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Inquiring Teachers

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  Jessica Veenbaas

 

Diane Bowes   

 

 

 

St. Patrick's Teachers studying the creation of learning-friendly environments

The teachers at St. Patrick’s School are proud to identify two new teachers Diane Bowes and Jessica Veenbaas who have taken on the challenge of learning “environmental strategies” that will help students better regulate their classroom behaviour.

“If the learning environment is calm, organized, and purposefully planned by the educator, then the student will be able to maintain their learning focus for a longer, more desirable period of time,” is how they describe the rationale for the project.

This approach is gaining in popularity and acceptance, mostly because it has been found to be very effective. Simple things can make a real difference - lower lighting levels, background sounds, keeping the classroom clutter-free, adopting ‘strategic’ seating, increasing the number of transitions in the school day, having sensory-based items in the classroom, using a theme-based décor, etc.

The grant, which comes through the Teacher Learning and Leadership Program (TLLP), will support the two teachers as they take on a self-directed study of the best practices for creating effective learning environments. They will work from several texts published on the approach, and visit schools in Thunder Bay (Ogden Community School) and southern Ontario that have successfully adopted these techniques. Throughout the year, the teachers will be expected to share what they are learning with their colleagues at St. Pat’s and the Northwest Catholic DSB.

“The nice part is the grant comes with enough money that we will be able to provide teachers here with funding to make changes in their classroom environments,” said Veenbaas.

The application for the TLLP grant came about when Bowes (the grade 3 teacher) and Veenbaas (grade 7-8 and special education) worked on trying to secure a full Snoezelen room - a multi-sensory environment and soft play area that has proven to help children with special needs develop the calm focus best suited to learning. But that proved far too expensive, so they started exploring less costly alternatives.

That’s when they discovered the work of educators like Stuart Shanker (Calm, Alert, and Learning: Classroom Strategies for Self-regulation) and Leah Kuypers (The Zones of Regulation), and the way they have been applied in Ontario schools.

Bowes, who taught the late Hayden Cox for several years, says he was a big influence in opening her eyes to the potential of this approach. Working with him, she learned how even small changes in the classroom environment could have a big impact on his comfort, and ability to be present in class. And what worked for him, did have an impact on the rest of her class.

The program isn’t about manipulating students. At its core, it recognizes that all students are ultimately responsible for learning how to regulate their own behaviour. So the program aims to remove from the environment needless stressors that make it more difficult for students to learn how to bring their focus to learning (i.e., regulate their own behaviour), and introduce elements that make it easier.

“We have already identified one thing we’d like to see changed here as soon as possible: the very loud bell,” said Bowes. “That one change would make a difference for several students.”

And if, as the studies suggest, all of these external stressors have a cumulative impact on student behaviour, moving away from an overly loud bell should have a positive impact on all students.

Revised and taken from article in the Atikokan Progress by Mike McKinnon

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