Tips & Practices to Create a Calmer Classroom

Tips and Practices to Create a Calmer Classroom
children sitting on their desk in a classroom showing a zen moment

The Mirror (Neuron) has Two Faces: Tips and Practices to Create a Calmer Classroom

February 2019 | Issue #05

Have you ever noticed the way in which a baby’s belly-laugh makes you laugh? Or your automatic reaction to return the smile of a stranger on the street? Or the way in which you avoid certain people because their negative attitude brings you down? All of these are examples of the way in which mirror neurons work and proof that not only are humans relational beings, but our brains are relational as well. Our brains are triggered to connect to others and automatically simulate behaviors and emotions we observe in others (laughter, smiling, or feelings of sadness).

Mirror neurons are incredible important; in fact, they shape the way in which we connect at an early age. Through mirror neurons, babies are able to imitate their caregivers. Through a healthy caregiver relationship, and stimulation of mirror neurons, the attachment process supports maturation of the brain as a baby learns trust and connection through observing the caring behavior of a caregiver. Mirror neurons allow us to connect and play a role in empathy. Healthy adult-child relationships create healthy neural pathways and connections in the brain. However, for helping professionals (i.e. teachers, counselors, psychologists, therapists) these same mirror neurons are also causes of compassion fatigue or vicarious traumatization. As educators and helpers, we are first responders, often observing, hearing about, responding empathetically to (and in some ways carrying with us) the trauma, reactive behaviors, and social emotional responses of our students or those we serve. Observing, responding to, and supporting students when they have experienced trauma or toxic stress can cause emotional exhaustion and burnout.

What does this brain science mean related to classroom interventions? First and foremost, it means we must put on our own oxygen masks first. We must intervene on our own behalf, and practice self-care and loving kindness toward ourselves. We must also model what this looks like for others. When we see the face of trauma and toxic stress, we must provide a different “face” to mirror. A face of empathy, connection, and wellness.

Here are some tips to practice with yourself and students:

  1. Take a minute to breathe. When we (or our students) are in a moment of stress or are triggered by something, learning in the moment is impossible. The teachable moment will be after we have taken a breath and several minutes to calm down.
  2. Get moving! Physical movement releases endorphins (which counteracts the stress hormone cortisol) and decreases stress and depression. Take a movement break in the classroom. Even just a couple of minutes of easy movement or wall push-ups will support healthy brain functioning and wellness.
  3. Express your feelings, mirror this appropriately for students. It is okay to express your feelings (ex. I feel frustrated when I put effort into planning this activity and the class is loud and not listening to directions). Model identifying emotions and appropriately expressing and responding to them.
  4. Ask for help. Recognize when to ask for help and have a person to turn to in times of stress. Model this for students and be this supportive person for your students.