Area teachers explore ways to improve classroom environment

Atikokan Progress
M. McKinnon

A year of exploring ways to make classrooms better learning environments has produced some interesting changes at St. Pat’s School in Atikokan.
Teachers Jessica Veenbaas and Diane Bowes, thanks to a Teacher Learning and Leadership Program grant, have spent the past year studying “environmental strategies for student self-regulation.”
More simply put, what kind of a classroom atmosphere helps students maintain their focus and attention on learning?
Veenbaas and Bowes have been studying the literature (there is lots of it out there on the topic), as well as visiting classrooms and children’s centres in the region and as far away as Toronto.
What they found is that classrooms that are clutter-free (or at least hide the clutter), have lower lighting than the traditional classroom, are done in calming colours, and use strategic seating make it easier for students to stay focused.
Even things like plants, bubble tubes, wiggle cushions, bean bag chairs, and essential oils help.
The grant was large enough ($27,000) to allow the pair to purchase a lot of these items, and to invite their colleagues in the school to try them, too.
“We made a list and offered every teacher here their choice of any three items for their classrooms,” noted Veenbaas.
“All of them got used.
“Parents were noticing the changes in the classrooms, too,” she added.
“Oh yes,” echoed Bowes. “I had several say, ‘It looks so nice in there . . . where is that lovely scent coming from. . . .”
We all have experienced a child getting “wound up” and know how disruptive that can be in a group setting.
An anxious and/or high-energy child often is more prone to that kind of emotional binging.
By building a calming setting, and by taking on the issue of self-management directly, these kind of disruptions can be minimized.
The ultimate goal is to help a child learn how to manage their own feelings and behaviour.
Over the past few years, whole curricula have been developed that aim to help children self-regulate and control their emotional responses in the classroom.
All of them recognize the importance of a low-stress physical environment as a starting point.
Specific teacher strategies to help students foster that self-regulation follow naturally.
“Working on this [with our colleagues] has given us a common language to use when we discuss what we are doing, how the students are reacting, and how to handle different situations,” noted Bowes.
The pair visited classrooms in Fort Frances, Thunder Bay, and Toronto, where teachers have been incorporating these strategies for years.
The George Jeffries Centre and Toronto Sick Kids Hospital have been leaders in creating low-stress environments for children, and visits to those places were especially helpful for the two teachers.
“It’s been such a great opportunity for us,” said Veenbaas, who shares the Grade 7-8 class at St. Pat’s and also serves as the school’s special education teacher.
“It’s been a lot of work, a lot of extras, but it has been worth it,” she noted.
“There is no doubt in my mind this is having a big impact on our kids,” agreed Bowes, who taught Grade 3 this past year but will move to Grade 1-2 next year.
“I’m going to continue this,” she stressed.