Is your classroom a happy place?
Happiness in schools is becoming a serious business as heads and teachers try to tackle both a young people’s mental health crisis and a teaching crisis too.
The evidence is clear that happier children work better, get ill less, have less time off school, get higher grades and are generally more successful. And, if you think focusing on student happiness detracts from ‘serious’ learning, think again. The evidence also shows that schools that work on developing student wellbeing not only have happier pupils but that they do better academically and their behaviour improves too.
10 Steps To A Happy Place
Here are 10 ways to foster happy classrooms to maximise learning and teach your students some life-affirming skills.
1 Tribal classrooms
Humans are an innately tribal and social species. We operate the best and learn the most when we feel safe, secure and connected to others. So, greet your students at the door with a smile and shake their hand. Make everyone feel welcome and that they’re part of your tribe. When there are friendship issues, help to resolve them. A happy classroom is built primarily on positive relationships.
There’s growing evidence that mindfulness interventions can help children reduce their levels of stress, anxiety and depression, whilst increasing their levels of positive emotion, attention and even metacognition. Create moments of stillness in your day when your class pause, take some deep breaths, and then focus on their normal breathing. Each time their mind wanders away from their breathing, guide them to gently bring their attention back to the breath. Every time you bring your attention back to the breath after it has wandered, you strengthen the parts of the brain in charge of attention and emotional regulation.
3 Rewire negativity bias
The human brain has an innate negativity bias. This helped keep us alive on the savannah as our ancestors who could spot dangers quickly and avoid them, survived and passed on their genes, but our more mindful ancestors who stopped to admire a beautiful vista were gobbled up by a lion. But a practice known as ‘Three Good Things’ can help rewire that bias and level the playing field. At the end of each day, get your students to write down three things that went well for them. Ask them to share their good things with a partner. Repeat often to rewire that bias!
Learning new things is a key facet of a happy life. When we’re engaged and interested in our work, we feel and do better. But if the work is not challenging enough, we get bored, and too challenging and we get overwhelmed. Aim for that elusive Goldilocks sweet-spot of stretching your students to just beyond what they can currently do as that is where neuroplasticity is maximised and the most learning takes place.
When the challenge of a task is just right, when the task has clear goals, and when we’re able to really focus on what it is we’re doing, we are likely to experience ‘flow’ – an optimal state of psychological being. Time rushes by, we lose sense of ourselves and it feels deeply satisfying. Children that experience flow more regularly show deeper learning, greater long-term interest in subjects, and higher levels of wellbeing. Create the atmosphere so your class can lose themselves in their work!
6 Play to their strengths
Character strengths are the core parts of ourselves that shape our personality and motivate us. Studies show that when we use our strengths in novel ways we are significantly happier. Why not get your class to take this youth strengths questionnaire to identify their top ‘signature strengths’ and task them with using them in their school work and at home.
7 Practice kindness
Humans are hardwired to be kind. We get more happiness from buying a gift for others, than we do for ourselves. Kindness is contagious too and it even helps make us healthier. The best way to spread it is to be kind yourself. Teachers who use kind words, are polite, respectful, patient and well-mannered have children who emulate them. You could even encourage your children to carry out random acts of kindness by hosting a ‘Kindness Week’.
8 Be optimistic
Optimists are happier, have better health and are less likely to suffer from depression than their pessimistic counterparts. But how can you help students be optimistic when things aren’t going there way? A key is to let them know that the problem is temporary (it won’t last forever), that it is specific (it affects one area of their life but other areas are going well) and it isn’t personal (don’t blame yourself as other external factors would have been involved). Help them challenge their negative self-chatter and see their situation from a more hopeful perspective.
Exercise is one of the single biggest things we can do to boost our physical and mental health. Fitter students perform better academically, have better body-image and higher self-esteem. We need to be getting our students out of their chairs and moving more. You could get your class to do ‘The Daily Mile’ where they jog or run a mile every day. Or simply break up lessons with a round of star jumps, burpees, or a few laps of the playground. Short bursts of exercise raises the heart rate and sends more blood and oxygen up to the brain allowing it to think better. Feel good hormones like dopamine and endorphins that exercise releases not only boost happiness levels but they are neurotransmitters too, so they boost brain power!
10 Walk the talk
To create a happier classroom for your children, you must first work on yourself. If you don’t walk the talk, your message will feel inauthentic and your class won’t buy into it. So make sure you look after yourself and practice what you preach. Ultimately, a happy teacher makes a happy classroom. Have a great year fellow teachers!
Adrian Bethune’s new book Wellbeing In The Primary Classroom: A Practical Guide To Teaching Happiness is out now and includes many more practical tips for creating a happy classroom. Keep an eye on Teacher Toolkit social media this week because we’ll be giving away a free copy to one lucky winner!