Chapter 7: Classroom Environment

Unlearning Box

Joey comes to school in the morning, and one of his classmates makes a negative comment about his shirt. It’s already been a rough morning–he accidentally overslept his alarm and his grandma was yelling at him to hurry up so he wouldn’t be late–so he snaps at his classmate, “Oh shut up.” His teacher overhears and says, “We don’t use that language at school, so now your card is on yellow.” He tries to explain: “But he–” but his teacher interrupts. “Oh, now you’re talking back to me? That’s a red card and now you have silent lunch.” 

Joey was having a rough morning, and the classroom environment didn’t help him at all. In this example, you can see how some traditional approaches to behavior management–including card-flipping systems and silent lunch–don’t get to the root of the problem and actually can cause more harm, making them ineffective practices.

In this chapter, we will investigate the elements of classroom environment, how trauma impacts classroom environments, critical community stakeholders in classroom environments, and strategies for building a positive classroom environment.


Elements of Classroom Environment

In order for students to be successful at school, we must first carefully craft a supportive, learning-centered classroom environment. There are many aspects to consider when designing your classroom environment. Some are within your direct control as an educator, and others are not.

Three things you can control as you craft your own classroom environment are physical set-up, overall atmosphere, and behavior management. Together, you may hear these elements referred to as “classroom management.” The idea behind this term is that you have certain systems in your classroom that need to be “managed,” or organized, in order to scaffold your students’ success.

Backpacks are hung in a classroom.
One component of classroom management is the physical arrangement of the room. Where will students keep their personal belongings? How will students access instructional materials throughout the day? A clear organizational system within the physical arrangement of the room is necessary.
  • Physical set-up: How are desks and tables arranged? Can all students easily see the Smartboard or dry erase board? Are there spaces for students to participate in whole-group, small-group, and individual learning? Are learning materials (including math manipulatives, paper, pencils, science notebooks, and books for reading) easily accessible and organized?
  • Overall atmosphere: Does the classroom feel structured, warm, and welcoming, or does it feel cold, sterile, and depersonalized? Does the teacher interact with students in positive ways that build their trust, or does the teacher yell at students and talk down to them? Do students feel like this is a “home” for them and their learning, or do they count down the hours each day until they can leave?
  • Behavior management: Are there clear expectations of acceptable behavior in the classroom? Are there clearly-established norms or policies, or is everyone unclear exactly what the “rules” are? Are there clear consequences or rewards for off- or on-task behavior? Are these rewards and consequences applied to all students equitably, or are some students in certain groups offered more rewards or more consequences compared with similar behaviors in their peers? Is there a communication system in place so educators, students, and families know these expectations and how the performance of their specific student measures up?

Some elements are beyond your control in your classroom, such as trauma students may have experienced previously, or what resources your families or community has access to or lacks. In addition, sometimes cultural differences manifest themselves as apparent “misbehavior.” For example, if an educator comes from a culture where young people should look their elders in the eyes to show respect, they may accidentally label “misbehavior” in students who come from cultures where avoiding eye contact is actually a sign of respect. You may hear of these characteristics as part of a metaphorical “cultural iceberg” (Figure 7.1). On the surface, you may see cultural elements like cuisine, holidays, or ways of dressing; however, even more lies below this “visible” surface, such as body language, concepts of fairness, and even expectations of what “good behavior” means.

Figure 7.1:  The Cultural Iceberg Model

The cultural iceberg includes surface elements of culture (like food, holidays, and dress) as well as deep elements (manners, values, beliefs, etc.).
The Cultural Iceberg Model (Hall, 1976) acknowledges that there are some surface aspects of culture that are more easily visible, but other equally important aspects might be harder to see.

Trauma, resources, and culture, though not part of “classroom management,” still impact the overall classroom environment, and therefore are important to be aware of. For this reason, we intentionally refer to “classroom environment” throughout this chapter because we feel it is more inclusive of the many contexts and systems that impact your students’ learning success.

Critical Lens:  Race and Classroom Management

While we like to think of our classrooms as fair, equitable places when it comes to classroom management, the reality is that this isn’t always true. Teachers of all races are more likely to punish Black students (Smith, 2015), and Black girls are seven times more likely to be suspended than White girls (Finley, 2017). Sometimes, getting in trouble at school is an entry point into the juvenile detention system, leading to what is known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”[1] It is important for educators to be aware of these statistics and trends in order to proactively support all students’ success within the classroom and beyond.

Trauma in the Educational Setting

When you think of a classroom environment, you may first think of a warm, welcoming environment where all students can thrive. The reality is that trauma can have a very real impact on students’ participation in instruction and the classroom community. Sometimes this trauma happens outside of the classroom, like Adverse Childhood Experiences; sometimes this trauma happens inside the classroom, like bullying. Being aware of different ways our students experience trauma both within and beyond the classroom helps us create learning environments that meet the needs of our students.

Adverse Childhood Experiences

Our students, like Joey, come to school each day wearing an invisible backpack, filled with all of the experiences they have had in life. Some of these invisible backpacks are light because our students’ experiences thus far have been loving, safe, and predictable. Unfortunately, too many of our students wear heavy backpacks full of experiences that have been frightening, unpredictable, and unsafe. These experiences can be characterized as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Childhood exposure to abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction may lead to increased social, emotional, and behavioral difficulties as well as decreased academic performance in the educational environment. Additionally, traditional means of interventions and support may not be successful in modifying behaviors for the long-term. Meeting the needs of our students impacted by adverse childhood experiences requires a shift in the educational setting to focus on the consistent development of healthy relationships between students and staff including the implementation of trauma-informed classrooms and interventions.

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) is a term coined by Anda and Felitti (1998) following a two-year, retrospective study in partnership between Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In this study, researchers examined the relationship between childhood experiences and the long-term impact on health. A questionnaire was developed utilizing pre-existing surveys and explored childhood exposures to certain experiences with the following categories of questions: psychological abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, exposure to substance abuse, mental illness, violent treatment of mother or stepmother, and criminal behavior. These categories were chosen to build upon existing research on the long-term effects of single episode child abuse. Felitti et al. (1998) recognized that other areas of dysfunction can co-occur with abuse and believed failing to measure the presence of these conditions in combination with abuse may wrongly attribute outcomes to one incident as opposed to the cumulative impact of multiple experiences. The study also identified 10 health risk factors including “smoking, severe obesity, physical inactivity, depressed mood, suicide attempts, alcoholism, any drug abuse, parental drug abuse, a high lifetime number of sexual partners, and a history of having a sexually transmitted disease” (Felitti et al., 1998, p. 248). The original ACE study found correlations between the number of childhood exposures and the development of health problems in adulthood. It is also found that ACEs were common, with 52% of participants experiencing at least one adverse childhood experience, and co-occurring, with 40-74% experiencing at least two (Felitti et al., 1998). Due to the correlation with social, emotional, and cognitive impact, this research suggests that preventing exposure to ACEs in childhood could potentially reduce the long-term negative impact at a societal level.

Results of the original ACE study yielded a strong correlation between early experiences and later outcomes as an adult. However, it is critical to note that the study, although ground-breaking at the time, had several limitations. Felitti et al. (1998) indicated that due to the retrospective and self-report study design, the results should only be interpreted as demonstrating that a relationship may exist between the presence of adverse childhood experiences and later health concerns. They also recognized that other factors, such as the age at which exposure occurred, the intensity and frequency of exposure, as well as the presence of protective factors may exist, impacting the relationship between the two, which were not included in the study (Anda, Porter & Brown, 2020). In fact Anda, Porter, and Brown (2020) released an article cautioning against the use of the ACEs questionnaire as a diagnostic tool. In this article, they state, “questions from the ACE study cannot fully assess the frequency, intensity, or chronicity of exposure to an ACE” (Anda, Porter, & Brown, 2020, p. 1). Furthermore, they indicate the ACE score should not be used to screen, diagnose, plan for treatment, or predict future outcomes of individuals as it was designed for research purposes at the larger level. This is essential to understand for our students in schools because identifying an ACE score does not give us a picture of the whole child, including their strengths and protective factors.

Critical Lens:  Advocating for Appropriate Uses of ACEs

Anda, Porter, and Brown (2020) caution us against using the ACE questionnaire and resulting score to screen, diagnose, plan for treatment, or predict an individual’s future outcomes. What should you do if you are in a professional development and the leader advocates for one of these misuses of the ACEs survey? One approach could be to talk to the session leader, or another trusted leader at your school, about your concerns and provide them a copy of Anda, Porter, and Brown’s (2020) article. Most importantly, make sure you are not defining your own students by their ACEs score.

The original ACE study was conducted between 1995-1997, and there are several potentially important factors not considered, such as the presence and impact of social media and homelessness on our students today. Although limitations exist, the study has been replicated numerous times with similar findings. A meta-analysis conducted by Hughes et al. (2017) found moderate to strong associations between ACEs and health conditions such as smoking, alcohol and/or drug abuse, heart disease, and mental health issues among other conditions with long-term impact. A study conducted by Merksy, Topitzes and Reynolds (2013) looked at the relationship between ACEs and health outcomes for minority adults in the Chicago Longitudinal Study and found the outcomes confirmed the results in the original ACE study. Correlations among adverse childhood experiences, poor health, and medical concerns in adulthood continue to be found and explored with different subgroups of the population. The overall message continues to be clear: a relationship does exist between ACEs and later functioning as an adult; however, we must not assume that an ACEs score will predict how we should interact or work with students in our classrooms, as will be further discussed below.

Critical Lens:  Understanding Replication

Above, we mentioned that studies on ACEs have been replicated with similar findings. Why is replication of a study so important? Replication helps confirm that the findings of an original study weren’t just an accident. Before we extend information gathered in a study to large groups of people, it helps to be sure that the findings are accurate and withstand repeated testing over time and in different contexts. Sometimes, studies don’t have the same results when they are repeated, which leads to the original study or finding being retracted.

The relationship between early adverse experiences and later health outcomes can be impacted by a variety of factors, including resiliency, or the ability to bounce back from these experiences. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University studies resilience in children and explains what it is in the video In Brief: What is Resilience?

Resilience can be fostered through protective factors including one strong, positive relationship with an adult. As educators, we have the opportunity to be a protective factor in our students’ lives through our understanding of adverse experiences, their impact on our students, and developing and utilizing empathy in the classroom.

ACEs in the Classroom

Our students’ invisible backpacks can be filled with experiences that weigh them down and impact their ability to function successfully in the educational environment. These can be single-episode experiences, such as a house fire or car accident, or the more complex experience of developmental traumas. Developmental traumas can include ongoing physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, physical and emotional neglect, and household dysfunction. Abuse is defined by a caregiver’s action, or failure to act, resulting in death, significant physical or emotional harm, or the exploitation of a child under the age of 18 (Child Welfare Information Gateway, n.d.). Physical neglect can include failure to consistently meet basic needs such as food and shelter, as well as providing a safe, clean environment. (Recall Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that you learned about in Chapter 2: our physiological needs, such as food and shelter, must be met before we can do other things, like learning.) Failure to provide adequate medical and dental care are also forms of neglect, though families without resources are subject to these issues and, as a result, children experience a lack of adequate care, beyond their families’ control. Emotional neglect involves the failure to meet or recognize a child’s emotional needs. Household dysfunction is the most common adverse childhood experience in childhood as many of the characteristics are often co-occurring. This category includes a variety of factors impacting caregivers such as divorce or separation, alcohol and/or substance abuse, mental health issues, domestic violence, and incarceration (Felitti et al., 1998).

Stop and Investigate

In many areas, teachers are considered mandated reporters. That means that if you see evidence of abuse or neglect in your students, you are required to report it to Child Protective Services, or to a different individual at your school (like a guidance counselor) who serves as a liaison with Child Protective Services. Failure to do so can lead to the loss of your job. Research if teachers are considered mandated reporters in your local school district.

A brain map depicts the cerebrum, brainstem, and cerebellum.
Trauma causes students to function in the brainstem, the part of the brain responsible for autonomic responses of fight, flight, and freeze. A child without trauma will use the prefrontal cortex, located in the cerebrum, more to regulate emotions, engage in healthy relationships, and complete other executive functioning tasks.

The dose-effect, or the frequency, severity, and duration of the experiences in our students’ lives can heavily impact their behavioral, social, emotional, and academic success. Bessel van der Kolk (2014) states the impact of chronic traumatic stress, the repetitive exposure to an experience overloading the body’s ability to cope, includes “pervasive biological and emotional dysregulation, failed or disrupted attachment, problems staying focused and on track, and a hugely deficient sense of coherent personal identity and competence” (p. 168). In essence, our students who experience chronic, traumatic stress can struggle to tolerate frustration and control their emotions, struggle to engage in healthy peer and adult relationships, as well as struggle to engage in executive functioning tasks such as initiating, sustaining, and completing work. This primarily occurs because trauma impacts their ability to access the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for these functions. The prefrontal cortex is part of the cerebrum. Instead, students with higher exposure to adverse childhood experiences tend to function more frequently in the brainstem, the part of the brain responsible for the autonomic responses of fight, flight, and freeze.

Figure 7.2 highlights the differences in brain functioning for a child who experienced typical early development and one who experienced developmental trauma. The areas of the brain responsible for cognition are far less active in students with developmental trauma while the part of the brain responsible for survival (i.e. fight, flight, or freeze) becomes the default response system.

Figure 7.2: Brain Development and Trauma

Pyramids show the inverse relationship between brain development without and with trauma.
The presence of trauma influences how the brain develops. Without trauma present, most of the brain’s functioning is devoted to cognitive tasks, with less of a focus on survival tasks. With trauma present, the inverse is true: most of the brain’s functioning is devoted to survival tasks, with less bandwidth available for tasks related to social/emotional or cognitive load.

The fight, flight, or freeze response in the educational environment can inhibit our students’ ability to access their education effectively. It can also be disruptive to the learning of their peers. Some examples of fight, flight, or freeze responses include hitting, kicking, screaming, elopement (running away), pulling away from adults, not moving, hiding under furniture, shutting down, and withdrawing. It is important for us to remember these behaviors are coping skills that developed in response to stress or trauma the student was unable to manage any other way. Additionally, our student is not doing this to us. They are responding to a situation, internal or external, in which there is no other accessible way to cope. These situations are commonly referred to as triggers and may not always be predictable or observable for students with developmental trauma. For this reason, it is vital we develop policies and practices within the classroom which are trauma-informed as it will foster an environment in which empathy is present and healing can occur.

Bullying in the Classroom

While ACEs occur outside of the classroom setting, another element of trauma for students in school can be bullying. In 2017, about 20 percent of students ages 12–18 reported being bullied at school during the school year (U.S. Department of Justice, 2017). In order for behavior to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include:

  1. An imbalance of power. Students who bully use their power–such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity–to control or harm others. Power imbalances can change over time and in different situations, even if they involve the same people.
  2. Repetition of behavior. Bullying behaviors happen more than once and establish a pattern of behavior. One stand-alone hurtful comment or action is not the same as bullying.

There are generally three types of bullying: verbal bullying, social bullying, and physical bullying. Verbal bullying is saying mean things and includes behaviors such as teasing, name calling, inappropriate sexual comments, taunting and threatening to cause harm. Social bullying, sometimes referred to as relational bullying, involves hurting someone’s reputation or relationships. Social bullying includes leaving someone out on purpose, telling other children not to be friends with someone, spreading rumors about someone, and/or embarrassing someone in public. Physical bullying involves hurting a person’s body or possessions. Physical bullying includes behaviors such as kicking or hitting, spitting, tripping or pushing, taking or breaking someone’s things, and/or making rude or mean hand gestures. In 2017, about 42 percent of students who reported being bullied at school indicated that the bullying was related to at least one of the following characteristics: physical appearance (30%), race (10%), gender (8%), disability (7%), ethnicity (7%), religion (5%), and sexual orientation (4%) (U.S. Department of Justice, 2017).

Pause and Ponder

What kinds of bullying have you seen/experienced/been a part of? How did this make you feel? Were you ever a bystander and did not intervene? What did that feel like for you?

Cyberbullying, also referred to as electronic bullying, is bullying that takes place using electronic technology. Electronic technology includes devices and equipment such as cell phones, computers and tablets, as well as communication tools such as social media sites, text messages, chat, and websites. Examples of cyberbullying include mean text messages or emails, rumors sent by email or posted on social networking sites, and embarrassing pictures, videos, websites, or fake profiles.

A person turns away from a computer with hurtful messages.
In our increasingly technological world, instances of cyberbullying are becoming more common. Cyberbullying is particularly hard to control because it can happen anytime, anywhere, and evidence of the original creator of hurtful content can be deleted or obscured.

Unlike bullying, cyberbullying can happen 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and reach a student even when they are alone. It can happen any time of day or night. Cyberbullying messages can be posted anonymously and distributed quickly to a wide audience. It can be difficult and sometimes impossible to trace the source. Deleting inappropriate or harassing messages, texts, and pictures can be extremely difficult after they have been posted or sent.

Bullying and cyberbullying have significant implications when it comes to trauma and our students’ school and life experiences. Children who are cyberbullied or bullied in school are more likely to use drugs and alcohol, skip school, be unwilling to attend school, receive poor grades, have lower self-esteem and more health problems. There can also be the most devastating of consequences: a child committing suicide.

As an educator, you are in a position to prevent bullying or intervene when it happens. Later in this chapter, we will discuss how to create a positive classroom environment for students in order to mitigate the chances of bullying in school and beyond.

Stop and Investigate

Explore or one of the bullying resources from Harvard’s Making Caring Common project[2]. What did you find, and how could this information help you as you create a classroom environment that actively interrupts bullying?

Critical Community Stakeholders in Classroom Environments

As teachers, we are not expected to create positive classroom environments all by ourselves. Community stakeholders, including school social workers and families, also play a critical role.

School Social Workers

With their unique training, perspective, and expertise, school social workers can be valuable assets in school communities. Introduced to the education system in 1906, “visiting teachers” (as they were then called) were tasked with gathering the histories of students to assist in the evaluation process, and then delivering interventions based on those results. Community groups saw a need to connect the home and school environments in order for under-resourced students to access education (Constable, 2016). In 1913, the first “visiting teachers” were hired by a school district in Rochester, New York. At that time, the Rochester Board of Education noted that “in the child’s environment outside the school there are forces that often thwart the school in its endeavors to educate” (p. 14). This event marked the first time schools began to focus on the whole child.

Initially, the role of school social workers focused on acting as the liaison between home and school, with an understanding of environmental factors impacting student engagement and achievement. Over time, however, the role shifted from an environmental focus to one in which interventions were child-specific and related to mental health. The role of school social workers continued to adapt and change through the years to meet the educational needs of vulnerable populations and to focus on ensuring that students were able to equitably access their education. As awareness increased of the impact of the environment on a person’s development, the role of school social workers shifted again: they began to look not just at a student, but how that student was shaped and existed within multiple communities and systems, such as Bronfenbrenner's ecological systems theory that you learned about in Chapter 2.

Today, school social workers are considered to be “trained mental health professionals who can assist with mental health concerns, behavioral concerns, positive behavioral support, academic, and classroom support, consultation with teachers, parents, and administrators as well as provide individual and group counseling/therapy” (School Social Work Association of America, n.d.). Although school social workers may not be utilized in all states or school districts, the benefits for those that do are clear. As members of school teams, they are able to assist at the building level as well as classroom, group, and individual levels to meet the social-emotional needs of both students and staff. Their commitment to bridging the gap between home and school can facilitate stronger engagement and relationships with caregivers in the academic lives of their children. Additionally, school social workers are educated in understanding the impact of systemic experiences and structures on the development of children and families. This knowledge is important in today’s schools as we learn more about the effects of adverse experiences on our students’ abilities to fully benefit from their education.

School social workers can provide prevention and intervention services at the building level, including developing and implementing social-emotional curricula aimed at improving emotional intelligence and developing a sense of belonging within the school setting. Support can be provided at the classroom level as well to provide more targeted interventions based on the need of small groups. Teachers can work with school social workers to discuss specific student and family concerns, gain ideas for social-emotional interventions, and to monitor the progress of students’ behavior. School social workers can also assist with prevention programs, such as those for reducing student drop-out or suicides, as well as targeting specific populations, such as students experiencing homelessness, who may need additional support.

School social workers provide services to school personnel, students, parents/families, and districts.

At the family level, school social workers can connect families with community resources to increase stability, safety, and health within the community. School social workers can meet with families in their homes to better understand any specific concerns or needs the family may have and determine the appropriate interventions. Robert Constable (2016) stated, “The basic focus of the school social worker is the constellation of teacher, parent, and child. The social worker must be able to relate to and work with all aspects of the child’s situation, but the basic skill underlying all of this is assessment, a systematic way of understanding and communicating what is happening and what is possible” (p. 6). Operating from a strengths-based perspective, school social workers can engage with families in a nonjudgmental manner and ensure that all parties have a common understanding and goal.

Finally, the role of school social workers is heavily focused on ensuring the social-emotional health and needs of students are supported. Direct services provided can include individual and group counseling, as well as crisis response, such as conducting risk assessments for students experiencing suicidal ideation. Social workers can provide clinical intervention in a variety of school-related mental health concerns including anxiety, depression, coping skills, and emotional regulation. Services can also be provided to address social skills deficits including assisting students in understanding their social environment. The School Social Work Association of America (n.d.) provides a visual representation of The Role of School Social Workers.

School social workers can be valuable members of a comprehensive team within school communities. As an educator, it is important to remember social workers are bound by a professional Code of Ethics which emphasizes the importance of confidentiality as well as the right to self-determination (National Association of Social Workers, n.d.). As such, social workers will share confidential information with other school staff when it is necessary to meet the needs of the students in the educational environment. They may limit what information is shared to maintain confidentiality. Additionally, social workers may need to advocate for a student’s right to self-determination, or the right to have a voice regarding if and how services occur. The benefits of direct services to students increase significantly when the student is able to participate in the decision to engage in the setting of goals. Working in collaboration with social workers can ensure all parties have a common goal: meeting the needs of students.

Families and The Community

Pause & Ponder

Imagine you hear a teacher saying to another teacher in the hallway, “Families don’t come to conferences because they just don’t care about their kids.” How would hearing that statement make you feel as a teacher? A student? A family member?

This statement in the box above is one you may have already heard from teachers talking about their students’ families, or is one you will likely hear sometime during your teaching career. This statement conveys a deficit view of families by positioning families as “uncaring,” while the reality is likely quite different. Families might be unable to attend a conference due to various challenges with scheduling, transportation, childcare, or their own negative experiences in school. This statement also reveals misunderstandings of the differences between family involvement versus family engagement, two terms that are often used interchangeably but actually are distinct concepts.

Family Involvement vs. Family Engagement

Family involvement tends to be more school-oriented, whereas family engagement tends to be more family-oriented. Ferlazzo (2011) described family involvement as the school holding the expectations for family participation and telling families what they need to do. In other words, the school does things “to” or “for” families and families respond. For example, consider when it is time for teacher conferences: the school sends out a schedule, and the expectation is that families will come to school at the appointed time. The goal for these meetings is often a one-sided transition of information, where the teacher reports back to the family how the student is performing in class, while expecting the family to be somewhat passive acceptors of this information.

Family engagement, on the other hand, indicates working “with” families: sharing responsibility and working together to support children’s learning. In this case, when it is time for teacher conferences, the teachers are encouraged to work with families and find ways to communicate with all of them. While some families will come to school at the scheduled time, some might schedule a phone call when they are on break from work, while others might prefer to do FaceTime because they want to see the teacher. Teachers will also engage family members as contributors, asking them what they have seen at home, or what their celebrations, goals, or concerns are for their child’s learning.

Schools cannot exist without families, and therefore there is a great need for partnerships between schools and families. Families can contribute to school communities in a variety of ways, even well beyond volunteering in classrooms or contributing to required fundraisers. Families can use their firsthand knowledge of the local community to help connect teachers with community agencies or experts for a field trip or classroom visits. All students bring a wealth of background experiences–often built with their families–to the classroom each day, which can help students connect to and understand learning goals and the world around them. Remember that while there are some more visible, traditional forms of support (like volunteering or joining the PTA), families partner with educators in limitless ways to support a common goal: their child’s learning and growth.

Critical Lens:  Cultural Norms for Family Engagement

Different cultures have different norms for how families should be involved in their child’s education. Some cultures believe that educators are the trained experts and leave their child’s learning fully up to the school as a sign of respect for the teacher’s position. Some cultures believe that families and teachers are co-educators. Be careful not to judge family engagement based on your own cultural background!

Building strong partnerships between schools and families also requires a reconfiguration of the traditional view of “family.” Be careful not to assume that a student’s family consists of a mother and father. Families might consist of same-sex parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, step-parents, adopted parents, foster parents, older siblings, and more. For this reason, using the word “family” instead of “parents” can be more inclusive. In addition, we need to view communities as part of families, and schools can engage with their community “families” in creative ways. For example, some schools have “grandmas.” These community grandmas come into the classroom a few days a week to tell stories about their lives and listen to students share their own stories. This partnership demonstrates a beautiful way to build meaningful relationships between the school and community.

Pause and Ponder

Think back to your own school experience. How was your family invited to be a part of a school/family partnership? Were there activities you looked forward to or dreaded your family being a part of at school? What are some ways you could envision building true family/community partnerships in your future classroom?

Interrupting Bias and Stereotypes in School/Family Partnerships

Chimamanda Adichie (2009) warns us about stereotypes in her TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story. The issue with stereotypes, she states, is that they are partial and provide one lens: “they make one story the only story.” Viewing children and families through one lens, a deficit lens, is harmful and imposes limits on what they can accomplish. This “single story” is especially likely to harm children and families of color.

Sometimes, single stories about our families–especially families and communities of color–can lead to stereotypes and assumptions that hurt our families and weaken school/family partnerships. Let’s look at two fairly common stereotypes.

One common stereotype is that families do not come to school because they do not care. In reality, there are many possible reasons why families do not come to school. Edwards (2016) offers that families of color may have had unpleasant experiences in schools themselves and are not willing to succumb to the “ghosts” of school again. As children they were not welcome or well-treated in school and cannot bring themselves to enter the buildings again; schools were traumatic places.

Another common stereotype is that families have nothing to offer their children or school. In reality, families are their children’s first teachers. Deficit views of families negate the fact that prior to coming to school, children have learned their family’s language and culture by being immersed in them. Children learn their families’ and communities’ ways of knowing and being by interacting and engaging with community members and families.

To build stronger school/family partnerships. schools can reframe the traditional reliance upon family involvement instead of family engagement. The norm for involving families is that the school dictates the needs and reaches out to families, telling them the needs. Instead, reframing this partnership to one of family engagement invites collaboration and shifts from a deficit orientation to a strengths-based perspective. Families have a lot to offer in an educator’s work toward building positive classroom environments, and schools need to take note of the resources available in their community and extend invitations for meaningful work.

Strategies for Building a Positive Classroom Environment

The development of a strong sense of community and belonging in the classroom is essential to building relationships that may serve as protective factors for our students. Implementation of practices and approaches built around empathy, the ability to recognize and feel the emotions of others, has the ability to positively impact all students, but is critical to the success of students who have experienced adversity.

At times, it is difficult to separate our empathy with students from our sympathy for students. Some of our students experience such difficult lives and our sympathy leads us to expect less of them. Interacting with students from a place of sympathy does not build our connections with them and does not let them know we believe in them.  Table 7.1 shows differences in statements focused on empathy versus sympathy.

Table 7.1:  Statements Focused on Empathy vs. Sympathy

Empathy Sympathy
I can see you are frustrated right now.  How can I help you? I’m sorry you’re frustrated, but you need to get back to work.
Wow, you had a really hard morning. When I have a hard morning, sometimes I need a few minutes before I’m ready to work. Would you like some time before you get started? Wow, what a horrible morning. You don’t have to do this assignment.
I noticed you aren’t with your friends like usual. Is there anything you want to talk about? Why weren’t you with your friends today?
Can you tell me how you are feeling right now? What’s wrong?

It is our job as educators to create an environment that models empathy for students to facilitate trust and security. Bob Sornson (2014) states, “By helping children learn empathy, we raise the odds they will have strong positive social relationships, truly care for others, and be able to set appropriate limits in their own lives without using angry behaviors or words” (para. 2). Traditional elements of a classroom environment, including structured, predictable routines and morning meetings, can be expanded with the intention to increase opportunities for empathy on a daily basis. However, some traditional models of classroom management include practices that interfere with the development of healthy connections between teachers and our students. Building connections with students can be challenging at times and take effort and repeated attempts with students who have experienced adversity; furthermore, these relationships can be damaged quickly if we use practices that do not align with building empathy.

Table 7.2 provides an overview of some management practices to avoid and to use, though you will get much more in-depth information on classroom management strategies as you continue in your pathway as a preservice teacher.

Table 7.2:  Classroom Management Practices

Classroom Management Practices to Avoid Classroom Management Practices to Use
  • Clip charts and card-flipping systems
  • Public humiliation/shaming
  • Isolation
  • Group punishment
  • Assigning laps at recess
  • Being a negative role model
  • Know your students
  • Establish positive connections with families
  • Routines
    • Schedules (with visual and verbal reminders)
    • Expectations and rehearsals of transition times
  • Morning meetings
  • Classroom responsibilities
  • Individual contracts
  • Explicit teaching of social/emotional skills (including mindfulness)

Stop & Reflect

Stop & Reflect: What do you recall about some of your own experiences with classroom management as a student? Were these positive or negative memories? Why?

DON’T: Clip Charts and Card-Flipping Systems

Stoplight sign
Clip charts and card-flipping systems, which often are based on a variant of a “stoplight model”–green indicating on-task behavior, yellow indicating a warning for misbehavior, and red indicating a repeated infraction–are punitive and shaming in nature and should be avoided in the classroom.

Clip charts and card systems are one genre of behavior management strategies that are punitive and shaming in nature. The idea behind these systems is that when students break a rule or demonstrate an established misbehavior, they will be asked to “move their clip” (often lower down a chart of behavioral levels) or “flip a card” (often from green to yellow to red). Each clip or card level carries its own consequences. These systems are publicly shaming because students have to move their clip or flip their card in front of their peers, often after a teacher provides a verbal reprimand that the entire class hears. Also, any member of the classroom community–or even a visitor who steps into the classroom–can see at a glance how every child in the room is doing at any given moment. Using clip charts may activate a student’s fight, flight, or freeze response, indicating the student no longer feels safe in the environment.

DON’T: Public Humiliation/Shaming

It is never acceptable to yell at a student. It is even less acceptable to do it in a public environment. Frustration as a teacher is expected. We are the adults, however, and we need to remain calm. Students look to us to keep them safe, to protect them from those who may be shaming them for being “different” and humiliating them in front of their peers. We do not want to add to that shame and humiliation. Other forms of public humiliation and shaming can include visible punishments like writing a student’s name on the board or asking a student to stay in or away from a certain part of the classroom (i.e., standing in a corner or not joining the group on the carpet). (Do note that sometimes students need space to decompress and regulate their emotions, and this can be done without publicly humiliating the student.)

DON’T: Isolation

Additional practices that can activate this response include isolating students who are experiencing strong emotions. As adults, we feel a range of emotions throughout the day. Our students can experience this same range of emotions. If our classrooms are not based on empathy and understanding, we may exacerbate the situation by sending the student out of the room or to a calm-down space as a punitive response to their emotion. An empathetic response validates the student’s feelings and may need to set a limit or consequence if safety is a concern.

DON’T: Group Punishment

Group punishment occurs when one student or a small group of students demonstrate off-task behavior and consequences are applied for all the students in the class, whether or not they participated in this off-task behavior. You might have heard statements like, “If anyone talks during snack time, no one gets to go outside for recess,” or “If any student shouts out during this activity, no one gets added game time.” These kinds of punishments are not realistic or reasonable. Some students who struggle with self-regulation skills become the scapegoat for “ruining it” for all the students in the class, which can lead to resentment from their peers and exclusion from their peer group.

DON’T: Assign Laps at Recess

A common consequence for misbehavior or noncompliance with classroom policies (such as completing homework) is asking the student to walk laps at recess. This practice is not productive for several reasons. First, it associates exercise with punishment. Students need to have positive associations with exercise in order to maintain their own physical health; if walking is something one only does when they are in trouble, they are less likely to continue this healthy behavior for their own well-being. Secondly, it takes away the unstructured break time from the students who often need it most. Students who need constant redirection for socializing or being on the move during class, for example, would definitely benefit from ample opportunities to socialize and move at recess!

DON’T: Be a Negative Role Model

Role modeling is critical in the development of empathy. Unfortunately, we are not perfect and, at times, we may model inappropriate behaviors. For example, a student may have something that does not belong to them and, out of frustration, we go over and grab it from the student. Later that day, the same student wants something someone else has and goes over and grabs it from them. Our typical response would be some sort of consequence, leaving the student feeling as if “it isn’t fair.” In reality, we modeled the behavior and provided a consequence to the student for using an adult-modeled behavior. These moments will happen and are opportunities for us to acknowledge our behavior and repair the relationship with the student. A response oriented toward repairing the relationship may sound like this: “Joey, I’m sorry. Earlier I grabbed something from your hands. When you did the same thing to Raúl, I gave you a consequence. I need help remembering to do the right thing sometimes too. Do you think you could help me?” This response models for Joey that even adults make mistakes and how to recover and repair when they occur.

The practices listed above–including clip charts, isolating students when strong emotions come up, and making missteps in our own reactions as teachers–can trigger a student’s automatic fear response. A student in a fight, flight, or freeze state struggles to learn and is no longer thinking through their choices. As educators, and models of empathy in the classroom, we need to minimize the use of these practices and replace them with those that build our students’ emotional intelligence.

DO: Know Your Students

Positive relationships that affirm students’ membership in the classroom community are a foundation of a welcoming classroom environment; therefore, educators need to develop individual relationships with their students as much as possible. Get to know your students as individuals through activities like beginning-of-the-year “getting to know you” surveys, sitting with your students during lunch, chatting during less structured time like breaks or recess, and asking families for their tips (after all, families have known our students for far longer!). Attend sporting events, performances, and other activities that students invite you to. Use the information you gather to work personalized references into classroom instruction, but make sure you do so equitably.

At the same time, remember that your job is not to be a student’s friend. You are still the professional adult, and you must keep this professional boundary in mind. The age of your students also plays a role. A kindergarten teacher being invited to a child’s birthday party is quite different from a high schooler inviting a teacher to a birthday party.

Critical Lens:  Inclusive Practice

As you develop getting-to-know-you surveys or beginning-of-the-year activities, it is important to make sure all students will be able to answer the questions. Avoid questions that may be impacted by privilege such as those related to vacations or material items.

DO: Establish Positive Relationships with Families

From the very beginning of the school year, reach out to families in a variety of ways–phone calls, notes, messages through your school’s learning management system–to establish positive relationships. Provide specific, positive feedback on what you are seeing their child accomplishing in the classroom to demonstrate to families that you know their child as an individual. Some teachers like to use “surprise” notes home that highlight positive achievements and accomplishments for individual students for families to celebrate. (Be sure to send these notes home for all children–you may wish to keep track to make sure you are equitably distributing these positive notes.) While the beginning of the school year can be hectic, investing time up front in building positive relationships means that when you need more support later if an issue arises, you’ll have a partnership already built with the family.

Also, keep in mind that educators and families share a common goal: wanting what is best for their children. Sometimes educators and families may have different perspectives on how to get to that same outcome. Remembering that families and educators are partners in this common goal can help when conflicts do arise. This Edutopia article[3] shares some communication strategies to try with families at the beginning of the year.

DO: Routines

As human beings, we feel safe when we know what to expect. Routines help our students know what to expect. Established and predictable routines can include visual and verbal reminders for the flow of a typical day in the classroom, such as a posted schedule with the times and activities listed. These routines are also explained and practiced with the students frequently at the start of the school year. Routines can include special greetings, expectations for various parts of the day like arrival and departure, and procedures for accessing materials like writing utensils during instruction. Predictable routines create a feeling of safety and security for students as they can reasonably expect to know what is coming next. Preparing students repeatedly, ahead of time, for any changes in the routine also facilitates trust within the environment and can act as a preventative measure for those who experience dysregulation related to change.

DO: Morning Meetings

One daily routine that can build empathy and community is a morning meeting. These classroom community gatherings can occur on a classroom carpet or at their desks and typically include both academic and social-emotional activities. For example, students may engage in special morning greetings with their peers and the teacher can talk about the plans for the day. Morning meetings are a fantastic opportunity to build in activities which increase a sense of belonging and community in the classroom. Allowing students to openly express how they feel in the classroom and about the environment helps to give them a voice and feel like they are a valued member of the group. At the secondary level, educators can allot a few minutes at the beginning of each class to complete a brief check-in with their students. This can include asking non-threatening questions or providing students the opportunity to share on a rotating basis. At times, the secondary level is overlooked when conversations about building emotional intelligence are discussed. These students are undergoing significant developmental changes and also need the opportunity to be heard and have a sense of belonging. Minor modifications to daily interactions with students build in opportunities for empathy and social-emotional development. This increases their exposure to healthy, prosocial skills which can increase their ability to function in healthy relationships.

DO: Classroom Responsibilities

Classroom responsibilities, sometimes referred to as classroom jobs, provide students with ownership of the classroom environment. Common elementary classroom responsibilities include line leader, caboose, and paper passer. Students can also be “librarians” responsible for maintaining and organizing books in the classroom. Dr. Clayton also had what she called a “S.I.C.,” which stood for “student in charge.” This student would “take over” when Dr. Clayton was working with a small group, such as a reading group. Students would go to them to ask to use the bathroom, for example. (Side note: be sure the answer that they give is “yes”!) Responsibilities can continue into middle school and high school. Of course, a high school student is not interested in being the line leader, but they can be the teacher’s assistant for the day, such as running errands to the front office. Just be sure that these responsibilities rotate among students so that no favoritism is interpreted.

DO: Individual Contracts

A behavior chart uses Angry Birds.
This Angry Birds-themed behavior chart represents an individual contract between a student and the teacher to focus on a specific behavior in concrete ways.

Sometimes, certain students need more specific structures and rules that everyone in the class doesn’t need. Instead of creating a “one-size-fits-all” behavioral management system that actually does not meet the needs of all of your students, consider writing individual behavior contracts. These contracts should have specific, observable goals with clear time parameters, along with straightforward, tangible outcomes. For example, in Dr. Wells’s kindergarten class, she had one student who was really struggling with self-regulation skills, but she also knew he was obsessed with Angry Birds. She created an Angry Birds behavior chart with this student only. After she chose a target behavior (such as listening and following directions the first time they are given, an important safety skill), she would establish criteria to set the student up for demonstrating the target behavior. At first, the goal might be that the student follows 1 out of 10 directions in one hour. Despite the nine times the student didn’t follow directions, the student still earns the reward–in this case, playing a round of Angry Birds on the classroom tablet for five minutes–because they need to experience success first. Then, as this goal becomes easier, increase the challenge: now, the student needs to keep 5 out of 10 Angry Birds on his chart (signifying he listened 5 out of 10 times) in an hour. Next, expand the time slot. Perhaps the student has to keep 5 out of 10 birds for the whole morning, and then reset for the afternoon with the same expectations. If your behavior contract uses a chart like this one, remember to keep it private. Instead of taping it to the board for the entire class to see, consider keeping it on a clipboard and discretely marking on it, and then privately conferring with the student out of earshot of peers when the established time period has ended.

When making individual contracts, remember it is important to know your students, their needs, and their interests. While some students may have multiple areas for growth–shouting out and following directions the first time when given, for example–pick the one area you need to see growth in first for the student to feel safe and trusted. Also, be aware that individual contracts won’t fix everything immediately: they take time, patience, and consistency.

DO: Teach Social/Emotional Skills & Mindfulness

The implementation of social-emotional learning activities into the curriculum can assist in the development of self-regulation and conflict resolution skills. If students are taught to recognize and regulate their own emotional states, they will be better able to recognize the states of others, remain in the thinking part of the brain and more likely to resolve conflicts in a way that is mutually beneficial. Skills such as using a regulation space, a place in the classroom where students can go when they need a break or need to regulate their emotions, must be taught repeatedly and should be taught to the whole class. This space should include sensory items such as stress balls, fidget sticks, and putty, as well as self-regulation tools such as social stories, coloring pages, deep breathing tools, and visual reminders for how to use the area. Normalizing the use of this space removes any stigma or punishment associated with experiencing strong emotions and makes the use of regulation skills a positive experience for students. Additionally, educators should role model the use of regulation skills to the class throughout the day. For example, using statements such as “Class, I am feeling frustrated right now. I can feel myself starting to get warm and my heart is going faster. I’m going to use Figure 8 Breathing to calm down.”

Mindfulness in the Educational Setting

The ability to self-regulate is an important developmental milestone for all students and requires co-regulation from a loving, consistent adult to develop in early childhood. The use of mindfulness-based activities in schools is a research-based strategy with benefits for students, teachers, and the classroom community as a whole. Strategies can include external and internal focuses as well as utilize the five senses to help students remain rooted in the present moment. Activities can be embedded into the structure of the daily classroom routine and increase the sense of calm across the environment. Mindfulness strategies can be modified and adapted to meet the needs of a variety of students. Utilizing these skills regularly in the classroom is a social-emotional strategy that can benefit all students regardless of their early life experiences.

Jon Kabat-Zinn (2003), an expert in mindfulness, defines it as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” (p. 145). Simply put, it is intentionally noticing our internal and external environments without judging what we find. This intentional awareness requires consistent training and practice in order to benefit. Mindfulness can include a variety of activities based around movement, touch, breathing, and the senses as well as the use of reflection. Kabat-Zinn goes on to say, “We are all mindful to one degree or another, moment by moment. It is an inherent human capacity” (p. 145-146). Some mindful techniques that are commonly engaged in include taking a deep breath and noticing the taste of a food in your mouth. Additional training and practice can help develop already existing strategies and add new ones to increase the benefits to our wellbeing. Most research on the benefits of mindfulness-based practices has been conducted with adults and modifications are necessary to increase the accessibility for children.

Students may need teaching practices to be adapted by using shorter activities, using more activities with movement (such as yoga), and using props or visual aides to assist them in focusing on specific sensations. Small things such as the use of a stuffed animal can be beneficial to teaching deep breathing by allowing the student to put it on their stomach and instructing them to make it go up and down using their breath. A strategy to use mindfulness to focus on sensations is the use of a mint to facilitate students’ ability to engage. Teachers can guide this practice by inviting students to use their senses to explore the mint. Questions that can be asked include: What color is the mint? Is there a pattern? What does the mint smell like? What does the mint feel like on your tongue? What does it taste like? How does the texture or size of the mint change over time? What sound does the mint make when you bite it? Having students focus on an object and use their senses to explore it, keeps students grounded in the present moment which is the essence of mindfulness practice. It is important to remember students may need concrete activities to be able to access the practices effectively. Additionally, students should be given the option to keep their eyes open during any mindfulness activity to promote safety and trust.

Mindfulness strategies can be simple activities which can be easily implemented in the daily routines of a classroom. It is important to consider the developmental age of our students as well as what activities might be appropriate on a given day. Implementation of practices should begin with short activities and increase as students are able to successfully engage in the strategies. Some activities may require props to implement and others can be done using visual or auditory guides from the internet. provides a list of 51 Mindful Exercises for Kids in the Classroom that can be accessed and used with a variety of age groups. Activities for secondary students are available from under 25 Mindfulness Activities for Children and Teens. Remember, implementing mindfulness strategies in the classroom can cost nothing, other than the commitment to practicing intentionally and protecting time within the day for our classroom community.

Pause & Ponder

What helps you be calm or mindful? Think about how you might stay calm or be mindful in your own teaching practice. Similarly, what might you do in your classroom to help your students be calm or mindful?

Benefits of Mindfulness

The regular and consistent use of mindfulness strategies has been found to be beneficial for the whole person, including both physical and mental well-being. Hofmann et al. (2010) reviewed 39 studies on the impact of mindfulness-based therapy on a variety of mental health and physical diagnoses. Results of the meta-analysis revealed improvement in symptoms of anxiety and depression, including those that may be related to an underlying medical condition. Additionally, the benefits of mindfulness were not found to be relative to specific diagnoses because of the impact on general wellbeing. Within the school system, mindfulness has also been proven to positively impact a variety of areas for students, including attention, emotional regulation, compassion, and reduction of stress and anxiety (Mindful Schools, n.d.). The consistent use of these strategies also benefits teachers and improves teacher-student relationships (Flook et al., 2013).

Zelazo and Lyons (2012) report, “Mindfulness training disrupts the automatic elicitation of emotional responses, resulting in greater calmness and emotional stability” (p. 157-158). Regular practice also helps students to identify what they are feeling in a safe way before they act, leading to increased benefits in other areas of their functioning. Student reflection also allows students to identify their automatic thoughts and change their emotional response, thus gaining control over their behaviors.

The benefits of stronger emotional regulation through mindfulness-based practices extend into all areas of our students’ lives. Schonert-Reichl et al. (2015) found implementation of a social-emotional curriculum for as little as four months led to improved behavioral and academic functioning for students. Additional benefits include improved impulse control, focus and attention, and stronger peer relationships through the development of compassion and empathy for others. The implementation of a regular mindfulness practice in the classroom benefits not only individual students, but also the entire classroom community, including the teachers.

The practice of intentional and non-judgmental awareness by students and teachers holds many benefits for individuals and the classroom environment as a whole. Mindfulness can include both internal reflection and focusing on external stimuli and sensations in an effort to help us remain grounded and focused on the present. Practice requires consistency and adaptation to meet the developmental needs of our student populations. The benefits for students include increased emotional regulation, focus and attention, impulse control, compassion and empathy, as well as improved relationships within the school environment. Mindfulness practices in the classroom also benefit teachers by decreasing burnout and psychological distress as well as improving self-compassion and positive observations of student behavior. Implementation of these practices in the school is part of a trauma-informed classroom and is helpful to all students, regardless of their early childhood experiences.


Before students can learn, they must first feel safe, supported, and valued. Creating empathy-driven classroom environments involves intentional decisions about specific elements under the educator’s control, such as an accessible physical arrangement of the classroom, an affirming atmosphere, and using humanizing management strategies while intentionally avoiding those that cause humiliation or shame. Additionally, educators can partner with critical community stakeholders, such as school social workers and family or community members, to access additional resources to support students’ success.

Creating empathy-driven classroom environments also involves awareness of elements that are not under the educator’s control. Adverse childhood experiences are common within our classrooms, with varying degrees of impact on the social, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive functioning of our students. Understanding the unique histories of each of our students is important, but so is uncovering who they are as individuals including what makes them resilient. A history of adverse experiences does not mean our students cannot learn and grow and develop healthy relationships. It means they have experiences that may change the path that gets them there and will need the positive adult connection we can provide as their teacher even more.

To create an empathy-focused classroom environment, there are certain elements to include–such as routines, morning meetings, and developing individual relationships with students–and elements to avoid, such as clip charts or card-flipping systems, group punishment, and public humiliation. Building and implementing a trauma-informed classroom with empathy at the core is a practice that supports all students and will increase a sense of community and belonging for all.

Building and modeling empathy fosters a reciprocal relationship in which students can feel educators’ genuine care and concern for their best interests. We lay the foundation for our students’ success by intentionally creating a humanizing classroom environment in which they can learn and grow.



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Foundations of American Education: A Critical Lens Copyright © by Melissa Wells and Courtney Clayton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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