Nov 30, 2020

Well Into the Future

Kate Rancourt
Associate Creative Director

Wellness in mind: laying the foundation for healthier learning environments.

Since the pandemic hit the United States early this year, we’ve come to an acute awareness of our health, our communities, and even our spaces. The increased amount of time we’ve spent working, learning and teaching within our homes has opened a more holistic dialog about wellness as it pertains to our minds, bodies, and emotions. Along with many worries about the uncertainty of our future, we’re optimistic, encouraged and inspired by this focus and attention on wellness over the long haul. Especially when it comes to classrooms.

Wellness is a tricky word. And due to its all-encompassing nature, wellness can be hard to design for. Taking a learning environment and intentionally designing it to become physically healthier during a pandemic is one thing. Designing that same space so it also becomes healthier for us to think more clearly, feel better and be more physically active? That’s the key. By breaking down the ambiguous “wellness” term into three categories: cognitive, emotional, and physical, we can start to better understand how to plan for it.

Within these three categories, Steelcase has developed the Six Pillars of Wellbeing to help us better define the idea and what levers we need to pull in order to achieve holistic wellbeing.

Steelcase: Cultivating Wellness

It’s important to remember that designing for classroom wellbeing isn’t solely for learners. How we’re creating wellbeing options, opportunities, and culture shifts can embody a healthy environment for educators, administrators and visitors as well. Diving deeper into these six pillars of wellbeing and what they can mean to teachers and students is critical to the success of our future learning environments. To help apply them, we’ve provided thought starters and activities for teachers and students.

On the surface, bringing meaning and purpose to our schools may sound easy, we’re creating opportunities for our youth to live a better life and create a better future. But the purpose of our school organizations cannot just live in beautiful words printed on a wall. They need to be felt and experienced by every student and teacher, every single day to truly create meaning. Purpose is a “stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and of positive consequence to the world beyond the self” says William Damon, Stanford University psychologist. The more we recognize and interweave our connections to ourselves and each other, we can better experience purpose and meaning in a visceral way.

Belonging is vitally important for students and teachers alike in their direct relationships, interactions, engagement and longevity on our schools and campuses. The experience of belonging affects our emotional response; how we feel throughout the day. Creating and fostering community in ways that celebrate diversity and inclusion allow for a better sense of belonging. This is pillar ultimately leads to loving and being loved. Researcher and author Brené Brown said, “It’s not an accidental entanglement; it’s an intentional knot. Love belongs with belonging.”

Try: Engage in a family tree and ancestry activity with students and share with the classroom. Encourage sharing differences as well as similarities and celebrate that different backgrounds are what makes the class better.

Feeling free and comfortable to show up as our true selves, whether as teacher or student, leads to authentic experiences within the classroom. In the pillar of authenticity, representation and leadership matters immensely. It’s difficult to show up as authentic when we don’t see or recognize it in others, especially in leadership. We need to celebrate diversity, divergence, minority, and the unfamiliar to make sure all voices are heard equally. Adopting a growth mindset makes sure we continue to learn more about each other, leading to authenticity, autonomy, pride, and personal ownership of our teaching and learning.

Try: Take inventory of the books in the classrooms, the posters on the wall, the authors of the textbooks and ask if equal representation is apparent and if we’re helping to foster our school community to be their authentic selves.

Self-actualization is the top achievement in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Creating space for mindfulness and awareness caters to a more holistic and healthier person, both physically, cognitively, and emotionally. Sometimes, the school environment is stressful because learning can be one of the most vulnerable experiences. Providing a culture and space that where this stress is recognized is the first step towards creating self-actualization within the classroom. Practicing mindfulness also assists those with various learning needs and differing abilities. As the spiritual teacher and author Eckhart Tolle said, “Wherever you are, be there totally.”

Try: Assess your physical space on campus, in a single classroom or virtually to see if you’re creating zones or areas for mindful moments, interactions, and experiences.

Being mindfully optimistic is critical for our schools’ future. Unchecked optimism sometimes contributes to oppression of feelings, people, and experiences. But when optimism is paired with mindfulness and awareness, it’s creates an outlook that will propel our cultures forward. Optimism helps holistic wellbeing and can contribute to a healthy culture as well.

Try: Have students list out some things that went wrong this past week and then ask what they learned from the experience, what they could possibly do to grow from it, or how they might prevent it from happening again in the future either to themselves or their friends.

Last but certainly not least, is the vitality of a school community. Physical wellbeing has taken center stage for obvious reasons over the past several months, and our learning spaces should never contribute to a sedentary or unhealthy physical experience. Educational environments should offer students and teachers opportunities to move around, play, change posture, and be active in our learning and teaching. Outdoor learning lends itself well to this pillar, as it contributes to physical wellbeing and also is linked to positive emotional and cognitive functionalities.

Try: Wherever possible, add choice in movement and place throughout the day; encourage everyone to go outside, breathe the fresh air, change posture and move about frequently and whenever necessary.

Creating learning environments with intention, focusing on the overall wellbeing of teachers and students is critical for the future. Accomplishing this will take a proactive approach instead of the traditional. That means planning what’s most beneficial to the wellbeing of all, not for just the next year, but for the next 10+ years of our educational journey. Cognitive, emotional and physical wellness consideration will empower us to more easily plan long term success for our school communities.

To learn more about the Steelcase Six Pillars of Wellbeing and designing healthy educational environments for the future, check out the pre-recorded webinar.