September 19, 2019

Creating a Zen Classroom to Improve Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)

Monica Boyer
A photo of a zen sand garden with two rocks

We all know that stress and trauma play a huge role in a student’s academic success. Kids that experience chronic stress and/or trauma often perform poorly. This poor performance impacts their academics, behavioral, and social/emotional skills. Even further, we know that past trauma severely impacts a child’s ability to grow and develop. This article from Edutopia is just one of many articles that identify how dangerous stress, especially chronic stress, is for a student. Within the same article, the growth mindset is mentioned as a tool to help alleviate those negative effects of stress.

But how? The “how” isn’t identified in the article. And while the Zen Classroom isn’t completely synonymous with a growth mindset, incorporating these techniques into your classroom will lead to a growth mindset.

Earlier I stated that “past trauma severely impacts a child’s ability to grow and develop.” Notice I didn’t say that a child is unable to grow and develop. This is never true. If I believed this to be true, I should leave the profession immediately. Instead, I have chosen to find methods to help my students move beyond past traumas, as well as how to manage current stressors.

Educating Students on SEL

In order to create a Zen Classroom, you must first work on educating your students. True Zen comes from knowledge. Students have a right to know why SEL is so important, not only in how learning social and emotional skills can benefit them, but also in knowing the dangers of failing to improve upon SEL. Additionally, without the education, many students will simply think that this is “one more thing” they “have to do in school.” Be transparent with your students. As educators, we want this; why should we expect any different from our students?

But how do you educate students on emotional intelligence? In my classroom, we use several different techniques. One method to increase our emotional intelligence is to use children’s books. These work at all levels (I teach high school) and make a difficult subject just a little bit easier to manage. There are TONS of great books out there to choose from. Some of our favorites include the I Am series (I Am Yoga, I Am Love, etc.), I Am Enough, and the picture books Journey, Quest, and Return. Picture books are often my favorite because while all books are subjective to a certain degree, picture books really allow for personal expression in the perception of the message. Personal expression is important when teaching emotional intelligence, as everyone perceives events differently. By hearing these differences, we are truly able to understand those differences. This understanding leads to more compassion for others, which is a component of emotional intelligence.

Once emotional intelligence has been taught, you can really delve into setting up your own Zen Classroom. Just don’t forget to continue to work on those SEL skills!

The Zen Corner

One of the most important pieces of a Zen Classroom is a Zen Corner. A Zen Corner is easy to create and easy to use. Create comfortable seating (I use a bean bag), make it secluded (make sure it is still in your line of sight, but not other students), and add some of your favorite Zen tools. These can be changed, added to, or taken out as needed. The purpose of the Zen Corner is to provide a safe place where students are able to take time to self-regulate. A few key things for an effective Zen Corner include: a calming space, no cell phones, and plenty of tools to allow for self-regulation.

My classroom's Zen Corner has an oversized bean bag, calming statements, a calm down jar made by my students, various fidgets (chosen by my students), a notepad and pen, a whiteboard and marker, and a piece of calming fabric. The pen and whiteboard are something my students requested in order to do a “brain dump” to help get those negative thoughts out of our head. Sometimes we get inside our own head and stop ourselves from moving forward. With brain dumps, they can write all those negative thoughts out. By writing their negative thoughts out, my students are able to identify thoughts, events, and situations they have control over. They can then decide how to manage their emotions, as well as how to respond in certain situations. In addition, many times the negative thoughts are simply our insecurities. By recognizing these insecurities (which takes place following education on emotional intelligence), the students are able to replace those negative thoughts with positive thoughts.

The 60-second Transition

The final technique I’m going to introduce is the 60-second transition. Teaching in an alternative setting, I quickly discovered that while I was able to move past minor transgressions by my students, they often were unable to do so. Because we either are with each other all day or only transition to one other teacher, this makes for a difficult and long day. Traditional high schools have passing periods. My school does not. To help create natural transitions that also help students self-regulate, something which may happen during those passing periods naturally, I created 60-second transitions. At the end of every class period, we take 60 seconds and regulate ourselves. This can be done using yoga, visualization, exercising, deep breathing, and even meditation. Find what works best for your students and roll with it!

The key to making a Zen Classroom successful is to make it fun. All classrooms need to be spaces that students want to enter, and a Zen Classroom is no different.