One day, Janice Reade stood in front of her grade five/six class and asked, “When I stand here, what do you see?”
“I see that yellow paper,” said one boy, referring to a yellow border of corrugated paper that ran along the top of the chalkboard behind her. Another boy said, “I see those letters,” pointing to the colourful alphabet letters and words stapled to the yellow border.
“I was floored,” says Reade. “I’m very tall, with red hair. But the kids seemed to be looking at lots of things other than me.”
Reade had recently attended a teacher-training session where a consultant explained that busily decorated classrooms were a visual distraction for some students. “She said children concentrate better in classrooms painted in muted colours with almost no posters, artwork or decorations on the walls,” says Reade. “ That was the exact opposite of my classroom. I felt I needed those posters and visuals to stimulate students.” She dismissed the consultant’s input as the latest flavour-of-the-month education idea. She’d heard lots in her 31-year career at Cando Community School, a pre-kindergarten to grade 12 school that serves children from two First Nation communities, about 75 miles northwest of Saskatoon.
But after consulting the real experts—her students—Reade became a convert. Her orange-yellow cupboards were repainted a neutral taupe. She uncluttered her classroom, pulling down most of the posters and wall decorations. “It took days,” she laughs. “ The school principal had to give me a room to put all my stuff in.”
Toned-down classroom decor is just one strategy Cando staff are using to enhance student learning and support something psychologists call self-regulation. This is the ability to adapt your physiological, emotional and mental state to the task at hand. For instance, hockey players need to prepare for their games so that they’re energized, excited and vigilant—ready to skate fast, react sharply and keep track of opponents. But in math class, children need to be calm, yet still focused and alert so they can listen to the teacher, absorb the material they’re being taught, and apply it. Some studies are showing that children’s ability to self-regulate is a better predictor of school success than IQ.
Additional self-regulation techniques include letting kids chew gum or play with pieces of yarn, beads or squeeze balls while the teacher is talking. Some students stand while working, some sit on swivel chairs. Kids are permitted to walk on treadmills in a designated exercise room for 10 minutes if they’re feeling hyper. If they’re anxious or overwhelmed, they can try deep-breathing exercises or go to the classroom’s quiet area. It’s all designed to improve children’s engagement in learning, instead of resorting to more traditional punishment-and-reward classroom methods.
What does this have to do with classroom decor? The theory is that too much visual stimulation is a source of sensory stress for some kids. They have put so much of their physiological energy and brain power into coping with the visual stimulation that it depletes the inner resources they need to be able to sit quietly, pay attention to the teacher and, ultimately, learn. “I never would have believed it, but the children do concentrate better now,” says Reade, just over a year a fter transforming her classroom.
Tammy Riel, the Cando principal, got the ideas she brought back to her rural school while on a visit to Kitchener Community School in Regina two years ago. This inner-city elementary school was one of the first Canadian schools to pilot specific strategies to enhance and teach self-regulation, starting in 2008. Some of the strategies involve equipment like treadmills, special desks and seats. But, many involve no-cost techniques that any teacher could utilize.
For example, when Reade’s students at Cando look sluggish first thing in the morning and the weather’s nice, she takes them outside for a short but brisk walk. “A 10-minute walk makes them more alert and ready to work,” she says. In bad weather, they use the school gym.
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Reade and her colleagues are also teaching children to recognize their own self-regulation. From grades 10 to 12, they use a five-point scale where one means hyper, five means lethargic and not alert, and three is “just right.” Kids in kindergarten through grade nine use a three-point scale—Eeyore, Pooh and Tigger. Kids can then use their strategies (physical activity, playing with fidget toys or deep, slow breathing) to get themselves back to “just right.”
“When we need to stop to do some deep breathing,” says Reade, “I hit a little bell. The kids know that means it’s time to stop what they’re doing and do breathing exercises together for a few moments. It really helps.” Reade has also tied pieces of yarn to desk legs for some of her more fidgety students. “ These are the kids who were always playing with their pencils,” she says. “Now some of them braid yarn while I’m talking.”
When one of Reade’s students, Blaze, was in grade three, he was the kid who just couldn’t sit still, stay quiet or keep his hands to himself, says his mom, Kristen Wutunee. “He bothered other kids, made loud noises and was just generally disruptive.” So much so, Wutunee was being called about once a week to come take him home. “I pretty much used up my vacation days from work doing that,” she says.
Now, instead of sending Blaze to the office, the education assistant takes him to a room filled with treadmills, elliptical machines and other exercise equipment. He dances like mad to Wii Dance Craze until he is ready to come back to class and work again, usually aft er about 10 minutes.
Miraculous? Not really. There is lots of evidence that physical activity can improve learning (see the book Spark, by John Ratey), and other research has shown that playing with designated toys quietly at a desk or chewing gum during class releases brain chemicals that help kids stay calm and focused.
Later this year, a multi-province research group will launch a study of the behaviour and learning of students in a number of classes using a self-regulation model as part of the Canadian Self-Regulation Initiative. The scientists hope to start in the Yukon, then expand to include school districts in British Columbia and Ontario, where “self-regulation” is mentioned 30 times in the new kindergarten curriculum. It’s becoming somewhat of a buzzword in education circles.
Riel says it will be another year or two before she has hard data—in the form of Cando School test scores—to support her observation that the self-regulation approach is improving student learning. But she’s been surprised at how quickly staff started to see differences in children.
“For example, our ‘wanderer’ is using the pacing strip [a designated, marked walking area at the back of the classroom] instead of constantly being out in the hall,” she says. Kids have started coming to teachers and saying, “Can I have some gum? I work better in math when I chew gum.” Riel has also heard from parents who report their children using self-regulation skills outside of school. One nine-year-old girl used deep breathing to quell her butterflies before a dance routine in a competition.
Another surprise was how the parents reacted. “We had an open house for parents to hear about our self-regulation program and try out the adaptive seating and equipment. One parent was in tears and said, ‘If I could’ve had a desk like this when I was in grade five, I might still be in school.’”
“What I know for sure is that kids are in class more,” says Riel. “We’ve seen a dramatic drop in kids being sent to the office for behavioural issues. If kids are in the classroom more often, I’m sure they will benefit academically.”