We aren’t born practicing self-regulation. We are born crying bloody murder at the slightest hiccup and lacking any concept of ‘regular.’ Our whole existence is driven by the need to get attention by any means possible, to be heard, to be taken care of. From a young age, we learn how to direct the attention of adults and peers towards us based on trial and error with different behaviors.
Over the past few decades, early education experts like Mojdeh Baya have observed, in study after study, the magical effects that a teacher’s deliberate efforts in giving ‘positive attention’ and fostering self-regulation have on student success in the classroom. Baya writes that attention reinforces behavior: even challenging or inappropriate behavior that receives negative attention is still being reinforced and instilled as an expression tactic because ‘negative attention is better than receiving no attention at all.’ Baya’s approach to emotional development is based on a developmental framework which views children as capable and resilient — the nucleus of this approach being to respect a child’s dignity, selfhood and personhood. The child is not to be chastised into appropriate behavior, rather, the child should be seen as in control of herself and able to develop emotional self-regulation strategies with an adult’s guidance.
When it comes to teaching self-regulation, one approach that Mojdeh Baya and noted peace educator, Linda Lantieri preach is the “calm corner.”
The calm corner is somewhat ubiquitous in classrooms today and could be seen as the next-gen “time-out.”
Sometimes called the peace corner or the cozy corner, the calm corner is essentially a secluded area in the classroom exclusively used for calming down. Typically constituted by comfy seating and sensory calming objects, the teacher guides or invites a student to the calm corner when she notices budding challenging behavior or conflict. It is absolutely never a punishment. The goal is that the students learn to use the corner regularly and independently as a place for self-regulation when they feel they need to. This practice leads to fewer outbursts and behavioral disruptions.
Chicago South Side elementary teacher, Madeline Olm-Shipman has put a lot of love into her class’s calm corner and understands the value of teaching her insanely hectic classroom of 30+ Englewood first graders to nurture inner-peace and self-regulation. She told me about her experience getting the corner up and running.
How do you get students to use the calm corner?
Getting students to use the calm corner has not been an issue at all. I had a running waitlist of kids trying to get into the calm corner when I first introduced it. It was like every two minutes, “I fell yesterday at recess, can I go to the calm corner?” They just thought it was cool and wanted to explore and I rode it out because I wanted them to have practice with it and be comfortable going there on their own. I wanted them to get over its novelty and have it not be viewed as a foreign place, so that when a situation did come up where they were feeling big emotions and needed to calm down, it wasn’t unknown territory.
What has been your experience getting students to practice self-regulation?
As the year has progressed I’ve seen children lose their cool. If they don’t seem to be managing it, I will ask them, “Do you think you should go to the calm corner right now?” I just pose it to them. I really believe it’s not a punishment, and I never want them to have an association of being calm or having time alone with ‘being in trouble.’ I don’t want students to think they are being punished for having big emotions or even for getting mad. We’re taught ‘don’t be mad’ and ‘don’t fly off the handle’ but I think that’s bullshit. People experience shit and that’s just part of reality. So I’m interested in helping students identify how they’re feeling and teaching them to self-regulate those emotions and calm down by asking, “Do you want to go there [the calm corner]? Do you need some time?” And they usually understand that they do.
How are students acclimating to the practice?
The calm corner is a hit. The first time I remember it working really well was with one of my students, a boy named Briton. Two girls were bothering him and he was very upset and said angrily, through his teeth, “Can I go to the calm corner?” It was the first time that a student took it upon themselves to understand their emotions and attempt to regulate.
Do you have any other environments or activities in your classroom that specifically address self-regulation?
Yes, it’s all positive vibes in my classroom. For example, we send love to our friends with our hands if someone is feeling sad. We do peace circles where the whole group comes together for a meeting. I call the circle when I notice a recurring issue in the classroom, like if there is fighting or bullying. We’ll sit down and do a mini-lesson to address the problem. It’s a good way for students to acquire the vocabulary and language to express how they’re feeling and the things that are happening to them.
How big of a role do you consider self-regulation to be in the general ethos of your classroom?
I think it fits into a larger philosophy that I have, which is in the grounds of constructivist theory of self-development. I don’t really care that much about my students getting questions right on homework, etc., because the content is secondary. At this age they are learning how to develop as a person and play the game of school. Self-regulation is important, but integral to my classroom is the idea of community and understanding how we all need to act so that our whole community can be successful and thrive and grow.
As adults, there are so few opportunities for us to practice self-regulation that aren’t pay-per-experience. Do you see any way to implement the ideology of the calm corner in adult life?
I think the ideology of the calm corner in adult life is different, and it can be more figurative. You can find a safe place in relationships instead of physical places. You can go to certain people in your life as a grounding source to gain perspective when you lose it. And sometimes you just need time. I’ve found that time is the biggest factor in my classroom calm corner: yes the students can do all these little activities to calm down, but the time itself helps the most. They are stepping back and taking five minutes away from the conflict. It’s amazing what the human body and human brain can do with just a little bit of alone time when it comes to healing and repairing and getting back to emotional homeostasis.