Creating “Safe” Classrooms is a Process: 5 Tips to Get Started
In my years as an educator and mentor in university teacher education programs, I have heard new teachers proclaim on numerous occasions that their future classrooms will be “safe” spaces for students to thrive.
Safe from judgement. Safe from name calling. Safe from assault . . . Safe from all harm.
While I understand the intention behind these sentiments from well-meaning and enthusiastic new teachers, I am well aware of what a lofty goal this is to achieve. In fact, I would argue that it is impossible to guarantee the safety of every student at any one time as we can never fully know the degree in which a person feels safe. Rather, safety is a subjective experience that is influenced by a number of factors including complex social interactions and relational dynamics amongst individuals.
Safety is particularly problematic considering the epidemic of discrimination and violence that takes place in all schools around the world.
Incidents of harm can happen in the shadows of the school where adult eyes do not see or in texts or on social media where only young people venture. Harm can take the shape of a joke or manifest slowly like mold in a petri dish. It can also be overt and aggressive for all to see. Regardless, “harm”, in its many forms, is pervasive. It erodes school environments by fragmenting the classroom community, destroying relationships, and creating a general distrust of individuals, which leads to students being uncomfortable or afraid to be at school. When students feel unsafe in the classroom, learning is impacted.
There are numerous teacher tips, strategies, programs, and initiatives recommended to create “safe” school spaces, which have varying degrees of success. What is clear is that there is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach, and “safety” is not established through a few community building games or a one-off workshop. Instead, a school on the path of creating a positive, welcoming, and inclusive space that is mostly safe for its community members requires time and patience (it can take years), consistency (it is a process that must be attended to), and the commitment of everyone involved (aka “whole school approach”).
I believe safe schools initiatives must be specifically developed for individual learning spaces in order to be effective. In other words, each school is its own microcosm within the greater education system, with specific strengths, weaknesses, and needs. Initiatives must look at all aspects of the school structure and systems for improvements to occur. With that said, there are things that teachers can do at any time to work towards classroom safety for their students. Here are five tips to get you started.
Language: Establish inclusive and caring language that everyone in the classroom uses consistently. This can be talked about as a class so students understand what inclusive language sounds like and feels like. You can create a word and statement wall with examples such as “Thank you,” “Please,” “You’re welcome,” “I’m sorry,” “I appreciate your help,” “It was not my intention to make you feel left out,” “I feel hurt when you don’t listen,” and so forth. This type of language encourages students to acknowledge each other, take responsibility for their words or actions, and express how they feel using “I” sentences.
- Communication: Practice communication skills where students learn to use inclusive and caring language effectively along with active listening, emotional control, paraphrasing, non-verbal communication, problem-solving, decision-making, and so forth. These skills are best learned through “doing,” which invites students to practice through community building exercises, drama games, partner work, sharing circles and the like. Communication must be taught and practiced throughout one's lifetime. Therefore, it is something that needs to be integrated into the school day.
- Sharing: Offer time each day for students to get to know each other and develop relationships built on trust and respect through sharing. This may include sharing a favourite moment from the day, how they are feeling about a lesson, or something they are grateful for. Sharing circles can also be used to talk about and resolve conflicts. One of the most effective ways to do this is through a circle process where each individual has the opportunity to speak openly and be heard by their classmates. Sharing circles can include the use of a talking piece - an item such as a stick or rock that is used specifically to guide dialogue. The person holding the talking piece has permission to speak and everyone else in the circle is expected to listen. Sharing helps students to bond, develop empathy for one another, and create a community that is welcoming and inclusive.
- Conflict: Provide opportunities for students to explore various aspects of conflict through the curriculum. This might include discussing a character in a book and how they handle conflict positively or negatively. It might include looking at how conflict is reflected in history, nature, or through mathematical problems. Invite students to take part in drama exercises to explore emotions that arise in conflict, ways to problem-solve a conflictual issue, or recreate a conflict in a story to come up with a different end result. The more students are given examples of conflicts, the more they can develop perspective and critical thinking skills.
- Discipline: Make disciplinary decisions reflect student behaviour. If a student breaks something, they repair or replace it. If they hurt someone with their words, they reflect and rebuild trust. Students do not need to be shamed, blamed, or punished for their actions regardless of how harmful they may be. There are many reasons why students act out in negative ways. Instead, let students know that every choice has a consequence from which they can learn. Paraphrasing Maya Angelou, “When you know better, you do better.”
What other tips do you have for creating a “safe” classroom space? Let us know in the comments below. You can also read Creating Safe Spaces: What It Means and Why It Matters.
__________________________Traci L. Scheepstra, Ph.D., is the CEO/Founder of Embodied Learnings. Read HERE to learn more about her work in education.