Every morning, the children sit in a circle on a blue carpet in the middle of the classroom, passing a talking stick and fielding a question from their teacher, Shivonne Lewis-Young: How are you feeling?
“I feel kinda normal,” says one.
“I feel hungry,” says another, leaving to get a snack from a nutrition box in the corner .
“I feel sad,” one boy says. Ms. Lewis-Young tries to probe a bit deeper, but only gets a shoulder shrug in return.
She will remember to revisit that one answer later in the day.
Many of the eight-, nine- and 10-year-olds in Ms. Lewis-Young’s class, in Brampton, Ont., are considered high-needs students, some formally diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, others suffering from behavioural issues that have led them to the principal’s office or, worse, to a suspension. It’s a challenge Ms. Lewis-Young is addressing head-on by dismantling the traditional classroom and replacing the rows of hard desks and chairs with bean bag seating, an exercise bike and special stools that allows active kids to sit and wiggle, as well as softening the overhead lighting with filters, and using yoga and dance to relieve tension.
The thinking – and anecdotally it appears to be working – is that by addressing the emotional state of these students, by allowing them a chance to regulate their behaviour and calm themselves, they will be more willing to learn.
Research suggests that Ms. Lewis-Young’s technique in her Grade 3 and 4 split classroom at Massey Street Public School is on the right path. For kids who learn differently, a traditional classroom reinforces those differences. More variety leads to a better chance of academic success, says Jeff Kugler, an education equity consultant and former executive director of the Centre for Urban Schooling at the University of Toronto.
Launched this school year, the Massey Street school project is the brainchild of Ms. Lewis-Young, and her colleague, Michelle Philpot, who teaches a similar-styled Grade 2 and 3 split classroom next door. The pair were inspired after reading Calm, Alert, and Learning, a book written by York University professor Stuart Shanker, who also heads the MEHRIT Centre, an organization that works with parents and educators to assist children in self-regulating their behaviour. The book explores different methods of helping children cope with stressors. The two teachers received input on the physical changes made to the classrooms from the school board’s occupational therapist before drawing up their proposal.
The initiative at the Peel District School Board could improve learning across the country for children with behavioural issues.
Massey Street school is ranked “somewhat high” on the social risk index, which measures, among other variables, average household income, unemployment and the educational level of the community.
In the last school year, for example, the main office had 386 visits from students who had behavioural issues. There were 393 students enrolled at the school.
Ms. Lewis-Young, who is in her 11th year of teaching, has always searched for new ways to engage students who would otherwise lose interest early on in academics, act out as a result, and risk not graduating. She was once among them. She remembers her Grade 2 teacher telling the class they were to learn about penguins. She wanted to study dinosaurs, instead. The teacher turned her down. Ms. Lewis-Young did not complete her penguin project. Did it matter, she wondered, if students were learning about dinosaurs or penguins just as long as they were engaged in the material? She struggled in school – much like many of her own students.
“I was also an out-of-the-box student myself and I know that I would have been successful in school instead of struggling if I had been given choice,” she says. “It’s very powerful when kids feel like they have choice and a voice. It builds trust and mutual respect.”
Evan Grandage is a reserved nine-year-old boy whose intellect seems obvious to a visitor even if it’s cloaked by his quiet veneer. He was moved to Ms. Lewis-Young’s class in the middle of his Grade 3 year because school staff felt he needed a different environment. He was sent to the main office a number of times, and he was suspended for fighting, he says. He didn’t find his schoolwork to be challenging. He has remained in Ms. Lewis-Young’s class for Grade 4.
“I thought it was really boring,” he says of his schoolwork. “I didn’t like the people in my class.” And now? “I like school a bit.”
At one of the standing tables in the classroom, Evan and a friend are using Lego and electronic building blocks to build a crane that would pick up a Lego piece and move itnew. They are successful. During a math lesson later in the day, Evan is given a choice of whether he wants to join the group or work on another project. He already understands the math lesson. He prefers doing origami.
Students move freely around the room on this particular morning. They build with Lego or use their devices to play educational games. A student asks if he can play Minecraft. “Not right now,” Ms. Lewis-Young says. But then she remembers there’s a Minecraft coding game.
Klint Powell, a nine-year-old with scruffy blond hair and a mischievous smile, slouches on a bean bag chair nearby, using his tablet to play a game that lets him move ahead if he correctly answers the math question. As his fingers move across the screen, he says he’s worried about returning to a traditional classroom in Grade 5. “I had difficulties with my teacher,” he says of educators before Ms. Lewis-Young. “It was just that she didn’t understand me.”
Those difficulties meant that, last year in Grade 3, Klint was reading at below a Grade 2 level, a problem that, without intervention, could have intensified through his schooling. Now, he’s almost at grade level. “I think that because he’s calm and settled in the classroom, he’s not afraid to take risks with his learning,” Ms. Lewis-Young says. “Things are not a battle any more.”
Many of the 23 students in Ms. Lewis-Young’s room and the 21 next door in Ms. Philpot’s were specifically chosen to attend these classes because they wouldn’t be as successful in a traditional classroom setting, said school principal Kathy Kozovski. She said that, anecdotally, fewer students from these rooms are getting into trouble. There is still structure, but the primary goal is that students are alert and calm.
The concept is winning a small following. Teachers within the school are trying to incorporate some of the physical components into their own classrooms, such as the Hokki stools, a seat with a flexible stand that keeps fidgety students active while sitting still. Educators from other parts of the school board have visited the rooms.
“We passionately believe that setting up an environment like this can be successful for all students. Even if you’re in an affluent area, those kids will have success too, because you’re teaching them to regulate themselves, you’re teaching them collaboration, you’re teaching them trust, responsibility and empathy,” Ms. Lewis-Young said.
Even at the age of nine, Kayla Cook is learning to manage her anger so she can concentrate on her learning. Ms. Lewis-Young remembers how defiant Kayla would become when asked to tidy up or come to the carpet area for a lesson. Kayla says she was frustrated with school. She blames her friends and her little sister, whom she said would upset her.
The situation is changing.
Now, when Kayla is angry, she goes into the tent set up in a corner of the classroom and takes deep breaths or lies down for a few minutes before coming back outside to join the group.
“I care about my learning now. Now I’m a new Kayla, not the old Kayla,” she said.
Who was the old Kayla? “A mean one.”