A Successful Learning Environment Begins with Structure by Cara Carroll
by Cara Carroll, Monthly Columnist
Visions of newly sharpened pencils, crisp folders, untainted glue bottles, and fresh crayons are swirling in my head right now. It’s time to go back to school! Even after spending 10 years in the classroom, I still get butterflies in my stomach to this day just thinking about the first day with a classroom full of new kids. The night before the first day is usually spent tossing and turning in bed instead of getting the recommended 8 hours of sleep, but let’s be real. Who really sleeps 8 hours a night anyway?! This is my favorite time of year…besides Christmas, of course!
The most important part of the back to school hustle and bustle is preparing and organizing myself for a new year. At the beginning of the year, I like to plan day-by-day because things are constantly changing and I know flexibility is the key! I do like to be over-prepared with lots of activities…most of which we almost never get around to…but I really like to spend the first couple of weeks establishing the rules and my expectations. In my experience, I’ve realized that kids need…no, MUST…know how to behave and act responsibly before they can learn.
The key to a successful learning environment is structure. I use the word ‘structure’ loosely because I know that structure looks different in every classroom. For me, structure means routine, engaged learning, and following my rules and expectations. If I’m constantly stopping instruction and/or independent learning to redirect expected behavior, we won’t get much accomplished. I say this from experience because my first couple of years were fraught with LOTS of redirection and late nights trying to figure out what I was doing wrong!
Once I realized how badly my babies needed structure, class life was so much happier for everyone. From that point on, I have spent the first couple of weeks at the beginning of every school year modeling, practicing, and enforcing my rules and expectations. This typically begins with a lot of praise and positive reinforcement sprinkled in with extrinsic rewards here and there. When I feel like my kids know exactly what’s expected of them, the extrinsic rewards disappear. I want them to be responsible learners because they want to be and because they know how important that is to their success…not because they want a prize at the end of the day.
Make it easy on yourself and go full force into establishing those rules. Model…practice…model…practice…wash, rinse, repeat! If you have to stop in the middle of something…STOP! If you have to abandon a lesson to model and practice, do it! Better to do it now than every single day for the rest of the year. Going back to school is an exciting time of the year for everyone. It’s definitely a lot of work in the beginning, but the juice is worth the squeeze.
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