September 18, 2023

From Stress to Success: Creating a Supportive Classroom Environment

Tracy Clements
A young female student pays attention in class

Mental health is the foundation for all learning and behavior. Students who are experiencing emotional or psychological distress are unable to engage in learning effectively, making it essential for educators to address these challenges as soon as possible. Even students who are mildly stressed can experience negative impacts on their ability to learn, understand, and retain new information. Identifying students who are experiencing difficulty enables school staff to assist students sooner rather than later, thus diminishing the amount of time they are unable to engage in learning. Ensuring students' mental well-being sets the stage for a successful and productive academic journey.

When the brain is experiencing extreme stress or trauma, it goes into self-preservation mode and disengages the parts dedicated to higher order thinking and learning. Essentially, all of its’ efforts go into addressing the perceived threat so there is diminished capacity to address learning, social efforts, or self-control. The key to regulating the brain and enabling higher order processes lies in safety and connection. The longer a brain remains in a dysregulated state, the more likely it is to return to that state even after safety is achieved. This is why identifying concerns early is essential. 

Classroom teachers are on the frontlines in identifying when something seems off with a student. However, even the most skilled teacher with the best curriculum and lessons cannot change the concrete fact that dysregulated brains do not learn well. Making sure students are ready and able to learn is an investment in learning. Stressors come in all shapes and sizes, and it isn’t necessary to understand all of the stressors in order to address the impact on learning. 

Teachers may notice subtle signs such as a student not being as talkative as they used to be; a student who regularly comes in smiling just coming in and sitting down; a student is asking to leave class more often; or they have stopped sitting with the peers they used to sit with. Regardless of the reason for dysregulation, there are some easy techniques to help all students regulate. 

Simple exercises to help students get ready to learn can include things like pausing for a mindful minute, taking three deep breaths together as a class, two minutes of free writing, bell-ringer prompts, or a multitude of other activities that allow students to refocus and regulate so they can be ready to learn.

As the old saying goes: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Below are some strategies to help build resilience and connection in your classroom. It’s important to note these strategies are impactful for all learners, not just students who may be struggling. 

  • Learn their names. This sounds very basic, but according to polyvagal theory, when we hear our name, our brains light up in the areas that support connection and regulation. This could help students (and teachers) feel connected and supported.
  • Smile. When you smile, it releases endorphins-the brain chemicals associated with happiness. When you smile and make eye contact with someone else, it is difficult for them not to smile back, thus creating endorphins for them, too.
  • Model emotional regulation. Everyone has bad days, and it’s important for young people to know this is normal. When you are having a difficult day, acknowledge it and explain to students how you are going to deal with it. For example: “I woke up late and didn’t have time for my regular routine this morning. I’m feeling not quite ready to jump in, and I’m sure some of you are right there with me. Let’s do a connection card and get ourselves ready to go.” 

Oftentimes, teachers feel overwhelmed and pressured to cover all of the standards and materials in order to reach benchmarks. Taking time out of instruction to help students regulate can seem counterintuitive, but it’s actually quite the opposite. One of the most impactful practices teachers can employ is creating an environment conducive to genuine learning.