Sanctuary in the Storm: How Classroom Design Can Promote Social-Emotional Learning
Last updated on September 8th, 2021
The pandemic robbed K–12 students of so much. Learning was lost, and for some, it was profound. But many experts believe the root cause is the ongoing fragile emotional and mental health of kids and teens.
As a new academic year begins and uncertainty looms, educators are addressing social and emotional learning (SEL) setbacks. Their efforts should begin, literally, from the ground up. The right school furniture for classrooms and in-between areas can help students decompress, regroup and re-engage in learning. That’s a big bonus for teachers, too.
What is SEL?
First, let’s define SEL. It’s much more than “soft skills.” SEL is an integral part of education and human development. Students grow socially and emotionally at the same time they’re developing academically. Ignoring social and emotional skills development will have an adverse effect on academics.
Josh Godinez, a counselor at Centennial High School in Corona, California, captured how many educators feel.
Counselor at Centennial High School
"We know we’ve got to take care of mental health before we can expect to see students academically achieve.”
In short, SEL consists of five key skills:
Recognizing one’s own emotions, personal goals, and values.
Regulating one’s own emotions and behaviors.
Understanding of, and compassion for, others’ backgrounds or cultures.
Ability to establish and maintain healthy relationships.
Making positive choices with one’s own behavior.
These skills are essential for students’ success in virtually every area of life, from education and employment to family and community relationships. Case in point: One fifth-grade teacher said districts regularly ask educators to add new initiatives to their plates. That’s nothing new. But, she added, SEL isn’t adding another thing to the plate; SEL is the plate.
How the Pandemic Gut-Punched SEL
For sure, the pandemic has exacerbated cracks in the SEL “plate.”
The United States experienced more than 600,000 deaths from COVID-19. On average, each of these deaths impacted nine people, and many of the 5 million grieving individuals are children. Black children have suffered disproportionately from parental bereavement.
Then there was the isolation, loss and loneliness of remote learning. Dr. Lori Desautels teaches in the College of Education at Butler University where she created a certification in Applied Educational Neuroscience/Brain and Trauma. She believes the residual effects of students’ pandemic-driven isolation and the chronic unpredictability will be remembered for years.
Dr. Lori Desautels
College of Education
We come into this world wired for connection — it’s a biological imperative. A sense of belonging brings satisfaction, and our ... happiness is impacted by being part of a social network. We lost this connectedness last year.” It’s understandable why anxiety and depression rates in kids and teens have increased.
How SEL Deficits Manifest in Students
According to a recent Eutopia article, unresolved trauma can affect memory and concentration. That puts students at risk for lowered levels of academic performance. Teachers — many traumatized themselves — are on high alert for students who show signs of trauma, like difficulty sitting still or fatigue, and problems regulating emotions.
Here’s how trauma can manifest in students:
Elementary school children
Irritability, aggressiveness, clinginess, nightmares, school avoidance, poor concentration, and withdrawal from activities and friends.
Sleeping and eating disturbances, withdrawal, agitation, increase in conflicts, physical complaints, delinquent behavior, and poor concentration.
Let Furniture Help the Healing
We know that furniture and interior design play a significant role in academic learning. The same goes for students’ social-emotional wellbeing, especially as they transition back to a new school year and fresh knowns.
Focus on empowering students by capitalizing on what they can control. Let them choose to sit, stand or move around. Help them discover what works best for them – independently or collaboratively. Above all, set a safe, positive tone.
Here are some furniture options and arrangements to consider.
Comfy, soft (yet durable) furniture
We’ve all embraced familiar creature comforts throughout the pandemic. Soft to the touch and lightweight, Smith System’s upholstered Flowform® line offers comfortable soft rockers, ottomans, stools, benches, and divider walls – in both straight and bean-type shapes.
The multi-functional furniture features organic shapes and soft, rounded edging. The pieces work individually or loosely slide together, giving students endless options to create a solo fort or cluster pieces into a collaborative pod. The options are endless.
Beyond the formal classroom walls, Flowform® is becoming a favorite to furnish in-between spaces, too. A single student can easily move most pieces into hallways, nooks, niches or commons – even outside.
Active, Flexible Seating Options
The past 18 months have given students a chance to also test their independence. SmithSystem® has a full-spectrum of school chairs and seating to accommodate nearly all seating choices for all types students, from the 40-lb. kindergartner to the extra-large high school senior.
In traditional seating, there’s the Groove® chair that is immediately supportive and comfortable. The ergonomic seat pean and subtle shell contours support a working posture at a desk or sideways sitting. Another option is Flavors®, which offers maximum flexibility in seating options and movement. Students can face front, back, or either side. Torsional flex in the seatback and a flat seat pan lets learners freely adjust their posture without chair resistance.
There’s also the fun Oodle® Stool and upholstered Flowform® Soft Rocker. The latter is a revolutionary, new active seating line that puts the fun in classroom functionality. It features a unique movement disc base that allows for 10 degrees of movement. See our blog, Top 10 Benefits of a Flexible-Seating Classroom.
Divide Spaces. Create Zones
Students who feel overwhelmed often benefit from a designated area where they can go to regulate their emotions or work independently, without leaving the classroom. One strategy is to create a calm-down corner or mindfulness zone.
These semi-private nooks are becoming popular spots to help students use their social and emotional learning tools, like deep breathing. Furniture is key to setting the tone. Include a comfy chair (or two, if there’ a classroom aid), a small table, and some mid-height dividers.
Beyond furniture and space planning, here are a few other tips to help boost social-emotional learning.
Acknowledge the impact
According to Edutopia’s article, “What Students Will Need as the Year Begins,” students and teachers will benefit from focusing on relationships and the daily rhythms of schools. Healing begins with first acknowledging the struggles.
“We will need to acknowledge the adversity and trauma students have experienced and find new ways of repairing, leading, teaching, and living life with ... emotional, mental and physiological well-being.”
Set intentional routines and schedules
This creates a predictable day. It also helps build emotional and physical stamina for students who were in remote learning for much of last year.
Have frequent check-ins with students
Desoutels said this can be as minor as a hand on the shoulder, gentle eye contact, a hand-written note or other greeting. Adolescents may especially need these check-ins.
Anchor the nervous system: Take breaks for movement and snacks
Group assignments with pauses for self-care. Movement and breathing exercises can help reduce tension and stress, which can improve attention, working memory and successful learning.
Our Commitment to Resilience
None of us can predict how the coming year will impact students’ SEL. Smith System® promises to do its very best to help educators and students face unpredictable circumstances. We’ll continue creating new furniture solutions to foster social, emotional and mental resilience.
- The Post-Pandemic Classroom: Will Technology Still Drive Design?
- Employee Spotlight–Meet The Lopez Family
- How to Get Students Back on Track Using High-Impact Tutoring Spaces
- Welcome to Flowform® Outdoor, Smith System’s new upholstered furniture for outdoor learning spaces
- Peace of Mind: Why Classroom Air Purifiers are Here to Stay
- Smith System® Launches New, Mobile Air Purifying Unit for Learning Spaces
- Employee Spotlight – Meet David De Hoyos
- Employee Spotlight – Meet Chase Youngblood