The 5 elements of a successful classroom environment
Successful classroom environments are not born; they are made. They have been intentionally designed to address many different aspects of children's needs. The 5 Elements Model is a framework for thinking about classroom design. It provides teachers with five lenses by which to consider their classroom from varying perspectives - social, emotional, intellectual, creative, and physical - in order to provide a safe and successful classroom environment for twice-exceptional (and all!) students. It was originally developed by Dr. Susan Baum, Chancellor of Bridges Graduate school and a leader in twice-exceptional education. More information can be found in her 2017 book, To Be Gifted and Learning Disabled.
While originally meant as a guide for teachers, the 5 Element Model is a valuable resource for parents as well. It is an excellent tool for framing thinking as parents evaluate school options. As a parent researches a school, it will be helpful to keep these 5 elements in mind, and consider how the school addresses each one.
A successful social environment will be one where the classroom has become a community. Teachers foster love and belonging, and promote random acts of kindness. When the students feel safe and share empathy for one another, teachers are able to encourage productive risk-taking.
Questions to think about from the Social Perspective
Do all students feel safe to participate in the classroom in a way which is comfortable for them?
Do students display care and empathy for one another?
The classroom should be a space where students’ emotional needs are met. Students should have a feeling of psychological safety, and efforts should be made to keep anxiety low. Teachers and students should have an appreciation for differences and feel empowered to be themselves. The classroom should be a community which practices positivity, where SEL is woven into lessons and all aspects of the day.
Questions to think about from the Emotional Perspective
Do students seem confident enough to express their individuality?
What is the school’s SEL curriculum, and how is it woven into different aspects of the students’ day?
Do students appear anxious and competitive, or cooperative and safe?
Successful teachers of twice-exceptional students are patient, intelligent, and flexible. Students need the ability to feel safe while also being challenged intellectually. Ideally, this manifests in the teacher providing high challenge and low threat opportunities to students. The teacher should model being a lifelong learner, and should encourage students to take risks. Students should have choice and variety in how they show what they know.
Questions to think about from the Intellectual Perspective
Do students have choices in how they show what they know?
Do students have choices in how they learn the material?
Are students given pre-assessments, and are those results used to determine their appropriate starting point and level of challenge?
Do teachers show enthusiasm and facility for their material?
Are students given opportunities to focus on and develop their strengths and interests?
Creativity is a core strength of many twice-exceptional learners. Their classrooms should be a place where teachers foster and appreciate each student’s creative approaches to learning. Creativity should be integrated into the learning process, where students are encouraged to come up with their own ideas and provide their own perspectives. The environment itself should be engaging and provide interest, while also not being overstimulating for the students.
Questions to think about from the creative perspective
Does the teacher seem to encourage creative solutions to projects and problems?
Does the teacher invite students to give their perspectives on topics?
Does the classroom itself inspire a creative mindset, including art, desk arrangement, color, etc?
Is there a maker space on campus, or an area in the classroom with a variety of materials for children to creatively explore?
Is time scheduled into the day for students to pursue their creative interests?
Finally, the physical environment should be a space which supports individual sensory needs, through things like frequent breaks, fidgets, alternative seating, and opportunities for movements/exercise throughout the day. The classroom should have conscious layouts - teachers should have carefully considered interest areas, reading spaces, and access to natural and adjustable light. Consideration should be made to the impact of sound, and the classroom should include areas where a student can go when they want to be away from noise and distraction. Finally, all necessary accommodations for safety needs are met.
Questions to think about from the Physical Perspective
Are students using fidgets (without distracting others!), and are some sitting in various alternative chairs/seating?
Are the students given frequent movement breaks?
Are there distinct spaces in the classroom for quiet reflection, interest zones, movement areas, etc, and are all children encouraged to use these?
You know your child better than anyone else! Consider which of these five elements is most important to your child’s success, and what you are hoping to see through each lens. Highlight your ‘must haves’ and your ‘nice-to-haves’. Remember, there is no perfect fit school, but by using these lenses as a framework, you can evaluate what environment can work best for your child, at whatever stage of development they may currently be.