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Strip It Back - Why I choose a calmer classroom approach

Calm classrooms

Back when I first started teaching (all those years ago!) I used to love to fill the walls of my classroom with an array of children’s art work. But in later years, due to a massive consumption of research around brain development and effective learning environments, I have learnt to encourage educators to strip back their walls, and the clutter in their rooms, to create a calm classroom which promotes learning for all children. It’s an idea that continues to evoke a cringe in a lot of early childhood educators, as they endeavour to find ways to connect with families and create a sense of belonging for children. So let’s explore the benefits of a calm classroom and how we can maintain our goals without wallpapering our walls in art.

A neuroscience point of view...

When I started my research in to the world of neuroscience there were two points which immediately altered my way of thinking about educational environments. The first is the way in which our brain processes sensory data. I ask you to just stop for 30 seconds and take in everything around you, from the smells to the sounds, to everything you can see. Now consider that all that sensory data must go through a process of ‘sensory gating’ (filtering) before it can even be sorted and sent to the correct region of the brain in which it is processed. All of this happens instantly. The more sensory data our brain is taking in the busier it is simply filtering and sorting information. The second point, which makes the first even more poignant, is that children under two are making approximately one million neural connections every second! Simply put, their little brains are so busy already they are easily at risk of over stimulation.

Adding trauma informed practice to the mix...

As I pointed out above, the brain is a busy organ, especially in the formative years. When children experience trauma, particularly in the case of ongoing and invasive trauma, their brain architecture can be profoundly effected. From these children we have learnt much about how the brain produces emotional responses, and how this can impact learning. When children experience trauma (which by its very definition is overwhelming) the brain is flooded with a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol effectively shuts down the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for rational thought. This response is something which can be triggered by real or perceived threat; and what we know about children who have experienced ongoing trauma is that they often have permanently high arousal levels (manifesting as being hyper-vigilant and reactive). This essentially means they are, on some level, always scanning the sensory input for threat and the more sensory input there is, the more likely it is that an emotional response, often uncomfortable or even scary for the child, will be triggered. Furthermore, the more distracted the child (and their brain) will be.

Taking it back to Montessori...

Back in the early 1900s Maria Montessori, the first female doctor in Italy, was establishing her theories through work with children with disabilities and from disadvantaged backgrounds. There, she established a theory which is still popular today. One of the core elements of Montessori’s theory was around the learning environment. She saw this as a space which should promote learning through order, beauty and accessibility. Mainstream early childhood education has a clear understanding of the latter two elements, but a sense of order is something to which we often feel resistant. I, myself, fought against the idea for years. But given the neuroscience and trauma research, I started to redevelop my thoughts. Montessori's ideas were ahead of their time. I began to understand, there can be a beautiful marrying of Reggio Emilia (where my heart truly lay) and Montessori theories in environments. A sense of order, beauty and accessibility, alongside an abundance of open-ended materials, provocations and spaces.

Truly valuing children's work...

Once I started to change my practices around environments, I came to a surprising realisation. This approach does not take away from the child’s sense of belonging to environments. Why not? Because art is not the only thing children can contribute! In fact, to really create a sense of belonging, it seemed more important to include children’s voices in the space designs and resource selection. It seemed more relevant to give them autonomy over what did go up in our designated spaces for art (we did have a space in each room for 4-6 pieces to be regularly displayed) and ask their permission before displaying their work. Perhaps most importantly, this appeared to add to the sense of achievement children felt when their own art work was displayed - after all, not every little thing was going up. A child’s sense of belonging in their environment does not really come from what is on the walls anyway, it comes from the relationships and voice they have within that space.

As I mentioned, I changed my practice as my research in to the above four points grew. And the result was phenomenal. Our service was always calm and respectful and children were always actively engaged. Of course, not all of this was a result of the environments - the wonderful relationships our educators established, the thoughtful curriculum planning, the commitment to professional development, were also paramount (thank you and shout out to all the wonderful educators I am talking about - you know who you are). But the easiest thing to do, and the first step, in calming down your service (particularly if you cater to any children who have sensory processing issues or have experienced trauma) is to strip back those walls!

Further Reading

Calmer Classrooms: A guide to working with traumatised children. (pdf)

Centre on the Developing Child at Harved University (website)

#earlychildhoodprofessionaldevelopment #earlychildhoodtheory #earlychildhoodeducator #braindevelopment #EYLF #NQS #earlychildhood #trauma #earlychildhoodeducation #learning #practice #environments #earlychildhoodenvironments

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