It will come as no surprise that the environment in which a child grows up shapes them as the individual they eventually come to be. What might be surprising is how integral it is, not just to their development but their long-term prospects later down the line, things such as:
- High school graduation
- Adult employment and earnings
- Cognitive development
- Language development
The most formative years of a child’s life are up to the age of eight, so the learning environment they have during their time at elementary school is especially important.
Over these years children’s brains are highly responsive to what’s around them, and these experiences and surroundings will correspond to the resulting emotional development, social skills, and learning ability.
There are a number of determinate factors that play their part such as a child’s physical environment, their family’s financial situation, and access to healthcare, but one of the most significant is that of their classroom environment.
Why is a good learning environment so important?
The absence of a healthy and stimulating learning environment can be severely detrimental to a child’s language and speech abilities, as well as leading to anxiety, difficulties concentrating and even anti-social behaviours.
Indeed resultant academic performance and emotional well-being can be strongly tied to the learning environment which a child grows up in.
A good classroom environment fosters higher levels of social capability, language skills and cognitive intelligence as well as emotional. These benefits compound on themselves later in a child’s life putting them in the best position possible to flourish through elementary school and into higher-education.
While it’s one thing to talk about a “good classroom environment”, what does this actually mean? Certainly it can vary slightly child to child, situation to situation, however, in this article we’ve put together ten things that are best placed to create a highly effective learning environment for most, if not certainly all children in elementary school.
Ten Characteristics of a Successful Classroom Environment
1. Curiosity is encouraged
It’s only natural that we begin with curiosity.
This is the foundation of learning, the launchpad from which a true, authentic and long-lasting pursuit of knowledge blasts off from.
94% of parents believe that the higher the curiosity level in a child, the more successful they are likely to be in adulthood.
And they’re not wrong: according to pediatric research, curious children are better at grasping basic math and reading, linking curiosity with early academic success even in young children.
Children at elementary school are all inherent curiosity-hunters, but some may find it more difficult to express than others. It’s important to look out for the quietly puzzled or confused expressions - in these situations softly inviting them to pursue the question behind the uncertainty can encourage more subsequent engagement.
Project-based learning in small groups can also see the more-curious joining with the less-curious members of the class, spreading that curiosity from one group to another.
2. It’s about the questions, not the answers
If curiosity is the launchpad, then questions are the space-rockets.
Traditionally, providing the right answer is met with appropriate encouragement and grades, but why shouldn’t the right questions also earn praise?
Answers are usually teacher-directed and restricted to a narrow response-range (after all 10 x 10 can only give one correct answer). Questions, on the other hand, originate deep within a child’s consciousness and can stretch across a wide spectrum. Questions demonstrate creativity and individual learning, and if rewarded encourage this behaviour over time.
Now, rewarding the act of asking a question without examining its relevance or value is not the best idea. Why? Because there is a difference between a “good” question and a “bad” question.
Bad questions are those that are confusing or unstructured. Additionally, these types of questions could indicate that the motivation is for class credit rather than born from genuine curiosity.
This isn’t to say one should shut down these types of questions. A more appropriate response would be to help the pupil clarify what they are attempting to ask, to organise in their mind the things they want to discover with the answer that will be provided.
Once this has been achieved, credit can be given, and your pupil will understand more the kind of question that not only generates reward, but creates a better foundation of knowledge.
3. One idea from ten sources is better than ten ideas from one
This is especially true in the information-saturated world of today, where many sources can come heavily biased.
Teaching a child how to understand this principle isn’t as much about the child’s development today as it is about their development in the long-term and their ability to tell the difference between objective facts from subjective opinions.
More applicable to older elementary classes, this can take the form of introducing how an opinion from one source could argue against another with both being equally valid, even if coming to a different conclusion.
A specific example would be a history lesson comparing a historian’s account of a particular incident to that of an eyewitness account.
Indeed educational experts Martha Polley and Sunday Cummins write: ”while we want students to eventually locate sources on their own, beginning with a set of sources that have already been vetted and organized by the teacher can serve as a mentor for the types of sources students should eventually seek out for themselves.”
This allows the child to understand from an early age that sometimes there’s more than one way to cook an egg. It encourages them to look at the question set before them from more than one angle, maintaining not just their curiosity and independent learning, but a realistic representation of the world that comes to meet them in adulthood.
4. The best learning model is using no single learning model
With the onset of advanced child psychology and in-depth study of learning techniques, there are an abundance of learning models available to teachers today.
We’ve already mentioned project-based learning, but there’s also eLearning, direct instruction, and inquiry-based learning (just to name a few).
Sometimes too many cooks spoil the broth, but in the case of education, each has its merits.As a teacher you might even blend learning models together to create a hybrid learning model that meets your pupils’ needs.
For example, the Rotation Model: in this situation you might utilise digital learning tools within the classroom set at rotating stations, whilst you can focus on face-to-face time with others. You might divide the class based on their math and reading level, and for the group that performs well in math but not reading, spend more time with them on reading comprehension, before rotating them to the digital learning stations for arithmetic.
With the amount of content, learning mediums and contexts that form a child’s curriculum, as well as different learning speeds, it follows that pursuing only one single learning model just isn’t suitable anymore.
Making sure different learning models are introduced to the classroom not only assures more effective teaching, but improves engagement from pupils with a diverse and varied methodology.
5. Connecting lessons learned in the classroom beyond the classroom
What is education but preparation for life in the wider world?
A highly effective learning environment for elementary school kids is one that relates the lessons in the classroom to the world beyond it.
One way of achieving this is by bringing the world into class, like using primary source documents such as photographs and real-life documents for the kids to touch and engage with.
Another method involves using real-world problems as questions for kids to answer: “If your bus is ten minutes late to school, what time will it get here?”
Using the news and current affairs as well as guest speakers, even if it’s just parents talking about what they do, also provides a means of incorporating the real world into the classroom.
6. Personalised learning through a variety of traditional and non-traditional metrics
Personalised learning can be of huge benefit to any child, and when crafting such an individualised approach, there’s no doubt that reading speed, vocabulary comprehension and arithmetic skills are all solid measures of educational progress.
However, there are other less traditional parameters that can also be used: engagement-levels, readiness-to-learn, individual interests - these are all criteria that should be taken into account for personalised educational rigor, speed and entry point.
In addition, a child’s ability to use and communicate information for real world issues, and their ability to gather and combine information to build knowledge up from different sources are imperative life skills for them to develop, so strengthening weaknesses in these areas will be vital in the long-run.
7. Continuous, transparent, and non-punitive assessment
Understanding how a child is doing through uniform assessment across the class is a vital part of a successful learning environment.
Whether you are a teacher, parent or guardian, this is how you can determine the progress of your child and initiate additional learning measures if needed.
There are other dimensions of this that are often lost however. This feedback needs to be ongoing, and not just a bi-annual occurrence.
The speed at which children develop means the less time taken to assess means less time for adjustments to be made.
The assessment-process also needs to be transparent, and it needs to be clear to the child how their progress is being measured, where they should try to look for improvement and what is important to their development.
Finally it should be non-punitive - no child should ever be punished for poor performance when they’ve been trying their best; all this does is discourage and dishearten, when really what they need most in that case is to spur on and motivate their educational journey.
8. Clear standards of success
Transparent measures of assessment are different to transparent measures of success. One involves telling a child how they’re doing against themselves, whilst the other tells them how they are doing amongst their peer group.
It’s important to give pupils a clear understanding of the metrics which determine their academic successes in class. In this way, pupils won’t have to guess what it takes to excel amongst their classmates.
9. Habit-development over fact-learning
We all remember the days of reciting our times tables, memorising historical dates and committing to memory dozens of world capitals.
This demonstrates memory retention sure, but a full education consists of understanding concepts, which itself takes time and discipline.
Fostering a culture of habit-development where persistence, creativity, and flexibility are all demonstrated by the child’s teacher will help model cognitive behaviours that continue to aid them in elementary school and beyond.
Saving what is perhaps the most important characteristic for last: a positive learning environment.
This should flow through class from beginning to end in a sincere and authentic sentiment.
This type of learning environment provides a more pleasant experience that a child is much more willing to engage with, rather than a daily torture they dread to attend.
Indeed according to Dr Elizabeth Barkley, a prominent education author, “a positive learning environment means that a student feels comfortable, has a sense of rapport with their teacher and peers, and believes they can be successful.”
This is not to say that the group should be given unrealistic or fake representations of their current skill-sets, but instead continually encouraged and emboldened to achieve their potential and more.
Every child will have their unique traits and personality that guide the way they learn best.
Nuanced approaches will still be needed, with small adjustments here and there depending on the individual, but implementation of the characteristics above will greatly enhance a child’s ability to flourish in the classroom and reach their academic and personal potential.
Barkley, Elizabeth, Student Engagement Techniques, 2010