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Creating a Supportive Classroom Environment: Fostering Mental Health and Wellbeing

A classroom is one of the few places left where individuals can grow academically and personally, in a supportive, non-combative environment. However, it takes careful consideration on the part of an instructor to create a safe and comfortable environment capable of stimulating personal growth while ensuring the student’s well-being and health are not being compromised. 

Over the years, I have used a combination of the following strategies to foster an open learning environment where students do not feel stressed or compromised. 

Establish boundaries and create a Safe Zone: By nature, I am very friendly and talkative so, on the very first day, I tell the students, “I may be friendly, but I am not your friend.” It is important to make that distinction since the student, as well as the instructor, must know their roles and understand that there are some lines that will not be crossed, creating a safe zone for both, and avoiding uncomfortable interactions. 

Encourage open communication: I value curiosity and appreciate students who question what they are told. I encourage students to ask any question they have, however tangential, and make sure I address it right away. This way every student feels heard and is comfortable engaging in a conversation. 

Be empathetic and non-judgmental: Each individual has a different way of expressing or reacting to the pressures they are under. The cardinal mistake most people make is to assume that others think like them, so they must also be dealing with stressors in a similar manner. If you can listen without judgment, offer support without seeking commendation, and help students avail whatever help they seek, then you will have fostered a safe classroom environment. 

Be flexible and nimble: Once you understand that students have differing needs and circumstances, you will be able to adjust to the needs of students whose struggles in the classroom may actually be a manifestation of their personal issues. This will mean bending your rules (but not breaking them) and adjusting them on an as-needed basis. This can be achieved by providing extensions on assignments, allowing students to work in different environments (such as a library instead of the classroom), or offering alternative assignments (such as online instead of in-person). 

Know your students: Icebreakers to start a class are great but are of no value if you do not then build on that. I make it a point to talk to students during breaks or lulls in activities about life and general topics of interest (sports, music, culture, arts, movies, etc. –anything but course material). You get to learn a lot about the students while at the same time becoming more relatable to them on a human level. 

Encourage students to share their successes: I teach at a university where more than 80% of the students participate in athletics or performing arts. I have a standing rule in my class–if a student is successful in their other endeavor (scores a winning goal, is the lead in a play, places at the national championship, etc.) the whole class receives a couple of extra credit points on the next exam/assignment. It is a low-stakes reward, but it builds a community in the classroom as other students are interested in their classmates’ endeavors and rejoice in the shared success stories. 

Be a role model: You cannot expect students to participate in the classroom or engage with their peers if you are not practicing what you preach. Students follow the instructor’s lead. If you can show that you are passionate about the material, interested in knowing the students, and are always prepared to teach, then the students will imbibe that spirit from you and do better in the classroom.  

Successfully creating a supportive classroom environment does not happen overnight. It takes time and effort but is wholly worth it. When students feel supported and understand that their best interests are at the heart of all the interactions, they are more successful–academically as well as personally. They are not afraid to take risks, speak up in the classroom, learn from their mistakes, and display personal growth. By following these tips, you can create a supportive classroom environment that fosters mental health and well-being where students feel supported and are more likely to succeed in school and in life. 

About the Author

Chintamani Manish is a Professor of Biology at Midland University in Nebraska. Over the past 17 years, Manish has designed, offered, and taught nearly 20 different courses at multiple institutions in the Omaha area to great acclaim. He has taught all formats – in-person, hybrid, online, and asynchronous – while also taking students on Study Away trips to Australia, Africa (Tanzania), Puerto Rico and, most recently, a two-week road trip to the National Parks of Colorado and Utah.

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