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As teachers, especially those invested in social and emotional wellness, we all strive to create a warm and welcoming classroom. But we are usually not taught how to create a welcoming and nurturing space; rather we often learn about it through trial and error. Project Happiness educators Adam Tehle mentioned this challenge specifically during his Facebook Live interview, so we wanted to expand on this topic for our Project Happiness Classrooms and Schools out there.  

A typical classroom is not necessarily conducive to talking about personal topics. In fact, it's just the opposite - it's set up for learning, not "venting." Project Happiness Curriculum and Handbook ask students to open up and to become vulnerable so that personal growth can occur.  In order for students to feel comfortable, facilitators must explicitly establish a safe space when working our program.

Physical Blueprint: Without an unlimited budget to transform your classroom into a Zen studio, you can enhance the space for SEL learning by having students sit in circular arrangements so that they are on equal footing physically. Try bringing in comfortable cushions and blankets, play around with different participation structures (pairs or small groups), incorporating outdoor spaces or using calming music and white noise.  

Chronological Blueprint: What we spend time on in the classroom implicitly tells students what we care about. In most classrooms, the teacher's voice is heard the most frequently. In SEL, which requires experiential learning, the students need time to practice and process ideas.  Thus most of the time should be spent on student-to-student conversation, individual reflection and creativity, and student participation in group discussion. In this way, students will learn that their voices are valued and feel safer sharing those voices with the class.

Student Buy-In: Student commitment enriches classroom space. When they are committed, students ask deeper questions, take more risks, and participate more fully. Teachers and facilitators can encourage buy-in by: 

  • Engendering trust by avoiding evaluative or judgmental language ("good," "bad," etc) and genuinely respecting students' contributions.
  • Giving students a sense of the big picture by giving specific examples of how each activity is relevant to real life events and situations.
  • Being attentive to students who lack confidence or have low self-esteem.
  • Modeling excitement and embrace vulnerability through doing it yourself.
  • Giving students ownership of the project by having them develop some ground rules and holding them accountable.
  • Asking them "What do you need in order to feel safe enough to speak about what matters to you personally?" Take notes on the board as they brainstorm.  You can follow this up with anonymous contributions. 

Here are some additional common ground rules from EdChange's "Multicultural Pavilion."

Ritual: In the midst of a day that may include unsafe spaces, it's important to have some kind of ritual that signals the establishment of a safe space. All of our curriculum lessons begin with a meditation and breathing activity to prepare the brain for receiving and end with an awe reflection. You can do the same and include dimming the lights, a sound machine, reading an inspirational passage or quote, it's up to you.  

Ritual is about drawing students into active participation. You can incorporate a speaking stone which signals a chance to speak without interruption. You can have student direct the inquiry itself by composing honest questions about happiness, choice or emotional honesty anonymously. Whatever the ritual is, keep them consistent.  

A true self: As you engage in the practices above, you will see your students emerging from their shells. They will be encouraged, excited, nourished and understood and will begin to share who they really are: their true selves. In our free online course and immersion membership program (coming soon - get on the waitlist here), we discuss more ways to coax students' true selves out in the classroom and our roles as facilitators. We guide you through this interaction as a kind of meaningful dialogue. As you and your students put all these pieces together while using Social and Emotional Learning Curriculum you will find it easier to ask the difficult questions that lead to true growth.