What Kids Notice

How to Create a Safe and Loving Classroom Environment

“When my children used to walk in the room … I looked at them to see if they had buckled their trousers or if their hair was combed or if their socks were up. You think your affection and your deep love is on display because you’re caring for them. It’s not. When they see you, they see the critical face.”  —Toni Morrison

I was watching Oprah one day years ago when I heard Morrison share this wisdom. She went on to ask the parents in attendance if their faces “light up” when their children come into the room. She was trying to impress upon the audience a very important point:

Kids notice.

We live in a frantically busy world. There’s always another item on the to-do list, a meal to prepare, a job to be done. Sometimes it feels that all we can do is try to survive.

And while I know I’m always excited to see my son first thing in the morning and when he walks in the door after school, there were times I wasn’t always present for him.

Did I really look him in the eye when I asked about his day? Was the smile and greeting I gave him when he came home genuine and heartfelt? Did my face “light up”?

Or was I doing these things on autopilot, my mind already on my next task?

Before I heard Toni Morrison’s inspiring words, I honestly can’t say how present I was. So I decided to be more intentional about letting Spencer see just what he means to me. Because kids notice.

(To this day, when my 6’1”, 17-year-old “baby” walks in the house after basketball practice, I drop what I’m doing and rush to greet him at the door with my eyes lit up. He definitely notices!)

I also realized that Morrison’s lesson isn’t just something parents need to hear. Teachers also need to understand just how much our students notice.

If we take this practice into the classroom, we can make our students feel loved and safe (at a time when that’s becoming increasingly difficult). We need to be the teacher that greets every student at the classroom door with a “Hey, Sweetheart!” or “I’m so happy we get to spend the day together!” or even just “Welcome to our classroom!”

Physical touch can be just as important for students who appreciate it. A handshake, a high-five, a pat on the shoulder can work wonders. Research has shown that touch can elicit positive emotions in human beings. It releases oxytocin (the “feel good” chemical) which calms the amygdala (that part of the brain involved with the experiencing of emotions). Now I ask you, who wouldn’t want 27 calmed amygdalas in their classroom? (Calmness in the classroom is always a big win!)

When we do these simple things, kids notice. And they receive the message loud and clear: “You matter.”

Also important to letting kids know they matter is by TALKING to them. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? But so often we forget that we’re dealing with young people with real lives, real emotions, real problems. Making a connection with them is vital.

My friend and colleague Hal Bowman has adopted a simple, yet profoundly effective way to engage his students before even the first lesson is taught.

The first few minutes of every school day are reserved for the students to talk about something that’s going on in their lives. Each child gets a turn to speak (it usually takes no more than five seconds), their classmates clap, and then the next child gets a turn.

The stories these students tell aren’t always earth-shattering. But occasionally, a child shares a challenge he or she is facing. That’s when the other students in the class get to provide some real support to their friend and classmate.

Hal puts out a 15 foot strip of butcher paper and passes out markers to the class. They discuss the student’s problem, and then are given the following task: Take 4 minutes and 3 seconds to come up with solutions, and then write three things the student can do today on the paper. (The creativity and resourcefulness of the kids is really on display!)

After the time’s up, Hal rolls up the butcher paper and gives this list of up to 90 solutions to the troubled student to take home. And he tells that student, “We want an update on how you’re going to tackle this thing. Go make it happen!”

Hal has created a space—a family—where his students have permission to be vulnerable, where they’re part of something bigger than themselves. The result: His students feel safe and loved. And that feeling helps improve every other aspect of the classroom experience.

Look … I know our paychecks don’t reflect the value, nor the responsibility, educators possess. But it truly is up to us to be guiding lights for these kids. To plant seeds of hope so they may go out into the world and make it a better place for all of us. We can, and must, do this for our kids.

Trust me … they’ll notice.

Question: What have you done to create a space that encourages students to feel safe, loved, and trusting? What benefits have you seen? 

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