Re-creating a Learning Environment


July 6, 2021
Dr. Lori Desautels

The upcoming school year presents a set of challenges that will make it unlike any other first day that teachers, administrators, and staff have faced before. Schools will need to be intentional about creating a learning environment. An environment with routines and schedules throughout the school day that are not only predictable but address the cultivation of emotional and physical stamina that many of our students are missing. Especially those students who have been virtual for the past six months to a year.

Read about the role of emotional connection in addressing collective trauma.

Movement will be a game-changer as our nervous systems will need the exercise and movement breaks to help unlock the tension and stress as we move through individual stress cycles. Our routines must encourage Focused-Attention Practices—brain exercises to calm and quiet the myriad thoughts that can distract and frustrate students and staff alike. Creating a learning environment that incorporates intentional breathing, rhythmic practices, and sensory accommodations aids in creating a sense of calm and safety in the body that can anchor our nervous systems for improved attention, working memory, and successful learning. Many of our students have recently reported that they have not left their homes since the pandemic began.

As these students return to the classroom, they will need the supports and resources to build up the emotional and physical stamina that has been lost during the past 18 months.

As we rethink our procedures and routines school-wide, administrators and staff will need to prioritize sensory regulatory practices as we begin, transition, and end the day or class period. As previously mentioned, Focused-Attention Practices will help to energize or calm the nervous system through movement, patterned rhythms, and breath. Brain-aligned bell work will be an important start to the day or class period creating engagement, novelty, and a relaxed state of alertness to the present moment. What does creating a learning environment with brain-aligned bell work look like? When we are intentionally checking in through novel and engaging practices, we are also addressing discipline challenges on the front end. I have two examples of brain-aligned bell work we can integrate at the beginning of the next school year. These projects and activities can carry over for several days or weeks and I will continually share examples of these practices. These practices are also beneficial for adults and can be introduced before staff, department, and grade-level meetings.

Brain-aligned bell work example one:

Morning gatherings will be an essential activity for all ages of students and adults. These gatherings prepare the nervous system for learning and allow everyone to check in and share the predictable routines, schedules, and expectations for the class or day. There are several ways to check in with one another, and passing the drum is a novel and engaging choice. As we pass the drum in a circle, we each choose to share our own rhythmic beat that aligns with how we are feeling in that moment. We can drum to the rhythm, speed, and volume of our nervous systems each morning, during transitions, or at the end of the day. Discuss the patterns you noticed! Was the rhythm soft and slow? Was the rhythm fast and loud? Was it chaotic or did it have a smooth coherent beat? When we are feeling rough and dysregulated, what types of rhythms feel relaxing or comforting to our nervous systems? We can record our rhythms in a journal for a week or two and notice the ebb and flow of our own patterns during a period of time.

Brain-aligned bell work example two:

Art expression is an extremely regulating practice to begin a class or day. Fill your paper with colors, lines, and shapes. What colors are the biggest or loudest? What colors are hiding? What shapes are the biggest? Draw what happiness looks like. Draw what sadness is. Draw how anger feels and what it is. Now look at your art, then close your eyes and feel in your body if happiness, safe, irritated, nervous, anxious anger, or sadness are there. Where in your body are those feelings located? Can you journal, doodle, or create images that share how you are experiencing this morning in your body and brain?

Our students were not required to sit for seven hours a day working on academic assignments during the pandemic. Therefore, we will need to “chunk” assignments with recurrent movement, and even water or snack breaks. We may need to focus on smaller portions of quality work and not quantity. If students are understanding content and the applications of what is required, we will need to focus on a process of gradually increasing the length and duration of assignments to meet students where they are in their brain and body states. Our focus will need to be on five problems completed accurately versus 30 problems, with two well-written paragraphs and feedback that will reinforce successful completion.

As my colleague Anne Marshall shares, “Schools operate through schedules. Students are offered designated times to eat, enjoy their related arts classes, transition from class to class with a variety of expectations.” For students who have been virtual this year, returning to detailed and specific schedules may require an adjustment period. Caregivers, older siblings, and parents can help support these school schedules by creating a few mini schedules at home this summer. Examples might be timers for chores, morning agendas, schedules with friends or activities, routines for the evening or mornings, or designated breaks throughout the day.

“Every heart sings a song, incomplete until another heart whispers back.” – Plato

We come into this world wired for connection, as connection is a biological imperative. Our nervous systems require reciprocity to regulate our states and to feel safe (Porges, 2012). A sense of belonging brings satisfaction, and our individual sense of happiness is impacted by being part of a social network. We lost this connectedness last year and the residual effects of felt isolation and chronic unpredictability will be remembered for years to come. Creating a learning environment that embraces a “family culture” will help to mitigate those feelings of distressing isolation, loss, and loneliness.

Here are some questions to consider as you work toward recreating connectedness.

Can we embrace and validate our inimitable embodied experiences over the past 18 months?

Can we listen deeply to one another’s pain, challenges, strengths, and celebrations through an equitable lens generated from our unique cultural experiences?

Can we create rituals of collaboration, talismans that speak to our unity, songs of hope, banners, poetry, and shared art that collectively celebrate the reclaiming of our schools as a living system?

Consider building connectedness through intentional service.

It’s in our power to encourage opportunities for service next year with staff and students, placing a significant emphasis on serving one another.

For example, seniors could care for our custodial staff for one week. Freshmen could Zoom with your elementary grades sharing their first few adventurous weeks in high school. Seventh graders could surprise bus drivers with banners, notes of appreciation, snacks, and creative greetings.

Beyond your student body, office staff could welcome parents—who may be feeling overwhelmed—with a warm, special greeting when they walk into the office. Or you may schedule you school resource officers to work alongside school counselors and social workers for a few weeks each semester.

There are hundreds of ways we can strengthen the network of community in our schools and districts. We need each other!

Look beyond stopgap solutions.

Finally, we will need to embrace the process of creating a learning environment versus relying quick-fix end products or strategies that promote and promise definitive results. Over the past 18 months our children, youth, educators, and parents adapted to significant unpredictable changes inside of hundreds of moments each day. As a new school year approaches, we will need to share the science of “why” we are feeling dysregulated, saddened, overwhelmed, anxious, angry, and everything in between. When we join up with our nervous system states, we begin to feel a sense of relief, empowerment, and curiosity for the resiliency and plasticity of our body’s ability to find moments of calm during our roughest individual and collective storms.

The rhythms of life are always about ruptures and repairs, and during the past year, our schools have experienced a significant amount of rupture without the time, space, and opportunities to repair and move through these changes together. We will need to acknowledge these storms of racial and social inequities, adversity, and trauma to carry this generation and generations into new ways of repairing, leading, teaching, and living life with the emotional, mental, and physiological well-being that is the birthright of every human being.

The role of education is to help us live outside the walls of a school.

Science continues to demonstrate that our brain and body systems are always changing and neuroplasticity (the ways our brain networks reorganize) is our superpower!

Author and social worker Deb Dana states, “Our autonomic nervous system is at the heart of daily living.” State regulation must be recognized in our schools as a prerequisite to the mental and cognitive tasks before us.

Dr. Lori Desautels is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. Lori was also an assistant professor at Marian University in Indianapolis, where she founded the Educational Neuroscience Symposium, now sponsored by Butler University. Lori has created webinars for educators, clinicians, and administrators illustrating how educators and students alike must understand their neuroanatomy to regulate behavior and calm the brain. You can learn more about her work at Revelations In Education.

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