How One Teacher & Her Students Built a Welcoming Classroom

Second grade teacher Molly Heekin and her students created a classroom where everyone felt they belonged. Here's how they did it. 

Debby Hudson on Unsplash



Last year, Molly Heekin and her second-grade students in upstate New York created together a classroom where students felt they belonged – a  place where they could be fully themselves, let down their guard, and be open to learning. In this class, children of all backgrounds and life experiences were encouraged to grow socially, emotionally, and academically. Molly looks back on the year with a sense of accomplishment and gratitude.

How did they do it? I spoke with Molly to gather the lessons learned.


1. A Weekly Circle Practice

At the start of the school year, Molly says her students needed support on so many levels, “it was mind-boggling.” After nearly three years of Covid, students came into the classroom not just with lagging academic skills, but with a range of social, emotional, and other challenges and deficits. Meeting her second graders where they were required building relationships, community, and trust at the onset.

So every week, Molly and her students circled up to get to know each other, while building their social and emotional skills. It was here, she says, that her students learned to wait their turn to share, while they practiced listening to their classmates. These were foundational skills that they would draw on again and again, in all kinds of situations.

Not that everyone felt comfortable sharing at first. And listening didn’t always look the way we teachers expect it to look either. Imagine this scene: While most students are sitting on the rug in a circle, one boy is off to the side, trying to “fix” a wobbly desk. The talking piece goes around the circle as students share their experiences. All the while, the boy is pushing and manipulating the legs on the desk.

I could picture most teachers wanting this student to get on the rug and “fix himself,” possibly setting off a power struggle. But Molly had learned early on that this child needed to move, to keep his hands and body busy so that he could listen in his own way. And listen he did. He knew what was being shared, even as the desk almost tipped over—but didn’t.

Over the year, in their weekly community circle, Molly taught de-escalation, centering and grounding techniques, as well as communication, problem-solving and other social and emotional competencies that help students (and adults) to be in positive relationships. As she got to know her students better, she was also able to provide personalized scaffolds that supplemented the more general skill-building circles.

With time, these weekly circles established a welcoming and inclusive classroom environment. Students came to recognize that the circle was their space and took ownership. They knew that all voices were invited into the space equally; they knew their turn would come and that they would be heard. The regular circle practice enabled them to develop a sense of trust in each other, as they built their social and emotional skills.


2. Getting to Know Each Student

Some of Molly’s students were housing insecure or living away from family for a variety of reasons. Some came from unsupportive home environments, while others had recently immigrated to the U.S. and were still learning English. One of her students had been homeschooled until this year. She was very smart but came in reading at kindergarten level.

Early on, Molly had one-on-one conversations with students multiple times a day – sometimes with the same student, sometimes with different students. It was almost constant. The goal: to help students process their thoughts and feelings about all kinds of issues. Instead of telling them what to do or not to do, Molly would listen for understanding, invite them to reflect, be introspective, and consider how to show up in class. What choices did they want to make and what supports did they need to be able to do so?  

As Molly learned what her students needed and met them where they were, she modeled active listening and supportive questioning. She also modeled that equity is different from equality. Her students were learning on so many levels in so many different ways – though the process was, as Molly says, “a lot,” especially in the first months of school.


3.  A Corner of Their Own

Molly invited her students to use the class peace corner, where they could collect and calm themselves when coming to class dysregulated because of issues at home or with friends. Here, students could apply some of the social and emotional skills they had been practicing in their community circle every week.

As one of Molly’s students explained, the peace corner helps “when we’re mad, sad, or wanting to punch someone.” Another student added that “It’s like a secret room where you can relax when you feel upset.” The peace corner gave students a space to go (always voluntarily) during the school day to take a moment to collect themselves, so that they’d be able to return to learning in the academic classroom. It was also a place where students could address a problem with a friend rather than let it fester and taint the relationship.

4. Identity, Culture, and Empathy

As students shared of themselves and learned to listen to each other’s stories and perspectives, they developed empathy and deepened their listening skills. This enabled them to have meaningful, sometimes challenging, conversations and address problems more skillfully as the year went on.

In the academic classroom, where Molly’s students often work in small groups, these skills served students well. Molly watched as her students, with time, grew into the independent learners she was building them up to be.

In their weekly circles, students learned about identity and culture by talking about their families. They came to understand that every family is unique, and learned not to make assumptions.

As trust grew, a student who is Burmese finally decided to tell Molly her actual name. It turned out that when her family (who spoke limited English) had first moved to the district, the student's name had been entered incorrectly in the school’s records – and everyone had been using the wrong name ever since. Molly felt awful. To support her student, and any who came after her, Molly made sure to correct the name whenever and wherever she could. (Molly stands up for her students, just as she encourages them to stand up for each other.)

As the now correctly named student felt increasingly comfortable in class, she “found” her voice. During a circle share on how things are done differently in different homes, she opened up about her family’s cultural practices. She helped other students expand their cultural horizons, and they helped her feel welcome in their midst. 


5. Putting Empathy & Skills into Practice

Toward the end of the school year, in the run-up to Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, Molly discussed different family compositions with her students. “This is the reality of families,” she explained.

When Father’s Day came around, Molly invited her students to write a letter to a man (not necessarily their father) who they looked up to.

After some think time, one of her students, whose father is not part of her life, said she was going to write to her mother instead. Some kids pushed back, saying “But she’s not a man.” In response, Molly invited her students to reflect on the issue, asking them to go beyond their own experience. Then she opened up a conversation.

Having been able to pause and tap into their empathy, some kids piped up with, “We should have a different day” (other than Father’s Day). Others felt “we shouldn’t have a day at all.” Others still added that “It should be every day.” Their second-grade solution, in the end, was that you could write your letter to whoever you looked up to, and that the day should just be called “They Day” – no gendering required. The kids with no dads and those with difficult family relations were able to engage in the assignment more fully. They felt included and cared for.


With time, and hard work, Molly made sure that all of the kids in her class felt that they belonged, socially, emotionally and academically. They didn’t have to leave parts of themselves at the door. They could show up fully and feel good about themselves even when life beyond school was hard on them. 

Molly says she herself has learned a lot. For one thing, she says, “showing up with curiosity takes time and patience. It’s the teacher voice and brain that you need to nurture. It really is a different way of communicating with children.” But, she says, it “goes beyond being a teacher. It’s about helping them navigate being a human.”  


For more about Molly, her wonderful students, and the way she uses The 4Rs, Morningside Center’s SEL curriculum for pre-K-5, see The Power of SEL to Build Belonging and Promote Learning.