How to Create a Safe Learning Environment in the Classroom

Dr. Lori McDonald
Dr. Lori McDonald
Elementary school teacher; Ed.D. in School Leadership/Administration
Students and teacher in a classroom with world map on display

Today more than ever before, students have many struggles that are invisible to those on the outside. These struggles may be related to home life, mental health, or fear of the unknown. We never truly know what is going on in the minds of our students, but there are some steps we, as teachers, can take to ensure the best possible environment for students. Our students cannot possibly be expected to achieve or excel if they do not feel safe in their classroom.

How Does a Feeling of Safety Impact Students?

Students are profoundly affected by safety or a lack of the feeling of safety in the classroom. Students that do not feel safe at school will more than likely struggle with attendance issues. Students that feel safe are more relaxed and likely to take academic risks. So it stands to reason that students who feel safe and secure at school will be more excited about being there and will also perform better. When students feel secure and accepted in their classroom environment, they are far more likely to share their thoughts and feelings. This enables the teacher to develop meaningful relationships with their students which contributes to the feeling of safety and security in the classroom. The following are some ways that teachers can help to create a safe learning environment in the classroom.

Know your students

The most important part of becoming an effective teacher is as simple as getting to know your students. Making sure that you allow time to talk to and, more importantly, listen to your students allows you to develop those all-important relationships. When you have developed important relationships with students, they are more likely to do their best work and try their hardest because they know you believe in them and their ability. Also, a close relationship with students means they are less likely to misbehave in class. Basically, students who know they are loved and valued will do the best they can for those who love and value them.

Build community

It is equally important to build a sense of community in your classroom. Allowing students time to share feelings and develop relationships with one another encourages community. Coming together frequently to discuss both academic and personal topics can help students bond and learn more about their classmates. You can focus on celebrating victories together and helping those that are struggling. Students learn to care about each other. Group work, peer tutoring, and team games are just a few examples of activities that encourage a sense of community.

Be vulnerable

Students’ sense of safety is also increased when they realize it is ok to make mistakes. One of the best ways for a teacher to get that message across is to be vulnerable and transparent. Letting students see when there is something that you don’t know or don’t understand lets students know that it’s ok to say “I don’t know”. When modeling skills for students, openly acknowledge when you make a mistake. This promotes a feeling of security in the classroom that helps students feel that it’s ok to take academic risks, which is how students grow and improve academically.

Be consistent

Students find safety and security in knowing what to expect. So make your expectations clear and be consistent in enforcing those expectations. Students must know what is expected academically and behaviorally. Set forth procedures for class discussions, group work, turning in assignments, etc. as well as disciplinary action so students know exactly what is expected and what consequences there will be.

Model the right characteristics

Demonstrate for students how to behave in a way that exudes kindness, calm, and patience. It may not always be easy, but by modeling these characteristics for students they learn the importance of being kind to others. When a teacher “loses it” with his/her class, it decreases the students’ sense of safety and security in the classroom. So it is critically important to maintain at least the appearance of calm and patience, while also always being kind to students. This is not to be confused with a lack of discipline. Students still need that consistent discipline more than ever. But discipline should not in any way be associated with a lack of kindness, patience, or calm.  

Differentiate

Another method you can implement is differentiating instruction. By allowing students the ability to work on their own level, they don’t feel as inadequate as they may feel in trying to complete an assignment that they may not be ready for. By grouping students in small groups of similar abilities, you are able to meet the needs of all students while eliminating the feeling of inadequacy that students may feel when working with students who are at a higher level.

Student choice

Similarly to implementing differentiation is the idea of allowing student choice on assignments, projects, and assessments. By allowing students different options for demonstrating what they have learned, they can choose an option that suits their learning style. Therefore, students can feel more confident in their ability to display knowledge when they are choosing the medium through which to display.

Smile, laugh, and love

One of the most basic yet most important ways to make students feel safe and secure in your classroom is to smile, laugh, and love. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Exhibit your sense of humor. Laugh with your students. Be a smiling face every time they enter your classroom. Share hugs and be a shoulder to cry on when needed. Make sure, in your own way, that your students know you love them. It is my firm belief that students cannot learn until they feel loved.

I have long said to colleagues and loved ones that if I get to a point in my career when I feel I cannot create an environment that makes students feel safe and secure, then it is time for me to find a new path. I believe it is that important to make your classroom a safe place for students. In a world that is filled with so much uncertainty, your classroom can be the stable, safe, secure refuge that so many students need.

*Updated August 2021
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