Children learn best when they are in a safe classroom environment, and teachers and families are happier when classrooms feel safe, too. This lesson will give you some ideas on how to create a safe environment for all learners.
A safe classroom environment is one where learners feel physically, emotionally, and socially comfortable. They know that their needs are taken care of and that they are protected by caring and thoughtful teachers and members of their community. Children learn best when they feel safe; in fact, an unsafe classroom environment is not all that conducive to learning. Follow along with master teacher Ms. Balkin, who works hard to create a safe environment in her classroom for all learners.
Ms. Balkin is a third grade teacher who cares tremendously about her students’ safety. She prioritizes their physical safety – protecting students from bodily harm – throughout the day, and she shares the following tips for making sure the classroom is a physically safe environment:
- Keep the classroom neat and tidy.
Of course a certain amount of mess goes along with fun learning, but Ms. Balkin is careful to keep her classroom neat and clear of tripping hazards and other things that might hurt her students.
- Consider physical maneuvering when you arrange your classroom.
Ms. Balkin makes sure there is plenty of room for children to move around her classroom during transitions. She keeps physical needs and mobility impairments in mind as well when she sets up furniture and arranges materials.
- Build in time for exercise and movement.
Healthy, active children are more aware of how their bodies move in space. Ms. Balkin works with the gym teacher on helping build movement into her students’ lives.
She never cuts short recess and gym class, and she encourages her students to exercise and play outdoors in their spare time, too.
Ms. Balkin knows that emotionally safe children are better learners because they are happier and more comfortable.
She thinks of emotional safety as the safety to feel and express a range of emotions. Emotionally safe children are not necessarily happy all the time, but they feel supported. They know how to express their feelings and ask for what they need.
Further, in an emotionally safe classroom, students watch out for one another’s needs and feelings and are careful to repair any damage they may have inflicted on another student. Ms. Balkin offers the following tips for creating an emotionally safe classroom environment:
- Give students language for describing emotions.
- Ask your school counselor or social worker for help dealing with hard emotional situations.
- Build time into the day for conflict resolution and open discussion of what is going on with the children’s feelings.
- Create a list of words and acts that make children feel safe and unsafe.
Keep this list in a prominent place in the classroom and refer to it during times of emotional difficulty.
- Remain aware of what is happening in your students’ home lives. Keep in close communication with families and provide support when children and families are going through hard times.
- Think about ways to make the classroom environment welcoming and cheerful.
Pay particular attention to welcoming students from diverse backgrounds, meaning students who, because of any kind of difference or non-normative identity, can be more at risk for feeling emotionally marginalized in school. These students should be actively welcomed by teachers and fellow community members.
Ms. Balkin thinks of social safety as a way to minimize teasing and eliminate bullying altogether. She tries to make sure children in her class feel comfortable with one another and that they find friends in their classroom community. Ms. Balkin’s favorite strategy for social safety is using what she calls her ‘friendship table.
‘ This is a special place in her classroom where students go to work out social difficulties. They learn to tell each other what has bothered them and find out what they can do to make each other feel better.Ms. Balkin is mindful of matching up different students with each other at work times and at structured play times to encourage friendships and foster a sense of community. She also builds in time during the school week for her students to play games, have fun, notice each other, and simply enjoy one another’s company.
Her students almost always end the year feeling as though they have found a community of friends and supporters with whom they can interact safely and productively.
When Things Go Wrong
Of course, Ms. Balkin knows that sometimes even the best community faces challenges. Students get injured, their feelings get hurt, and they have conflicts with one another. Communities face challenges: death, violence, difficult current events.
Ms. Balkin thinks the key, when things go wrong, is to process the event together with her students and other helpful adults, including administrators and resource teachers. She talks with her students about strategies for repairing hurt feelings, and she is open about the fact that maintaining safety is simply part of living in the world with and among others. When hard things happen in her school or community, she reaches out to community leaders, her school social worker, and sources in the news media for advice on how to help her students process, and she also trusts her instincts as a teacher for helping her students with difficult emotions.
A safe classroom environment is the only type that is comfortable for learning. By prioritizing physical, emotional, and social safety, you can ensure that your students all feel part of the community and free to take risks.