Mindful Learning Environment

By: Justine Skillman
from Hasten Hebrew Academy

Learning Environment

Subject(s) of entry:
Social and Emotional Learning

Social and Emotional Learning

Grade(s) to which this was taught:
3, Elementary school

Grade(s) for which this will be useful:
K, Elementary school

The "Mindful Learning Environment" is a place where students feel welcome, safe, inspired, and empowered. Using research about the brain, development, behavior, and health, I have implemented various spaces and elements that allow the students to experience their full potential.

Entry Narrative

Mindfulness is defined as the quality or state of being conscious and aware. When one is mindful, one notices the feelings that arise as a result of the various actions, interactions, and environments one encounters. Becoming mindful allows one to make informed choices when it comes to these actions, interactions, and environments; choices that produce positive results. The Mindful Learning Environment was created as a result of me being mindful about the type of environment in which I feel best, and also the types of learning spaces to which students respond best. However, the environment was not just mindful in its creation. It was also created with the intent to produce mindfulness among its inhabitants. As you read about the various elements of a mindful learning environment, you will understand the ways in which this type of classroom encourages students to practice and cultivate their own sense of mindfulness.


Elements of the Mindful Learning Environment

  1. Flexible Seating– Students have many options when it comes to where they can work. There are tables with chairs, a table that has been lowered so that students can sit on pillows, a standing table, an exercise ball, and a large bean bag. Clipboards and extra pillows are available to students who prefer to work by themselves on the floor. Instead of a teacher desk, I sit at a table with 3 spots available for students to work. I find that the right students tend to gravitate towards my table – those who need reassurance or a little extra help. There are no assigned seats in the mindful learning environment, as students are encouraged to try out different types of seating and notice what works best for them. We spend good deal of time at the beginning of the year discussing expectations for each type of seating. There are times when a student has made a choice that is not allowing that student or others to meet expectations. In that case I will offer a reminder, or if need be I will help the student make a better choice. There are other times where a student requests to work alone in the hallway just outside the classroom. If that student has demonstrated responsibility and trustworthiness, they are given permission to do so. In an article in psychology today, Maureen Healy asserts that “giving people some control over their surroundings adds to their sense of well-being.” I have found that allowing students to be in charge of where they work creates a sense of calm and focus in the classroom.Video Tour of Classroom: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rww2dBWLguQ
  2. Lighting– The harsh fluorescent lights commonly found in schools is neither calming nor inviting. To counter the effects of my classroom’s fluorescent lights, I have implemented a couple of strategies. The one that inhabitants tend to comment on the most is the fabric that hangs below each row of lights. Stripes of white and light blue tulle are draped over fishing line to create a wavelike effect. This not only dulls the harsh lights, but also creates the illusion of a lower ceiling. Sally Augustin, Ph.D. of Psychology Today notes that lower ceiling heights create a feeling of intimacy among the inhabitants of the room. Additionally, varied ceiling heights are good for us psychologically, as they create the illusion of different zones and territories in the room. Thus, having the fabric only in 3 sections of the room produces favorable results as the students feel a coziness, but also a spaciousness. Another method for combating the fluorescent lights is to have other sources of light in the room. I am fortunate to have one wall that is almost completely covered in windows. This allows for plenty of natural light to pour in. In Susan Fitzell’s article, “Improve Learning with Research-based Classroom Lighting Strategies,” she asserts that, “introducing more natural light into the classroom, we’re working with the body’s natural circadian rhythms to indicate to the brain that it’s time to be awake and alert.” I also have various lamps and hanging lights that I turn on to add a calming, homelike atmosphere to the room. Susan Fitzell supports this strategy, noting that “replacing fluorescent lighting with natural light and using lamps and other types of bulbs can improve visibility, health, mood, and behavior.” I have certainly experienced these types of benefits myself as well as witnessed them among my students. You can see the ceiling fabric and lighting arrangements in the pictures above.
  3. Class Pet – Here is what petsintheclassroom.org says about the benefits of having a classroom pet:

    Pets Enrich the Classroom Experience

    • Even kids with no exposure to animals or nature in their home environment can see, feel, touch and make connections to the wide world of animals.
    • Observing and caring for an animal instills a sense of responsibility and respect for life.
    • A pet brings increased sensitivity and awareness of the feelings and needs of others—both animals and humans.
    • Kids learn that all living things need more than just food and water for survival.
    • Students will see directly how their behavior and actions affect others.
    • Studies show that the presence of animals tends to lessen tension in the classroom.

    I believe strongly in the benefits of being around animals, because I myself have experienced these benefits. To add to the calming and therapeutic ambiance of the classroom, we have our own pet — Mrs. Smokey Rabbitson! Smokey is a well-behaved, social, litter-trained rabbit. During the school day, she has free rein to hop around the classroom as she pleases. At night, she is enclosed in her living space. Over the weekends and on school breaks, she goes home with a family who has taken quite a liking to her. Smokey is notorious in our school. Students are so excited to come to 3rd grade and to have “the bunny teacher!” Smokey improves the quality of school life for all students, especially those with social-emotional needs. Smokey teaches students to be caring, empathetic, and to put others’ needs before their own (a developing skill for 8 year olds). Smokey provides a myriad of teachable moments. One of the most memorable was when Smokey needed to have surgery to remove cancer in her ovaries. The students and I decided to start our own real-money business to fund the surgery. I documented this process thoroughly in my classroom blog, which you can read here. The students conducted a market survey, wrote a business proposal, secured a loan from the PTO, manufactured and sold the product, and paid back the loan! In the end, the vet was able to remove the cancer. The students were filled with unimaginable pride and a sense of possibility as they realized they had the power to affect the world around them.

  4. Embedded Opportunities for Self-Monitoring and Choice– As the field of education continues to evolve, educators are moving away from traditional notions of what school should look like. The physical layout, the role of the teacher, and the ways in which students gain knowledge are all shifting. Instead of desks lined in rows with quiet children passively receiving instruction from the all-knowing teacher, more and more classrooms are abuzz with busy children actively engaging with the world and one-another. In this environment, the teacher takes a more passive role, guiding the students forward and keeping them focused on the task at hand. Classrooms are becoming more student-centered, and this framework is rooted in choice.When I asked my students yesterday to tell me what makes 3rd grade unique, one student remarked, “In 3rd grade we need to be more trustworthy.” Insightfully, this student has already realized that when a teacher allows you to make choices, you become intrinsically motivated to choose wisely! In an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the author shared that based on his research, “autonomy support [i.e. choice] has generally been associated with more intrinsic motivation, greater interest, less pressure and tension, more creativity, more cognitive flexibility, better conceptual learning, a more positive emotional tone, higher self-esteem, more trust, greater persistence of behavior change, and better physical and psychological health” than has a controlling environment. With outcomes like these, it is no wonder that the educational climate is evolving in this way. In the 3rd grade classroom, the students have autonomy over many aspects of their learning. A few of these aspects are embedded in the environment. For example, when students are finished with their work, they are able to make an “I’m Finished!” choice. These choices are on a dry-erase board, and are changed periodically based on students’ needs and desires. First, they must finish any unfinished work or work that needs corrected. This work is located in their Independent Study Folder (ISF). After that, they can make any of the other choices on the board. One choice is always to “study.” We have an independent study table, which is populated with books and materials that extend or enrich our current unit of study. Students have the option of gaining knowledge from these materials and sharing them via post-it notes. At the beginning of the year, I always put out materials related to caring for rabbits, as the students are just becoming familiar with Smokey. The “I’m Finished” procedure allows students to have some ownership over their time, instead of coming to me and saying “What do I do now?”  Another embedded opportunity is the miniature book reports located in our classroom library. If a student finishes a book in his/her leisure time, he/she can fill out a miniature book report. These reports are then hung behind the student’s name as a way of celebrating readers.

    The classroom library itself is an opportunity for self-monitoring. If students want to check out a book, they are responsible for documenting this on the check-out forms located on the side of one of the bookshelves. When they are ready to return it, they must put it back in it’s proper place, and document that it has been checked in. This year, the students’ discovered a need for some sort of system of “holds.” They created their own method for putting a hold on a book and communicating once it has been made available. 

  5. Social-Emotional Mindfulness – Noticing the way our behavior affects others is an important skill that elementary students (hopefully) learn. However, noticing the way our behavior affects ourselves is just as important. Cultivating mindfulness in our everyday lives is so important for our emotional well-being that I have tried to create as many opportunities for my 3rd graders to practice as possible. One such opportunity is through the I-Statement. Using the Responsive Classroom I-Statement for conflict resolution, I have created slips that are available for students to use anytime.We begin the year practicing writing I-Statements for positive scenarios, then role-play to practice how one would write an I-Statement to deal with a negative situation. Through this practice the students learn respectful and productive communication, as well as how to respond if you receive an I-Statement. Responsive Classroom also promotes logical consequences, which teach children to be aware of the natural outcomes of their behavior. Examples of natural consequences are posted in the classroom near our meeting area and are referred to daily as we discuss expectations for our daily activities.There are time when logical consequences are not enough to redirect the student. In these cases, the students are asked to fill out a “ripple effect” worksheet. This worksheet forces them to consider the wider effects of their behavior.
  6. Community-Centered Environment– A solid sense of community in the classroom is one way to help students to feel safe and supported. In my class, there are environmental and procedural elements that students encounter every day to remind them that they are part of a community. To begin with, all of our supplies are community supplies. There are no art boxes or desks labeled for individual students to store their supplies. Instead, students use the community supplies, and are expected to return them in good condition.Community supplies require sharing, especially if there isn’t enough of something to go around. When we encounter a logistical issue, we problem solve as a community. An example of this is our exercise ball. This is a very popular seating choice. To allow for fair distribution of the ball, the students came up with the idea of a roster. The students’ names are listed on the roster and placed in a protective sheet. After a student uses the ball, he/she crosses his/her name off the list using dry-erase marker. Once everyone has had a turn, the list is erased and the turns start over! The puzzle table is another community-building element of the environment. In the back of the room, there is a table with a calming fountain on top and a 1,000-piece puzzle. Throughout the day, students can come and go as they please, working a little bit at a time on the puzzle. Only two students are allowed to work on the puzzle at a time. A 1,000-piece puzzle is a daunting task for any one 8-year-old, but as they work together, it slowly materializes. In the end, it is a huge accomplishment to finish the puzzle. Once it is finished, I frame the puzzle and sell it at our end-of-the-year super market as part of our economics unit. 
  7. Student-made Displays– Mark Phillips states in his article on Edutopia.com called The Physical Environment of Classrooms that “Students’ involvement in the process of creating their environment can empower them, develop community and increase motivation.” It is for this reason that I begin the year with almost no pre-made displays on the wall. Our calendar, our daily schedule, our job chart, and our environmental print are all student-made. We begin each year getting to know the space and the students help to determine what sorts of displays would be useful. They then work together to create them! Mindfulness educator Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as “a way of befriending ourselves and our experience.” Creating a mindful learning environment is a way to impart this gift to our students — the gift of being able to move through life with curiosity, positivity, resilience, and integrity.

Entrant Bio(s)

I teach 3rd grade General Studies at Hasten Hebrew Academy of Indianapolis, where I am encouraged to take risks and innovate as I create and implement my own research-based conceptual curricula. Outside of school I spend my time reveling in the joys of living with my husband, our two young sons, and our dog.