How to Create a Safe Learning Environment

Clay Scarborough
Clay Scarborough
High school principal; M.A. in Education, principal certification
A group of happy student high five in their classroom.

When I began in education twenty-one years ago, safety had a whole different meaning.  You could still count school shootings on the one hand, and getting out of a school building quickly with a fire drill was the main goal…two decades can change a lot.

One of the post-event items from COVID has been a greater emphasis on mental health and its impacts on safety. Thus, creating a safe environment more than ever covers many components. It ranges now from bullying, to violence, to mental health, fire, school shooting, and tornado drills.

How Does a Feeling of Safety Impact Students

The world most of our students come from each day has changed so much from when we were in school about 25 years ago. My upbringing was more “old-school” if you will.

That has changed now for the most part, and I preach and teach as principal to my teachers the need to build relationships first. There are many basics that need to be done before students can learn. Teachers can only teach, and students can learn if they have the basic needs met. At school that means food, classroom temperature, and safety.

So how does a feeling of safety impact students? It allows learning to occur. Schools have to provide physical and mental safety for our students.

A student is not going to learn if they are afraid of being bullied when they leave a class. A student is not going to learn if they are afraid of not having food when they get home. A student will not learn if they are experiencing trauma at their home. A student is not going to learn if they are afraid of being hurt at school. Their minds are not ready…and rightfully so. Our minds are set to go into self-preservation mode before we can learn. Our brains are wired for protection of self and others. Of all the Pavlovian needs we have, safety is at the top.

Why is it Important to Create a Safe Learning Environment?

Much of the discussion above answers why creating safe learning environment is important, but another aspect needs to be added to the fact that safety allows learning to occur.

The relationship between the place or the person that provide the need or the protection is an important one. When the school, the teacher, the friend, or the parents build that important part of the relationship where safety and trust is occurring, those students who recognize that security blanket (pun intended) will literally run through walls for the provider. A psychological attachment is built this way.

That is why it is so important that the teacher is building a relationship with their students. Once that trust (mentally, physically, and emotionally), is established, the amount of learning that can occur rises exponentially.

How to Create a Safe Learning Environment

Ensure Needs are Met

The number one way to create a safe learning environment is to meet the needs of the person who needs the safe environment. I am sure, there are some of you who would argue about how far the school is supposed to go to provide needs and I would agree, that argument is valid.

Just know that if a student does not feel safe emotionally, physically, or mentally, learning will not happen or not happen as efficiently as it can. I know many teachers that keep crackers or snacks in their room to meet the basic needs of hunger for their students or keep extra pencils in their room so that if the student does have their basic equipment, they can.

And now, some schools make sure the community knows that if someone was to violently try to harm their students, there are many people on campus who can respond with force, if necessary. All of this builds that relationship of safety for a student and trust for those who are meeting those needs.


Secondly, practice gives a person a sense that they know what to do if they need to be safe. Students repeatedly practice what to do if a fire occurs in a school building. Since they were in kindergarten, four to seven times a year, they have practiced what to do when the alarm goes off.

In the world we live in now, students practice different life saving events if a shooter were to enter their building. Some practice where to hide, some practice how to respond or counter the attacker, and some are trained how to “stop the bleed” if there are injured students or staff in the building.

Practice gives the student or person a relative automatic response when a certain event arises. Why do basketball players shoot one hundred free throws a day? Why do football coaches run the same play “until we get it right”? Practice allows a person to have an opportunity to protect themselves, giving them a greater feeling of safety.

In the end, creating a safe learning environment is about meeting the needs of the student, building trust, and knowing what to do when safety is threatened.

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