School administrators and educators have been made aware of the need to face the challenges of creating classroom environments that will support all learners. National legislation such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB, 2002) and professional organizations such as the Council of Exceptional Children (CEC, 2001) have established standards by which school professionals are guided to become responsible for the social competence of the children in their care. As such, the need for systemic change has been mandated in the structuring of socially supported learning environments.
Although academic progress for all students is a goal that teachers share, creating a classroom environment that encourages developmentally appropriate social skills has often been overlooked. The dual goal of academic-social progress is ever more important as diversity and inclusion become the norm in the general education setting. To combat feelings of isolation, loneliness, peer rejection and social awkwardness within students, teachers can structure a "classroom community."
Sapon-Shevin (1999) described the classroom environment as, "not just as a place where we feel connected and supported, but ...a solid base from which we move out into the world" (p.17). This statement suggests that the classroom environment encompasses two elements—the physical environment that students learn in daily and the emotional tone in which all aspects of teaching and learning occur. Far too frequently, children are placed in classrooms that are old, lacking in materials, and appear to some, more like prisons than institutions of learning. It is easy in places such as these for both teachers and students to give in to feelings of helplessness and despair. However, educational professionals know that creating a classroom community is more about building a climate of acceptance than of working in a nice space.
An accepting classroom environment promotes positive social interactions that perpetuate a climate of well-being for all students. This is achieved through a top-down structure in which educational professionals model appropriate behaviors and communications. Teachers set the tone by democratically establishing behavioral expectations that are framed positively (indicating what students will do), displayed prominently, discussed frequently, and reinforced consistently. In this way, students learn that they are operating in a safe environment. They are physically safe because bullying and disrespect is not allowed, and they are academically and socially safe to take risks and learn from their mistakes without ridicule. Other things teachers can do to foster an accepting environment are:
promote understanding and recognition of both learning and cultural diversity through curriculum planning
foster collaborative interactions among students, support personnel and community members
value each student’s contributions to the classroom community through class job assignments, class decision making processes, and work sample displays
Social Interaction Opportunities
Educational professionals often identify other individuals/groups in their own work environment as a support network. A support network is comprised of individuals to whom the teacher can turn to when they want to share accomplishments, difficulties, and seek advice. Some of these support networks are informal—based on variables such as the location of the teacher’s classroom and/or their position in the school, such as a group of newly hired teachers. Other support networks are more formally organized, such as in a mentorship arrangement for new teachers, or collaborations based upon a child-study case. Whether formally or informally arranged, all individuals need support networks and students are no different.
Some students intuitively know how to find systems of support, but many do not. As such, each classroom teacher has the opportunity to teach all students about support networks and problem solving by setting up a variety of collaborations for students within the classroom and then teaching the students how to use those groupings for ongoing support. When teachers utilize flexible groupings within a classroom setting, students become accustomed to working in different ways with everyone in the classroom. This allows for more comfortable interactions to occur between students outside of the classroom. Some ways teachers can foster social interaction in the school setting include:
differentiated instruction practices
classroom jobs and responsibilities
cooperative learning groups
peer tutoring programs
student initiated collaborative projects
structured formats for out-of-class time such as group games during recess and peer mentoring for lunchtime activities
As educational professionals, we recognize that what we do matters both to students and their families. By approaching our classrooms as an opportunity to create, through our own direct actions and communications, a community of learners in which all are safe, respected and free to develop personal goals, we create an atmosphere in which children can progress academically and socially.
If you have concerns about a child in your classroom or under your care, seek out the individuals in your school who are uniquely qualified to provide support and assistance.
Council of Exceptional Children (CEC). (2001). CEC performance-based standards. Retrieved July 30, 2009 from http://www.cec.sped.org/ps/perf_based_stds/standards.html
Meadan, H. & Monda-Amaya, L. (2008). Collaboration to promote social competence for students with mild disabilities in the general classroom: A structure for providing social support. Intervention in School and Clinic, 43, 158-167.
No Child Left Behind. (2002). Retrieved July 30, 2009 from http://www.ed.gov.nclb/landing.jhtml
Sapon-Shevin, M. (1999). Because we can change the world: A practical guide to building cooperative, inclusive classroom communities. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Micheline Malow, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. In addition to teaching courses in Exceptional Students and Instructional Strategies for Teaching Students with Learning and Behavioral Disorders, she has presented at numerous professional conferences, published articles on students with exceptional needs, friendship and teacher attitudes, and has co-authored a book for Greenwood Press, Adolescents and Risk (2008).