and positive education
In addition to establishing consistency and giving students an opportunity to regulate their emotions and self-advocate, we can also find ways to make our academic content more meaningful and relatable by infusing social-emotional learning into our lessons.
Several years ago, I attended a week-long Positive Education training and was fascinated by the idea of character strengths. After taking the character strength assessment myself, I decided this was something I needed my students to learn about. (See positivepsychology.com/what-is-positive-education.)
Having incorporated lessons on many of the 24 character strengths into our early work, my students are able to discuss and support the character strengths demonstrated by Native Americans as they persevered through learning to live with the Pilgrims, Martin Luther King Jr. and his fight for civil rights, and the famous Black Americans who have contributed to our nation’s history.
They notice bravery, fairness, leadership and love. They point out kindness, honesty and humor in historical figures. Then they evenfkkkrf begin to notice those same character strengths in themselves and their classmates. Suddenly, the content has become relevant, and the discussions are more emotional.
Leigh Cline, a second grade teacher at the Parkway Elementary School in the Ewing Township School District, is the 2022-23 Mercer County Teacher of the Year.