How to Set Up A Calm Down Space That Really Works

Saturday, July 27, 2019
Do you have a calm down corner or area in your classroom?  It’s probably well-intentioned space for students to go when they are upset or need a break.  Kids might even use it effectively to self-regulate their emotions when they get upset in class.  It’s important to give students a safe place to be sad.  Frustration, anger, disappointment and even anxiety are big emotions for little people and it is critical that we teach kids the appropriate coping skills they need to deal with these big feelings.  A calm down space in the classroom is a great way to give children the space they need to collect themselves and get ready to rejoin the group. 

But, do we need to call it a calm down corner?  I know it’s just a name, but really.  Never in the history of calming down, has anyone ever calmed down by being told to calm down.  Think about it.  As an adult, when you are upset if someone tells you to calm down, do you?  I don’t.  I get more upset.  What I need when I’m upset is space.  A place to be alone to get myself together.  Many of our students need the same thing.  Telling kids to go to the calm down corner is likely not going to gain the results we want. 

Last summer, I saw Dr. Jean speak at a local college and she suggested renaming the calm down spot to a fun name or the name of a place when you would actually want to go.  So last school year, I renamed this area of my room and “Hawaii” was born.  I printed out a photo of Hawaii and ran with it.  I don’t have space in my classroom for an extra calm down area, so I took a chance and put Hawaii in my classroom library area. 

Before You Dive In, A Word of Caution


Unfortunately, the students who need this space the most, are often not allowed to use it because they might be destructive when they are upset.  If the purpose of a Hawaii is to give kids a place to calm down, then why are we banning the kids who need it the most?  As teachers, we need to remember that Pinterest-perfect, fancy calming area is not going to help students to improve behavior.  I’m just as guilty of creating pretty spaces that I don’t want students to destroy.  But life isn’t perfect and kids aren’t either.  This area should be accessible to everyone, not just the kids who won’t tear it apart.  This is important to keep in mind as you are designing your space.

How to Set Up Hawaii in the Classroom 



Visuals are an important part of a successful getaway space.  Visuals help to keep kids focused without verbal redirection which can often continue to set off a frustrated student.  You can start by creating a small anchor chart for the rules in Hawaii.  You’ll want to consider calming strategies for your students to use, too.  I printed off a few calming strategy choice cards (I used these calming strategies cards) and put them on a binder ring for students to choose from. 

I put a couple of fidgets in a box with the strategy cards.  You don’t need to go overboard with the fidgets.  I like to switch them out a few times throughout the year to keep things fresh.  Stress balls, squishes, and other hand fidgets work great.  Kids just need something to keep their hands busy and to help shift their focus away from what is upsetting.  My students have really liked these Tangle Jr. fidgets (affiliate link).  If you order from Scholastic Book Clubs, they often have fun fidgets in the bonus catalog. 


Because Hawaii was also our classroom library, there were comfy pillows and stuffed animals (reading buddies), too.  We used a timer for a few students, too.  They learned how to set it for a predetermined number of minutes and it worked great.  But a timer may stress some kids.  It’s important to know your students and meet their needs.

What’s not in Hawaii?


I didn’t put any putty, or crayons, or sensory tubes.  There are a few reasons I stayed away from those.  1. They are messy.  2. I don’t think they are always necessary.  3.  If individual kids needed them, I could pull them on as needed.  4.  Did I mention they are messy?

I didn’t use any curtains or barriers.  Yes, they are pretty and may make things feel cozy.  But I like to be able to see my students at all times.  If they aren’t being safe, I need to know.  When I taught special ed, I did have a fun tent in the classroom.  But I had way less students to account for and a classroom aide.  Between the two of us, we could keep an eye on kids in the tent.  In a room of 25+ kids, it’s just not possible for me to teach and keep an eye on an upset kid in a tent.  

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have any of these things; it’s just something to keep in mind from a management perspective.

How to Introduce Hawaii to Your Students


I introduced Hawaii within the first few weeks of school.  We went over when it was appropriate, how many could be there at once, what to do when you were in Hawaii.  Anything I could think of, we went over it.  We used an anchor chart with “May do” and May not do” as well as lots of active modeling.  (Side note: If you’re not familiar with active modeling, please check it out.  It’s a game-changer for classroom management for sure.)  I printed off these free “I need a break” cards for kids to use.  Then I tried to anticipate any issues from the start and I made the expectations clear and hoped for the best. 

Turns out, I had a couple of kids who really needed it.  And I held my breath each of the first few times they went to use it.  I was afraid of destruction.  But ultimately, they were successful.  Did books get tossed a few times?  Yes.  Did a few stuffed animals grow wings?  Yes.  But these incidents were few and far between.  Generally, the kids respected the space and respected everyone’s need to use it. 

What happens if a student acts out in Hawaii? 

In our class, we use logical consequences so I dealt with that on a case by case basis.  You can really make that decision for what will work best in your classroom.  Do you need to have established consequences set in advance?  Will you deal with things as they come?  Whatever you choose to do, I would suggest not permanently banning any student from visiting Hawaii.  Maybe Hawaii needs to close for a few days or certain students need a few days off.  However, the point of Hawaii is to give all kids a safe space, not exclude them further from the group.  


Ready to try Hawaii in your classroom?  Check out my Hawaii pack here with all the visuals you’ll need to get started! 


Looking for more ways to improve your classroom management?  Learn about teaching self-regulation strategies here and how to use social stories here.


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