On my very first day as a teacher, one of my new students approached me, looked me squarely in the eye, and announced: "I don't do reading." Only a few hours into my career, and here was a child telling me that I need not bother teaching her reading — she'd tried it and had enough.
Like this child, all of my students had experienced various degrees of failure and frustration in their school careers, and all had devised a variety of techniques to insulate themselves from further stress and discomfort. Some shrank into seats in the back, making themselves as small as possible. Others appeared unapproachable and intimidating. I had students who already knew everything, and others who professed helplessness in the face of even the most uncomplicated tasks. For each, the goal was the same: safety. So much energy and instructional time are diverted to dealing with these "survival" behaviors in the course of a teaching day. Wouldn't it be more efficient to establish classrooms that are caring and emotionally safe places, where these self-protective measures are unnecessary?
The following checklist can help you determine the degree to which your classroom (or school) practices the kinds of beliefs and behavior that contribute to an emotionally safe community. Increase the level of agreement with any item and you are likely to see improvements in achievement, learning, on-task behavior, commitment, cooperation, and student responsibility.
Use the following scale to rate each item:
- Always Do
- Sometimes Do
- Rarely Do
- Never Do
Please Note: The complete checklist is available here.
The Need for Success
Every child has the right to experience success in school. And yet, given the range of abilities, intelligences, and learning preferences we encounter with any group of children, this goal can become quite a challenge. The "success" dimension of safety means that we assess the students that come to us and reach out to them, wherever they are, instructionally. We back up, revise, regroup, and move ahead, depending on student needs. We set the bar at just the right height to challenge each student at a level at which success is, indeed, a possibility.
- I provide opportunities for success to each child in the classroom, encouraging growth from wherever they start.
- I assess student ability and adjust instruction to maintain an appropriate level of challenge for each.
- I offer students a variety of ways to demonstrate their knowledge, intelligence, and mastery.
- I attempt to build interpersonal skills, positive social behaviors, character skills, and resistance to failure.
- I attempt to accommodate a variety of interests, motivators, modality strengths, and learning preferences in my directions, instructions, and assignments.
- I attempt to accommodate tactile, kinesthetic, visual, verbal, and auditory learners.
- I make sure kids have ample opportunities to move around and help them learn to maintain an appropriate level of alertness without disturbing others.
The Need for Belonging, Dignity, and Respect
How many conflicts and outbursts that we see in school are the result of our students' inability to meet their needs for identity, belonging, respect, or dignity in healthy ways? This component means eliminating double standards, being conscious of how our students are treated, and holding kids accountable for their behavior without violating their dignity or sense of self-worth.
- I avoid using humiliation, sarcasm, ridicule, anger, impatience, or manifestations of disappointment in dealing with students.
- I honor students' needs for respect, dignity, purpose, success, acceptance, attention, and motivation.
- I model standards of behavior, language, and tone of voice that I expect from my students.
- I work to eliminate prejudice toward students based on racial or cultural background; physical appearance; sexual orientation; academic, artistic, or athletic competence.
- I strive to stay aware of put-downs or slurs expressed by students or staff, responding immediately.
The Need for Power, Structure, and Positivity
We all need a combination of structure (limits) and autonomy (power and control) in our lives. Much of the defiance, rebelliousness, and acting out I see in the classroom reflects our students' struggle to survive. When teachers use their authority to set limits and offer choices, and follow through consistently and immediately when limits have been violated, this win-win approach can reduce conflict and increase commitment and cooperation.
- I sometimes allow and encourage students to make decisions about their learning (what, where, with whom, how, or how much).
- I sometimes allow students to create, design, or renegotiate assignments to make them personally meaningful.
- I motivate through access to positive outcomes, rather than avoidance or fear of negative outcomes. I emphasize the positive consequences of cooperation.
- I consciously anticipate what students, teachers, and parents will need in various situations in order to prevent problems from occurring.
- I follow through immediately, avoiding warnings and threats.
- I make students and their parents aware of changes in behavior or performance that could affect grades or promotion.
- I utilize parents, administration, and support staff for feedback and support (not for punishing students).
The Need for Recognition, Attention, and Emotional Safety
Are your students unable to function effectively when they get angry, frustrated, or sad? Have you ever had a student explode after holding in feelings about an upsetting experience? In an emotionally safe environment, teachers stay on top of the emotional energy in the classroom. They listen to (or refer) students in need and support kids in their ability to solve their problems peacefully.
- I attempt to meet students' needs for attention in positive, constructive, and proactive ways.
- I reinforce positive behavior with positive outcomes.
- I communicate with parents, regularly and frequently, about what their children are doing well.
- I respect students' affective needs and am committed to listening and supporting their feelings and problem-solving skills in positive ways.
- I respect confidentiality to the degree that doing so will not put anyone in danger.
- I immediately respond to incidents involving any form of bullying, harassment, or threat to safety.
Each goal statement has immense implications for how we structure our classrooms, our relationships, and our priorities. One hopes this checklist will challenge us all to collaborate in new ways and avail ourselves of resources, disciplines, technologies, and strategies we may previously have not considered, or which may not have been available to us in the past. So many people in the education community stand to benefit when we keep the big picture in mind, working our way through the smaller goals to inaugurate a dramatic and positive change.
Jane Bluestein, Ph.D., is an award-winning author of several books for teachers and parents, including 21st Century Discipline (Frank Schaffer Publishing, 1999), Being a Successful Teacher (Frank Schaffer Publishing, 1992), and Mentors, Masters and Mrs. MacGregor: Stories of Teachers Making a Difference (Health Communications, Inc., 1995). This article is adapted from material for her book, Creating Emotionally Safe Schools (Health Communications, Inc.).