Finding Calm in the Classroom in the Midst of Chaos

The difficult news stories of last week left students with added stress and anxiety, and while we tried to help them process questions and emotions, we found our own stress and concerns needing attention, as demonstrated in this word cloud from a recent AMLE Roundtable. AMLE is offering a variety of virtual events to help bring educators together to share ideas and coping strategies as well as offer actionable steps to promote self-care and well-being. Check out this week’s Roundtable for BIPOC Educators and a webinar on avoiding burnout. Also join us for a follow-up roundtable on continuing to help students discuss current news events.

This article supports the following characteristics from The Successful Middle School: This We Believe:

Educators respect and value young adolescents.
The school environment is welcoming, inclusive, and affirming to all.
Comprehensive counseling and support services meet the needs of young adolescents.

Middle grades students have always been at risk for anxiety and stress due to social, academic, and societal factors. This year they are also adjusting to a completely different format for school, decreased social opportunities, a global pandemic, and unrest within our country, including last week’s event at the U.S. Capitol.

This year my students are attending school in a hybrid model where they alternate between in-person and remote school days. I cannot remove or alter many of the factors that cause students stress and anxiety. What I can do is work towards creating a classroom environment where students feel calm, cared for, and safe. When students are calm, it is easier for them focus, their confidence increases, and they have a better opportunity to achieve academic success.

Model Desired Behavior

Early in my career, when I felt particularly stressed, I pretended to be calm. However, I quickly realized that children are too smart for me to fake my feelings. They pick up on how adults are feeling and often react with the same behaviors that they see modeled. I realized that the best way for me to feel calm, was by consistently reminding myself to decide if something is simply inconvenient or if it has the potential to be harmful, then react accordingly. This provides students the opportunity to see patience and flexibility in action, while creating a more peaceful atmosphere for learning.

Teaching in a hybrid remote/in-person model relies almost entirely on functioning Internet and websites. There have been many times this year that a website or app is not working for one or all students. It would be easy in these moments to show frustration and stress about the issue. However, by troubleshooting the issue and being willing to pivot to an entirely new idea if needed, students see an example of flexibility and how to react when things do not go as planned.

Middle school students love to talk, need things repeated often, get frustrated by their alternating schedule, and can be forgetful; these situations provide an opportunity to respond by giving the students a little grace and model the patience that I want them to have with each other and most importantly themselves.

Limit Surprises

Unless someone is handing out candy or it starts snowing in the middle of the day, students generally do not like surprises at school. When students have consistency and structure, they can focus on learning instead of worrying about what is going to happen next. This year students face the inconsistency of alternating between in-person and remote learning and a general apprehension that anything can change at any time due to COVID-19. By posting digital daily agendas a week in advance and providing detailed expectations and explanations for assignments, students never need to wonder what is next or what will be expected from them.

Middle grades students have a love/hate relationship with choosing their own seats, partners, and groups. Many students feel social pressure to work with their friends even if they know they will not be able to focus, and other students feel anxious about not having someone to sit or work with. In previous years I started each year assigning seats and groups so there is one less place in their day that they have the social pressure to decide where to sit or worry about feeling excluded. This year due to the need for contact tracing, students have assigned seats in every class for the year. Students appreciate this consistency on their in-person days, and it is a procedure I will continue to implement after COVID-19 protocols are no longer in place.

Be Present

My natural tendency is to be in a consistent state of multitasking to try to make the most effective use of each minute of my day, especially this year. However, being present with my students during class helps everyone feel calm and models the type of social interaction I expect of them when they interact with each other. When a student has a question or wants to share something, I try to stop what I am doing, make eye contact with them, and listen. I also try to value what is important to them, even if to me it doesn’t seem like a big deal. If is important to them, it is important.

There are lots of things important to middle grades students that may seem insignificant to an adult. It could be that a student didn’t get their locker decorated for their birthday, they missed one point on a test, or their best friend didn’t like their Instagram post. Whatever is going on with them, if they feel like they can trust me enough to share it, I want them to feel that they are a valued member of our community that deserves to be heard.

This year I also provide digital check-in opportunities and use time during our Google Meet sessions to engage in conversations about how they are feeling. By listening to the little things, I am building an environment where they will feel safe sharing their feelings and ideas.

Time for Reflection

I recently asked students to reflect in writing their answers to the following questions:

  • What is stressful about school? Be as specific as possible.
  • What aspects about school help you feel calm?
  • What aspects about school help you feel calm?
  • Are there places/classes at school that you feel calmer than others? Do you know why?

I used their feedback to facilitate a discussion about common stressors in school and ways to help students feel calm. This activity gave students a safe space to discuss their feelings, helped them realize that they are not alone in their feelings, and provided time to brainstorm positive strategies to deal with stress.

Provide a Safe Environment

Middle grades students are balancing rapid physical maturation, ever changing friend groups, and navigating how they see themselves in comparison to how they are seen by others, all while figuring out how to navigate an entirely new learning environment during a global pandemic. Creating as safe of a space as possible for them allows them to better focus on academics.

I work towards creating this safe space by setting up specific expectations surrounding discussions, peer editing, and group work to ensure that they treat each other with respect. I also remind myself not to hold them to higher expectations than I hold my adult colleagues. For example, if a colleague forgets their room key one or 100 times a year, I always let them borrow mine and I would never be angry with them. In the same way I should not be angry with a student for forgetting a pencil or leaving their book in their locker.

By showing them it is ok to make these little mistakes, they feel safe coming to me when they have made a bigger mistake, and they know I will help them work through it. It also reduces the anxiety about making mistakes on challenging academic assignments because they trust me when I say there is no reason to be stressed and that with mistakes come additional opportunities to learn.

Kasey Short teaches English and social studies at Charlotte Country Day School, where she also serves as English Department chair and Spotlight Challenge coordinator.

Published in AMLE Focus on the Middle, January 2021.


  1. I really enjoyed this article. I am in field experience at a middle school right now. Every morning we do a 45 minute class on social emotional learning to help teach students how to recognize what they are feeling, if it’s healthy or not, and how to redirect their thinking process if necessary. I enjoy this article because it focuses on how to help grown ups and teachers create positive social emotional learning. I think this could be a good topic to teach to educators in order to support them in the classroom so they can support their students.

  2. Before the pandemic social emotional learning was non-existent in many classrooms. It is important for students to learn who to identify their feelings in order to be able to learn. Many times we see students struggle in the classroom because they do not know how to process their feeling and emotions about everything else that is going on in their young lives. Teachers can really foster a better classroom experience for their students by incorporating social emotional learning into their curriculum throughout the year. Whether that is writing prompts on Fridays or a short meditation Monday activity.

  3. As I am in my professional semester, I am seeing students post pandemic and seeing first hand the need for social emotional learning to be a developed program with opportunities for all students. Middle school is, inevitably, and incredibly stressful time for students and I thinks this article help me re-emphasize the importance of developing a student centered classroom and curriculum. This article lays out 5 great was an educator can being to ensure that students have a safe, conducive learning environment. This also means that educator must consider and appeal to the emotional, social and physical development students undergo, no just cognitive. Advisory programs alone offer the opportunity for each of the 5 above mentioned methods to create calmness in a classroom.

  4. This article was a great read! I enjoyed learning about the breakdown of finding calm amidst a chaotic environment. I love the concise plan and layout you have, focusing on modeling behavior, limiting surprises, being present, and personal reflection are all great strategies to implement in a chaotic classroom environment not only for educators’ well-being but students’ as well. I love the reflection strategy of asking
    What is stressful about school? Be as specific as possible.
    What aspects of school help you feel calm?
    Overall I feel that you provided helpful tools to calm a storm before it approaches, these skills are good for students to use inside and outside of the classroom at all times.
    What aspects about school help you feel calm?
    Are there places/classes at school that you feel calmer than others? Do you know why?