Back to School: Creating a Safe Learning Environment

On the last day of my last class before beginning my first teaching job, the professor asked us if there were questions – perhaps things not addressed in class.  My determined hand shot up. “What are we to do if we ask students to do something and they refuse?”  This was not just my burning question – it was my biggest worry in the middle of the night.  I was embarking on a high school position with over 150 students in my charge– how would a young woman who looked a lot like a teenager have any credibility with these students? Would they even do what I asked of them? What were my next steps if they did not comply? How long would I last? What if things spiral out of my control? What if I get fired?

The very nice professor became a bit flummoxed, stammered a bit, but no answer came forth.  Fast forward: After teaching a jillion students, working with thousands of teachers in professional development, coaching educators, and being honored to witness fabulous work in countless classrooms, here’s what I know: It was the wrong question to ask.  Rather than ask about mechanisms to control students – an impossible task – our focus is really: How can we ignite an intrinsic joy in learning that significantly reduces the need to manage, control, or even kick out kids?

Environment and Motivation

A captivating lesson combined with high student self-efficacy are key pillars of motivation.  But students must feel welcomed, relaxed, and safe in their classroom and school environment as well. For some students, school is the safest place they go.  Whatever tumult is occurring outside of our walls, school offers a place of sanctuary in which adults model civility and a calm, respectful predictability.  Schools are fascinating places.  Students come from different neighborhoods, economic and cultural backgrounds, and home situations…as do teachers.  We merge together into a classroom to learn and work together.  From that perspective, one can make the case that things typically go pretty well.  But students are not just mastering content, they are learning ways to handle conflict, interact with others, manage stress, and solve problems. The student-centered classroom offers ongoing opportunities for supporting students in these efforts, because, for the bulk of class, teachers are in the midst of students learning with them, not positioned at the front of the classroom. 

Tips for Creating a Safe Environment

In the same way that there are highly effectively practices for instruction, there are time-tested principles for creating a positive, safe learning environment for all students.  Combined with evidence-based instructional practices, students can be relaxed in class and focused on learning.  For some students; however, additional strategies will be needed.  Some considerations for creating positive learning environments for all students:   

  • The term “expectations” rather than “rules” is now used in many buildings.  The reasoning is beyond semantics: some students face dire consequences for breaking rules at home, so this might seem more negative than intended.  In addition, for students seeking to exert control, a rule may feel like something to break out of.  Conversations with students in which these handful of expectations are established together can be valuable, so that these are not simply imposed.  These expectations should be framed in a positive manner, as ways to be successful and work together, and modeled frequently.
  • Avoid practices that bring shame or embarrassment.  An example I frequently see is to have students publicly move a marker, such as a clip, to a consequence, such as loss of a privilege.  Conversations about behavior should be private and promote more positive steps. 
  • Provide opportunities for students to exercise autonomy over their situation.  An example might be to allow students to have some say about seating, organizing materials, whether to stand or sit to work, or partner selection.  Students, like teachers, need to feel in control. 
  • Model that mistakes are part of learning.  “Gosh, I made a little calculation error there, didn’t I? Thanks for catching that!”
  • Get to know students’ interests and promote conversations about them, be it movies, baseball, or skateboarding. 
  • Encourage movement.  Read the room and have everyone take a stretch break. Better yet, build movement into lessons. 
  • Model stress reduction.  An example might be to utilize a computer breathing application and invite students to do some deep breathing with you or have stress balls on hand.
  • Monitor the volume of voices in the classroom, including our own. 
  • Model the civility that we expect of our children.
  • Provide a fresh start for students who had a rough prior day.  They are understandably nervous about coming back to class.  
  • Create lessons utilizing teams so that students learn the joy of working together. In addition to building content knowledge, students build relationships that provide a support system and help build resilience in them. (Jennings, 2019) 
  • Avoid ultimatums that may create power struggles and may be interpreted as threats.  

Suzy Pepper Rollins is an author, speaker, and consultant based in Athens, GA who works with schools across North America to create academic success for all students.  She is also the founder of Math in the Fast Lane and

This post is an excerpt from Suzy’s forthcoming book, Teaching Vulnerable Learners: Using What Works, Ditching What Doesn’t (W. W. Norton 2020)

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