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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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20 Tips for Creating a Safe Learning Environment

In honor of Edutopia's 20th anniversary, we're producing a series of Top 20 lists, from the practical to the sublime.

Twenty Tips for Creating a Safe Learning Environment

I visit a lot of classrooms. And I'm always fascinated by the variety of ways teachers launch the new school year and also with how they "run their rooms" on a daily basis. From these visits and my own experiences as an instructor, I'd like to offer my top 20 suggestions for keeping your classroom a safe, open, and inviting place to learn.

1. Community Build All Year Long. Routinely include strategies and activities in your lessons, such as Save the Last Word for Me, that allow students to express their thoughts and ideas, build relationships, and practice collaboration. This will help grow and maintain a feeling of emotional safety in your classroom.

2. Post Student Work. When displays of essays, poems, projects, and exams dominate the walls, there is student ownership of the room. When they look around and see their own writing and thinking, they certainly experience a higher level of comfort than if they see store-bought posters. That said, if informational posters are needed, ask your students to create them.

3. Have Non-Negotiables. Along with classroom rules and procedures, students must know non-negotiables right out of the gate. My biggest non-negotiable? Name-calling. This resulted in an immediate consequence (a call to the Dean and removal from the classroom that day). We have to tackle such things as name-calling head on or else kids won't feel safe to be themselves, let alone learn.

4. Admit When You Don't Know. Students appreciate when we show our humanity. Saying "I'm not really sure. Does anyone else know or might they like to look that up for us?" is powerful stuff.

5. Read with Your Students. The message this sends: I like to read. I don't just tell you this and grade you on how much you read, I read side by side with you. You see my facial expressions as I struggle to understand something difficult and you see when I feel emotion at a sad or funny part. I am a reader, too.

6. Remain Calm at All Times. Once a teacher loses it with a class or student, it takes a long time to rebuild that feeling of safety and trust within those four walls. Step right outside the door and take a few breaths. It's worth it.

7. Take Every Opportunity to Model Kindness. They will follow.

8. Circulate. Mingling lets you monitor their work, yes, but it also gives you a close view of any tensions or negative energy brewing with groups or between students. Also, circulating gives you great opportunities to overhear a student sharing an idea or question that you can use with the whole class.

9. Address Grudges Early On. If tension is building between a couple of students, create time and space for them to talk it out while you mediate.

10. Write with Your Students. The message this sends: I like to write. I don't just tell you this and grade you on your writing, I write side by side with you. You see me struggle as I am drafting a poem or letter, and you see me contemplate new words, cross-out old ones and take chances as I revise. I am a writer, too.

11. Model Vulnerability. They will appreciate this. If we are asking kids to write and talk about times they have felt scared, alone, confused, etc., we need to be willing to do the same.

12. Follow Through with Consequences. A consequence must proceed a non-negotiable. Students need to know there's a consequence for those serious infractions. They need evidence to believe they are safe in each classroom.

13. Smile Often. The antiquated saying in the teaching profession is wait until Christmas to smile. This is just plain silly. Let the children see those pearly whites often and genuinely. The more smiles we offer to students, the more we will receive.

14. Use Every Opportunity to Model Patience. They will notice.

15. Give Kids a Chance to Problem Solve on Their Own. It's so much better when ideas and solutions come from the student. This is a chance for us to ask rather than tell: "What might be some things you can start doing so you complete your homework on time? How about I write them down as you tell them to me?"

16. Laugh with your Students. The message this sends: Learning doesn't have to always be so serious, nor do we. Sometimes, when tensions are high, like during testing or when crazy things are happening out in the world, we need to laugh together. It's okay.

17. Offer Options. If we start an assignment with, "You will have three choices," kids may even get excited and are often much more willing than when we say, "The assignment is...." By giving kids choices, we send a message that we respect their decisions.

18. Keep the Vibes Good. Students, no matter how young, know when a teacher is not happy. Joy can be contagious, but so too can misery. Maybe a vacation, a massage, watching a TED Talk, or even changing the grade level you teach will help re-kindle the flame between you and teaching when you are in a slump.

19. Sit with Your Students. Sitting in a chair made for a child is not the most comfortable thing for an adult. But joining a group of children at their table takes us off stage and let's us, even just for a few moments, become a member of the group. We might ask a strategic question, inquire about the group's project, or simply listen.

20. Art and Music Feed the Soul. (And they starve the beast.) Incorporate both of these routinely in your lessons.

Do any of these especially resonate with you? How do you create a safe learning environment for your students? Please share your thoughts and ideas with us.

Comments (16)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Rusty May's picture
Rusty May
School counselor and creator of SchoolToolsTv.com

I really enjoyed your article because it stresses the importance of developing meaningful learning relationships in the classroom and allowing ourselves to be more open and real with our students. Thanks.

Shawn's picture
Shawn
High school social studies teacher

I had a bad day today, and I will definitely be using some of your ideas in my classroom. I use some of them, but I will be incorporating more of them into my classroom.

Shawn's picture
Shawn
High school social studies teacher

I had a bad day today, and I will definitely be using some of your ideas in my classroom. I use some of them, but I will be incorporating more of them into my classroom.

Shawn's picture
Shawn
High school social studies teacher

I had a bad day today, and I will definitely be using some of your ideas in my classroom. I use some of them, but I will be incorporating more of them into my classroom.

Shawn's picture
Shawn
High school social studies teacher

I had a bad day today, and I will definitely be using some of your ideas in my classroom. I use some of them, but I will be incorporating more of them into my classroom.

Shawn's picture
Shawn
High school social studies teacher

I had a bad day today, and I will definitely be using some of your ideas in my classroom. I use some of them, but I will be incorporating more of them into my classroom.

Lauren Rekonen's picture
Lauren Rekonen
High School social studies teacher from St. Paul, MN

Great list! I would add that creating an experience early on where the students learned something and were recognized for their successes and were able to feel successful will also help. At my school, we are making a big push for the students to understand that it's okay to be where they are at, but they aren't going to stay there for long! They need to know that if they don't understand or know something that it is okay, and that they need to work to master the standard. It's a great way ease anxiety.

Brittany's picture
Brittany
Fifth Grade Teacher

Thanks for sharing this list! It is an excellent reminder!

Lisa Vasquez's picture
Lisa Vasquez
8th grade computer/French teacher in Mississippi

In response to Laura Thomas: You are so right that our efforts at building a safe and positive learning environment often fall to the wayside as the year proceeds. We tend to get bogged down in the often hectic pace of our daily teaching duties, and forget to put the focus back on students in this regard.

During my one of my teacher preparation classes, we had a "guest instructor" -- a PhD student whose dissertation was focused on these same ideas. We spent a lot of time discussing developing rapport and community-building in the classroom. I have to say that, since that time, no serious professional development time has been dedicated to that important topic....our PD time is superceded by topics based on curricular needs and changes.

Much thanks to Rebecca Alber for this important reminder. Perhaps in combination with another of her recent blogs on Advocating for Better PD, we can help call more attention to this topic during some of our PD time.

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

I have noticed this with my son that if he perceives the environment in a certain subject as unsupportive or feel marginalized it erodes his motivation to engage with the material or even continue in the field. Teachers have a significant influence on how classroom dynamics develop. Creating a classroom that is organized and that is characterized by mutual respect makes it a lot easier to teach effectively, and one of the most important things teachers can do to promote learning is to create classroom environments where students feel safe. If you're using interactive approaches such as small groups and cooperative learning, it's especially important to create a classroom where students feel safe asking questions and contributing to discussions

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