Nov 15, 2011 by Sherrelle Walker, M.A.

Safe learning environments

Think back to your grade school days. Did you ever experience a class where a bully ruled the roost? Were you ever bullied yourself?  Did you ever have a teacher who frightened you or who made you feel bad for underperforming? Or was there simply a disruptive class clown who constantly broke the classroom rhythm the teacher was trying so hard to create?

To varying degrees, all of the above situations can create what we might consider an unsafe learning environment. The teacher must take unquestionable ownership of the classroom, but do so in a positive, caring, constructive manner. The class succeeds or fails on his or her decisions and management of the entire learning experience.

Why is managing that classroom and creating that safe environment where learning can happen so essential? In her article on the value of safe learning environments, Lora Desautels, Ph.D., reminds us that during adolescence, the part of the brain that controls emotional responses—the amygdala—develops faster than other centers of the brain while the prefrontal cortex, a center for logical thought and rational response, develops later. Thus, our students are more effectively wired for emotion than logic. Their systems are primed to react to situations with feelings and they have not yet fully developed the ability to apply logical thinking to keep those feelings in check.

It follows that the stimuli within and surrounding the learning environment can have great effects on these emotional responses and can serve to either support or impair the learning process. The bully, the clown, and the teacher can all have a profound effect on how well a student learns.

So what can we as educators do to bring down the levels of stress in our classrooms and make sure that our learning environments are safe places where optimal learning can take place? How can we create spaces that keep the emotional responses as positive and free of stress and anxiety as possible so that we can most effectively engage fresh young minds?

Rebecca Alber has written a wonderful list of twenty ways to create a safe learning environment for Edutopia, which I highly recommend. Her advice for educators includes building community, setting clear boundaries, smiling and laughing a lot, and getting to know each individual student, as well as allowing them to get to know something personal about you. She says we should sit with our students. We should keep our expectations for student performance and behavior high. And we should incorporate art and music into the day.

I agree with Alber’s top twenty. I find it wonderful that she strikes a balance between creating a space that is fun and welcoming and full of laughter, but also one where expectations are set and failures become learning opportunities. All of them can do wonders when it comes to creating a space where students can let go of their stresses and anxieties and free their minds to absorb all the wonderful learning we have in store for them.

In the end, the responsibility for implementing these kinds of principles and removing the stressors that can impair learning lie with us, the educators. Creating that safe learning environment is a multifaceted challenge that, when done well, allows students to flourish.

Related Reading:

Tapping the Source: Finding and Using the Innate Student Passion for Learning

Inspiring Students to Dream, Learn and Grow