By Christa M. Tinari, M.A., coauthor of Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle School: 48 Character-Building Lessons to Foster Respect and Prevent Bullying
Have you heard that feelings are contagious? This is true in the classroom, as well as in other social contexts, due to our brain chemistry and the physical changes that happen in our bodies when we experience emotions. Positive emotions decrease the stress hormone cortisol and increase feel-good chemical messengers in the brain (such as dopamine and serotonin), helping students feel physically and emotionally safe. This boosts feelings of safety and trust, which helps students build better bonds with those around them. When students feel good, positive actions follow, creating better social relationships. And stronger relationships lead to better learning.
Still, some may argue that spending time on boosting positive emotions in the classroom steals time away from academic tasks. Yet if students are experiencing strong negative emotions, learning is compromised. Students’ attention is focused elsewhere, and their emotional dysregulation may even lead to social conflicts or personal meltdowns. These situations require immediate teacher attention, disrupting class time and causing emotional stress to classmates.
Ultimately, when teachers and students have so much to gain and nothing to lose, there is good reason to focus on increasing positive emotions in the classroom. To get started, try these strategies to boost curiosity, hope, and belonging.
Curiosity, the desire to learn or know something new, is a natural quality that all humans possess. Before language is learned, babies are driven to understand their environment by exploring their surroundings through their senses. Studies show that once children begin to speak fluently, they will typically ask somewhere between 70 and 300 questions a day! So, how can we encourage our students’ innate sense of curiosity, which is such a powerful driver for learning?
Ask good questions.
What makes a question good? Good questions cannot be answered by a simple yes-or-no response. One of my favorite strategies is to use I wonder as a sentence starter, followed by if, why, or how. Wondering can be used in many contexts, such as during read-alouds, text exploration, and pair-shares. Try using pictures to introduce new content, prompting students to craft their own I wonder questions. These can be used to create a bulletin board to guide your subject inquiry. Or, pass an object around the room, having students focus their wondering on it, and follow up with story writing. This strategy develops creative and scientific thinking and piques curiosity. It’s also naturally fun!
Connect with students’ interests.
Provide time for students to research and plan their own passion projects. There is plenty of opportunity for students to focus on a hobby or passion while applying their emerging skills. For example, if your students are working on percentages in math and citing sources in English, you can build in requirements for them to include these skills in a project on Minecraft (or any other interest).
Don’t jump to conclusions.
When students experience problems, don’t blame, but instead get curious. Teach your students to be detectives who investigate problems rather than jump to quick conclusions based on (potentially) incorrect assumptions. You can use the I wonder technique again here. For example, when meeting with a student about missed assignments, ask, “I wonder what’s been getting in the way of you completing the work?” Using an investigative approach brings empathy, open-mindedness, and cooperation to tough situations.
Hope is defined as experiencing a positive expectation or aspiration about the future. A hopeful child happily anticipates the future. But students can lose their sense of hope, fearing that they are not good or deserving enough to succeed, but rather are doomed to fail. Students may feel that people are “against them,” causing them to be defensive and suspicious of others’ motives. On the other hand, students with a high amount of hope believe that others are there to help. Hopeful students set goals, create plans to reach those goals, and are able to persevere despite setbacks. Try these strategies to inspire hope!
Focus on strengths.
We must not get caught up in the deficit model of education which looks for what’s lacking in students. Rather, we should be able to identify multiple strengths in each of our students and help them uncover and recognize strengths within themselves. Do an internet search for “multiple intelligences” to find lists of the skill sets in each of the intelligence areas to help your students expand their thinking about what it means to be “intelligent.” Provide weekly reflection prompts, such as, “A strength or intelligence I used this week is _________,” “A strength I discovered this week is _________,” and “A strength I’m developing is _________.”
Unfortunately, many of our students have a negative script running through their minds: I suck. No one likes me. I’m no good at this. These kinds of thoughts contribute to feelings of hopelessness that compromise children’s motivation. To help students develop a new internal language, provide them with examples of positive self-talk, and have them generate their own examples. Make positive self-talk visible in the classroom through posters, collages, and reminders on brightly colored index cards. Add the word yet to students’ negative statements: I can’t do this . . . yet! Fostering a growth mindset reminds students that challenges are normal and change is possible.
Belonging refers to having a fond feeling toward one’s group or place and to feeling that one is accepted, respected, welcomed, and included there. Belonging is a well-researched concept in the youth development field, since it has been associated with better academic and health outcomes for students who experience it. A sense of social isolation or alienation, on the other hand, is a risk factor for negative behaviors, including substance abuse, self-harm, and, potentially, aggression toward others. Due to the many social dynamics at play in society and at school, some students have a higher sense of belonging than others do. Thankfully, there is much you can do to increase opportunities for belonging!
Greet every student.
Establish a daily greeting ritual that ensures every child is welcomed into the classroom. A 2018 study found that implementing a greeting ritual increased student engagement and decreased disruptions. I’m a fan of the “choose your greeting” posters that contain images of the options: fist bump, wave, high five, smile, dance, or hug. Students can simply point to the greeting they would like to give to and receive from you on their way into the classroom. Have students greet one another as well, practicing their social skills as they do so. Be sure to review expectations regarding safety, respect, and consent when inviting students to participate in greetings that include physical contact (even handshakes).
Sync up with sound.
Music and rhythm bring us together, because they actually sync up our heartbeats and breathing patterns. You may already use a clapping rhythm to get your class’s attention. Clapping in unison—try speeding up and slowing down or doing a call-and-response pattern—provides a sense of cooperation. Singing a song chosen by students to represent your class provides a sense of unity. Experiment with creating new words to familiar tunes. Play music or lead a call-and-response chant to facilitate transitions between activities or to make cleanup more fun.
Share admiration and appreciation.
It feels good to be noticed and appreciated. Facilitate a closing circle at the end of the week during which one student (voluntarily) sits in the appreciation chair while other classmates consider something they admire, appreciate, or want to thank that student for. Give students think time so that everyone will have something to share. If you have a large class or feel that sharing might be difficult, invite comments from five to six students. After each admiration or appreciation, the student in the chair responds “thank you.” Receiving honest appreciation from peers increases students’ sense of acceptance and belonging within the classroom.
A final word of advice: Remember to be proactive about cultivating your own positive mood. Your mood might be the number one influence on your students’ moods in the classroom. Once you start focusing on positive emotions, you will experience the ways in which positive vibes can transform your day. Students will be more focused, patient, and cooperative. Your students will form closer bonds to you and to their peers. Learning will become joyful again!
Christa M. Tinari, M.A., is a bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, and school climate specialist. She speaks at educational conferences and provides training and consulting to schools across the country. Visit www.peacepraxis.com to learn more about her work.
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