Picture of a student centered learning environment

Five effective ways to create a student centered learning environment in upper elementary

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It seems that for many years now, “student centered classroom” has been a buzz word in education. And for good reason. Over the years, research has supported the benefits of a student centered learning environment. In this blog post, I want to share five practical and effective ways that you can begin making the transition from a teacher-centered to a more student centered learning environment by promoting choice, creating opportunities for real-life learning, and building a community of learners in your classroom. 

What is a student centered learning environment?

Before we can talk about a student centered classroom, we need to understand exactly what that entails. A student centered learning environment “takes into account students’ interests, learning styles, cultural identities, life experiences, and personal challenges.”

In short, in a student centered classroom, our students guide our instruction and the decisions we make. They are given opportunities to make their own decisions about their learning. In addition, they are part of a community that values what they bring to the table. 

Picture of kids together with the title "learning centered environment"
Creating a learner-centered environment does not have to be complicated. Read the post to learn more about five simple things you can do in your classroom to shift it from teacher-centered to student-centered.

Why are student centered classrooms important?

Creating a student centered learning environment is important because it allows us to meet the needs of all learners. As we tailor our instruction to mirror our students’ interests, learning styles, and life experiences, we are meeting them where they are. 

A student centered environment can also help students feel like they are a part of a community that accepts and respects them as individuals. This is especially important for students who come from trauma. By making them feel valued and loved, we can give them a safe space where they feel comfortable with trying new things, making mistakes, and achieving new goals. 

A student centered learning environment focuses on real-life experiences. This is crucial for our students because, as they go out into the world, they will need to be able to solve real-life problems. In a student centered classroom, students learn the why, not just the how. This prepares them to apply what they are learning to different situations. 

Five tips for a student centered learning environment

In this blog post, I want to share some practical ways that I have created a student centered environment in my own classroom. These are simple but effective tips that will transform your instruction and breath new life into your classroom. Best of all… a well-managed student centered classroom can run itself! Your students become such a focus point of your routines, procedures, and instruction, that a lot of the work is lifted off your shoulders. 

Tip 1: Provide choice during center time 

The easiest way to create a student centered learning environment is through choice. Children appreciate being given the chance to choose what they want to do. This doesn’t mean they get to do whatever they want. Instead, after being given a set of options, students can choose the option they prefer.  

During centers, consider giving your students a few options for each station they go to. For example, one of my literacy centers is a “reading games” center. When my students go to this station, they know they will be playing a reading game. However, they get to choose which game they want to play. From tic-tac-toe to traditional board games, my students choose what they want to read and the game they want to play. 

The same is true for my reading response station. When students go to this center, they know they will be writing a reading response. However, they get to choose the text they want to write about and the response they want to complete. That is easily achieved by giving them a menu with nine response choices. 

If you are interested in learning more about my favorite literacy centers, I have written an entire blog post about it. You can read it by clicking here. 

You can also visit my Teachers Pay Teachers store to view the resources I use during center time. They are available in English and Spanish. 

Tip 2: Use project-based learning for real-life experiences 

As mentioned earlier, one of the pillars of a student centered learning environment is the opportunity to apply what students are learning to solve real-world problems. There is no better way to do this than through PBL activities. 

PBL activities allow students to be creative and innovative. It gives them the chance to see that what they are learning in class has a purpose. This is an amazing way to help students connect with the concepts being taught in class. 

Whenever I choose a project-based learning activity for my class, I look for activities that involve multiple skills and subjects. I want my students to be able to use as many different skills as possible to complete the task at hand. 

If you would like to read more about my favorite PBL activity, you can click here. I wrote an entire blog post about it. 

3. Give students some responsibility 

One of the best ways to create a student centered learning environment is to give students important jobs in the classroom. And I am not just talking about the “traditional” classroom jobs that we always see (door holder, line leader…) Although I believe these are a great start, I want my students to have jobs that are absolutely essential. I especially like to give these jobs to students who are struggling socially in the classroom. 

In the past, I have taught students who struggled with severe anxiety. Giving them an essential job (such as coming in early to set up the chairs and sharpen all the pencils) made them feel valued. Whenever they were not there to do their job, we all felt the difference. They knew the importance of what they were doing. Their job directly impacted everyone else. I always made sure to tell them how incredibly grateful I was for their help every day. This allowed me to build a relationship with them. It also allowed them to see that what they were doing mattered to everyone else. 

Giving students this type of responsibility in the classroom builds their confidence. It is not about how smart they are, how fast they are, or how funny they are. It is just about showing up and getting the job done. That allows students to shine in a way that is not intimidating to them. 

4. Our classroom! Not mine…

At the beginning of the school year, I take the time to show students where everything is located in our classroom. I explain to them that we are not in my classroom. It is our classroom. I want them to feel that they can use anything in our classroom that will help them with their learning. For example, if they need a dictionary, they don’t have to ask me. They can stand up and get it. 

This doesn’t mean they can go “rogue” and do whatever they want all the time. But it does make them feel like they are a part of a community. It helps them feel at home. 

5. Morning meetings for the win! 

I have a confession to make! For a long time, I was skeptical of morning meetings. I just didn’t think they were worth the time and energy. However, one of my principals really believed in them and made it a school-wide initiative. Once I saw how much my students love morning meetings, I was sold. 

Morning meetings gave my students an opportunity to share their thoughts, feelings, and emotions with people they trusted. I had students share personal stories that I would never have heard any other way. It also gave us a chance to have some fun together. It was all around the best thing that could have happened to my students. After seeing the positive benefits of morning meetings, I will always make that a priority in my classroom. 

If you are not sold on morning meetings (I’ve been there), I have a great book suggestion for you. 80 Morning Meeting Ideas is a great book to help you get started with morning meetings in your own classroom.

If you are a Spanish teacher and need some games that you can play with your class during morning meetings, you might want to check out my “would you rather” games in Spanish. You can click here to check them out. These “done-for-you” question sets will help you get your morning meetings done without skipping a beat. It will also give your students a chance to learn new vocabulary in Spanish and practice speaking Spanish.   

There you have it! 

Five ways to create a student centered learning environment in upper elementary. These five simple but effective tips will help you get started on this journey toward a student centered classroom. I promise you – it is easier than you think! Let me know in the comments what are some of the things that you are already doing to create a student centered learning environment. 

Happy teaching! 

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Hi, I'm Rebeca!

I help upper elementary dual language teachers with resources and ideas that promote bilingualism and biliteracy.  

Learn more about me and how I can help you here.

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