Are You Harnessing the Power of Rituals in Your Classroom?

Are You Harnessing the Power of Rituals in Your Classroom?

          After a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday with my extended family, I reflected on the power that rituals have in our social and emotional lives. For my family, the ritual of gathering together each November, eating a special meal, and playing board games gives us a sense of security, community, and stability.
          People’s needs for structure and routine can be seen in many areas of our lives. The rituals and routines at religious services are a powerful example. These rituals are designed to help us feel comfortable and safe. In most religious services, the ritual is also highlighted by music, and in some cases, incense. This is, essentially, a multi-sensory approach to helping people learn and feel comfortable with the routine. Sporting events are another example of routines functioning in the adult world. Standing for the national anthem or joining in the cheers when goals are scored give meaning and structure to the experience. People’s need for this safe, comfortable routine can be seen in the discomfort with changes in those routines, such as the disruption caused by Super Storm Sandy! Classrooms rituals and routines can provide children with the same benefits.
          First, they help children to feel psychologically safe and comfortable in an unpredictable world. Most people, including children, are more at ease when they know what to expect during their day. It is stressful for all of us to be in settings in which we don’t know what will happen next. This may be a great way to spend a few minutes on a roller coaster, but for daily work, it is unsettling and even frightening to children. Stable routines help children develop feelings of security, trust, and independence and they serve as a protective factor against stressful family conditions.
          The second reason that routines are important is to help us use our mental resources efficiently and to develop self control. If we are using our attention and mental processing to think through what we are going to be doing next, or how to hang up our coat, or move from the rug to the desks, we don’t have that mental processing available for other thoughts. Once routines become established, we don’t have to put as much thought into what we are doing and our minds are available for thinking about other things. They also allow children to learn how to act in social situations, delay gratification, control their impulses, and plan their actions.
          Third, routines can develop into cherished rituals by focusing on community-building and caring relationships. Here are some examples:

  • A Friday pizza party goes a long way towards bringing the children together and making them feel part of the group. (Which is why the parties should never be a reward for good behavior. Can you imagine a family that only allowed those family members who behaved well to attend Thanksgiving dinner?)
  • A song that is used each morning to greet the group provides a sense of security and comfort when children transition from home to school.
  • Read aloud time after lunch everyday gives structure to the day and offers children the comfort of imaginative escape within a safe setting.
  • A song or special handshake at the end of the day brings closure and helps children make the transition from school back to home or to after-school programs.
  • Classroom clean-up time at the end of the week helps everyone – including the teacher – to organize their materials, straighten out cubbies or desks, and clear out unnecessary clutter. This provides a clean slate to start the next week and a feeling of stability and control.
  • Family nights once a month in which parents and other family members come to school with their child for a read aloud, science activities, or other learning experiences. When done on a regular basis, these provide a deep way of connecting home and school.

I’d love to hear about other rituals you’ve used in your classroom or school. Please share with us in the comments below!

The Positive Classroom Book is available now! This valuable resource is a compilation of topics on my blog along with many other ideas and strategies for working with children with challenging behavior which I use in my college courses.