There’s a lot more that goes into learning than what’s in the curriculum. Decades of research going back to psychologists like Piaget and Maslow show that a safe environment is essential for student success. Creating a welcoming, inclusive space where students feel free to express themselves in service to their academic goals begins with how students are treated by teachers and peers—in interactions big and small.
Good teachers already know that “building the right kind of climate and culture is crucial to a successful classroom,” writes Jal Mehta, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Fortunately there are “ample opportunities for this kind of integration.”
When schools and teachers focus on honing complex skills like tone of voice and co-regulation, while generating connection and belonging between children, they help deliver the “physiological and psychological conditions for productive learning,” note researchers Linda Darling-Hammond and Channa M. Cook-Harvey in a 2018 report. “Without secure relationships and supports for development, student engagement and learning are undermined.”
We examined the research and combed through our archives to see how teachers keep their classrooms safe, open, and inviting learning spaces focused on collaboration, effective communication, and strong two-way relationships between students and teachers. Read on to see an assortment of ways teachers create these conditions in their classrooms.
1. Connect From Day One: Greet students at the door, learn all their names, and prioritize one-on-one conversations, even if they’re brief, advises middle school teacher Lindsay Kervan. During the crucial first few days of school, she often plays classroom games, such as “How well do you know your teacher?” or a match game focused on what classmates have in common. The goal is to help students get to know her—and each other.
2. Build a Responsive Classroom: About Me surveys about favorite books, movies, and songs help teachers connect with students right out of the gate. The questions might seem trivial, writes Emma Chiappetta, but they can be core to students’ identities. As a middle and high school math teacher, Chiappetta also asks about nicknames, pronouns, and personalities. “The keys are to ask questions that will give you real, valuable insights about your learners,” Chiappetta says. “And then use that information to inform instruction and deepen relationships with all of your students.”
3. Sit with Students: Teachers should circulate in the classroom, of course, but it’s also important to occasionally sit beside them. “We might ask a strategic question, inquire about the group's project, or simply listen,” writes Rebecca Alber, who instructs preservice teachers at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education. It can be a uniquely powerful way to build connection, empathy, and ultimately trust.
4. Check In Daily: Each day at Rhode Island’s Highlander Charter School begins with a morning meeting to help get students centered, connected to teachers and peers, and ready to learn. Former high school teacher Ronen Habib began class with a brief gratitude circle, a warm-up game, and a moment of mindful breathing. Such exercises build emotional intelligence skills such as self-awareness and self-management, says teacher Aukeem Ballard, and give students space to quiet down and reflect before learning.
5. Own Your Mistakes: “Students fear failure because it’s human to fear failure,” says psychologist Angela Duckworth. Point out your own mistakes or difficulties to the class and model positive self talk. Explain how experiencing a tech hiccup or stumbling over your words may feel embarrassing but they’re in fact learning opportunities. This gives students a tangible example of how to reframe their thinking about failure, making it a normal part of learning.
6. Be the Calm They Need: Emotions are contagious, writes Lori Desautels, an assistant professor at the College of Education at Butler University, and when teachers “model a calm presence through their tone, facial expression, and posture, students are less likely to react defensively.” Co-regulation—the process of “helping a student who has made a poor choice of behavior to regain their composure”—starts with becoming aware of your own sensations and feelings. “It entails a willingness to regulate my own brain before I act,” Desautels says. Three quick self-calming routines she recommends for teachers: three deep breaths; text a friend or pull an affirmation from a prepared jar; stretch or move for a minute.
7. Establish Clear Rules of Behavior: In the early grades, especially, it’s helpful to practice rules and expectations around concepts like sharing and listening, writes instructional coach Alissa Alteri Shea. Clarify non-negotiables early—such as no name calling or physical roughness—and let students know the consequences for breaking those rules. And then be consistent about applying those consequences. “A consequence must proceed a non-negotiable,” Alber says. It sets clear expectations for students and helps build trust and safety.
8. Develop Your Tone of Voice: Using your voice to manage a classroom is a powerful tool—and it can take years to get right. A tone that’s too strict or demanding can cause students, especially older ones, to disengage; too soft and you’ll invite them to test boundaries. The best mix is somewhere in the middle, writes middle school teacher Kristine Napper. “Neither high expectations nor kind hearts can do the job alone,” says Napper. Instead, aim for a warm demander tone that “focuses on building strong relationships with students, then draws on that wellspring of trust to hold students to high standards of deep engagement with course content,” Napper writes.
9. Confront Language: Holding students accountable for the ways they talk and joke about topics like gender identity, body image, and race are key parts of building safe classroom communities and schools. “You can interrupt negative events when they happen in school—homophobic remarks, transphobic remarks, racist remarks—because when those things are not interrupted, that can be interpreted as teachers ‘giving permission,’” says Dr. Joseph Kosciw, director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network Research Institute. “But it’s also about creating an environment that embraces difference and diversity—and teaching an inclusive curriculum so kids connect to their learning.” In the classroom, says educational consultant Becky Cohn-Vargas, consider introducing students to the concept of identity safety and invite them to help “formulate norms for respect, acceptance, and inclusion.”
10. Make Time for Reflection: Research shows that giving students opportunities to reflect on the goals, relationships, and interests most important to them can boost achievement. Try regular low-stakes writing exercises like journal jots or quick writes, Alber suggests, with prompts such as: “What is your life’s motto and why?” Also, make time for academic reflection, writes educator Andrew Miller, by asking straightforward questions about what students learned and what they think they need to learn more about.
11. Promote Peer Interaction: At Danish public school Lundehusskolen, near Copenhagen, teachers use a double circles strategy where students form two circles—one on the inside and a larger one on the outside. A pair of students from each circle discusses questions projected on a whiteboard, before rotating to work with someone else. The playful practice connects kids who don’t ordinarily interact and gets each child speaking and listening.
12. Occasionally, Go Deeper: Quick check-ins like Roses and Thorns and cold opens allow students to express themselves before learning starts. But when time allows, a slightly more elaborate check-in can give students space to share more deeply and explore whether they’re feeling supported in their learning, getting enough sleep, or feeling overwhelmed.
13. Be Trauma-Informed: Examining the impact on students of factors such as racism, poverty, and community violence comes with many misconceptions, writes Matthew Portell, executive principal at Fall-Hamilton Elementary in Nashville. A big one is that it’s not teachers’ jobs to be therapists. But being a trauma-informed educator doesn’t mean that teachers need to “do the work of professional therapists,” Portell argues. Instead, it’s about taking a trauma-informed lens to how you approach all children. Research shows, for example, that building strong, nurturing relationships fosters a feeling of belonging that’s important for all students—but for students who’ve experienced trauma, it’s “absolutely imperative for healing,” says Portell.
14. Don’t Forget the Shy Kids: Shy or introverted students may be less likely to raise their hands in class—but they need opportunities to contribute in meaningful ways, writes special education expert Rachel Fuhrman. In lieu of cold calls, she practices warm calls, where she lets the student know ahead of time she’ll be calling on them, and often lets students present at the front of the room in pairs. Also consider a modified Think-Pair-Share activity that gives students time to write down their thoughts instead of silent thinking time.
15. Hang Student Work on the Walls: Showcasing student work creates a communal “sense of ownership” in the classroom, note the authors of a 2015 study, and boosts self-esteem and learning progress. Students will not only feel a greater sense of responsibility for their learning but are also more likely to remember the material.
16. Audit Books and Classroom Materials: Review your classroom and lessons for blind spots, suggests elementary teacher Talya Edlund, especially in light of research indicating that up to 80 percent of characters in childrens’ books are White. Include posters and wall art featuring people from a variety of cultural backgrounds and identities, and expose students to books and materials that address frequently overlooked stigmas around incarceration, body size, and homelessness, for example.