Gina Harris is a Culture and Climate Coach who works to create more inclusive, equitable and connected school communities. NEA Today spoke with Harris about the different strategies for different age groups. Here are Harris’ suggestions in her own words.
First, we must build a lot more intentional time into classroom structures so students have the opportunity to get acclimated. Rather than getting started with work right away, what I’m hoping as an SEL practitioner is that we start by supporting students to express where they are and what they’re feeling, that we have conversations about who they are.
Our younger students need to get regulated to learn with techniques like mindfulness exercises. After the hustle and bustle of arriving in the morning or getting them settled after lunch, try singing or dancing or reflections. These activities can help students be present in their body and coach them to be fully cognizant of what’s going on in their minds and bodies. Ask, how are you feeling? How does it feel in your tummy? How does it feel in your head? Is your heart moving fast or slow?
If a student says their tummy or their heart feels fluttery, encourage them to connect with the feeling by talking about it more. What does fluttery feel like? After they talk about it, ask them to close their eyes, take a few deep breaths, and breathe into their belly. Now what does your tummy feel like? Getting into the breathing takes their mind off their nerves – the parasympathetic nervous system gets activated with deep breathing.
Middle School Students
Older students also need regulating techniques. In middle school, we can ask them to write reflections every morning and in embedded times throughout the day. For example, you can say, “OK, let’s have a seat and write down three thoughts that are occurring for you right now and also describe what’s going on in your body.” Then they can do the breathing exercise and write about how that impacted their thoughts and feelings.
High School Students
In high school, students are actually asking their educators for more SEL time in the day. During advisory periods they can sit in restorative circles and take turns talking about their experiences, about ways that’s impacting their feelings. For all ages, it’s critical to teach them that they are having an emotion, but that doesn’t mean they are the emotion.
Praising Negative Attitudes and Behaviors
This approach may appear to go against gut reactions, but it is based on well-established research called “positive psychology” (Seligman, 1999). This strategy can be added to your classroom management tool kit by using a student’s negative behaviors as a resource instead of a problem. By taking a student’s negative behavior as a skill they’ve perfected their whole life and turning that into an asset to your classroom you avoid a power struggle with the student, and instead redirect their negative behavior. This method allows the educator to show perceived empathy for the student while also reframing that skill into something that can be applied into the classroom environment. For example, if a student is especially disruptive, take that as a sign they want to lead and give them responsibilities that allow them to take control over certain tasks in the class.