Classroom teachers can employ cooperative learning strategies to build classroom communities where students feel safe making personal disclosures. Planning for classroom discussions helps to establish safe classroom environments where students can meaningfully engage each other.
Identify shared values with your students.
Discuss with students the qualities they value in a classroom community. What do they need to feel safe, welcomed, accepted and respected? Be sure to address core values like respect, tolerance and cooperation.
Establish value-based norms for class discussions.
Develop a set of behavioral expectations—or norms—that reflect your class values. What does it look like when a student shows respect? What rules help students cooperate? What behaviors undermine the class’ values? These norms will vary from class to class, but should address language (e.g., “no put downs”), participation (e.g., the right to “pass”) and equity (e.g., “speak up, step back”). If not raised by students, suggest norms that are essential for student safety and equity. Once your class establishes a set of norms, make a class charter, constitution or contract. Students can hold each other accountable by referring back to the agreement.
Practice following norms in daily routines and activities.
Students need regular opportunities to practice norms within meaningful contexts. Frequent practice and feedback increases the likelihood that students will internalize classroom norms.
Provide positive reinforcement.
Acknowledge, praise and celebrate students when they follow norms and support their peers. Public praise of these values will incentivize others to follow the norms. Recognition and reward systems vary across classrooms. Whatever your system includes—verbal praise, a positive call home or an award certificate—explicitly connect the reward to the behavior to let students know they are being good members of the community.
Revisit and reteach norms and behaviors.
It is likely that your classroom culture will change through the year—learning goals shift, class rosters change, students mature. Monitor how your students are doing and adjust your instruction accordingly. Have you noticed an increased tendency for students to interrupt? Has the arrival of a new student made other students less likely to share? Has a particular bias or stereotype come up lately? Build some time into each week to revisit certain behaviors or introduce new ones.
Check in and assess how students are doing.
Establish procedures and collect data to help you and your students evaluate whether your class is functioning as an inclusive community. Systems will vary across classrooms, but some effective methods include participation tracking, post-discussion debriefs, facilitated feedback forums, or rubrics and scoring guides built around value-based norms
Additional resources for teens, teachers and school personnel seeking to help students with mental health concerns can be found on the website “More Than Sad,” a program of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.