Julie Bennett explains how to develop a climate of safe learning in your classroom

Imagine for a moment that you are a student in class at the beginning of a lesson. You are settled, focused and ready to learn. The teacher is introducing the topic when

Ross announces in horror that his pet Japanese tiger-snake (a highly venomous snake, which he has smug-gled to school in his pocket) has escaped and is on the loose in the classroom. Despite his name, ‘Cuddles’ is far from affectionate and requires a dangerous animal license in order to keep him as a pet. You are fully aware of the consequences of a bite from Cuddles, as Darren has just completed a graphic description in a short pres-entation in biology. The prospect of being bitten by Cuddles is quite frightening.

Although it feels unpleasant, the physiological processes that occur are there to help to protect you. Your breathing gets faster, your heart rate increases and you become very alert. Imagining that Cuddles is snuggling up against your ankles may ‘give you the creeps’. If the teacher insisted on continuing with the lesson, you would have great difficulty in concentrating and you would miss pieces of information. Your body and mind would be instinctively sending you into the fight, flight or freeze response.The information you hear and see may not be retained very effectively as your concentration and memory would be disabled. Your mind and body would respond in order for all systems to deal with the more pressing issue of your safety. The fact of Cuddles’ escape becomes a perceived threat to you.

Whilst this scenario is thankfully not a likely occurrence in the everyday classroom, your students may well face other perceived threats to their learning that trigger similar sorts of responses and hinder (if not disable) their learning capacity. The example of the snake is based on a physical threat and we would all agree that we should place high importance on ensuring that our students are free from physical danger. I am now referring to a different aspect of safety: threats to effective learning and well-being that are related to the concepts of self-image and self-esteem.

A dictionary definition of ‘Safe’ is ‘free from danger or the risk of harm’. We know we are achieving safe learning in our classrooms when learners perceive that they are:

  • safe from physical & emotional harm
  • free from intimidation
  • free to take the risk of answering a question, even if they are unsure of the answer and may get it wrong
  • free from criticism or ridicule by their peers
  • free from criticism or ridicule by staff
  • valued and accepted for who they are
  • engaged in challenging but achievable tasks
  • full of potential to succeed at learning

Unfortunately, our learners are sometimes experiencing threats to their well-being, self-esteem and consequently learning. These threats are either based on external factors or internal factors. Students may experience fear of failure, success (as with some gifted children who don’t want to appear different from their peers), ridicule, humiliation and rejection. These become barriers to experiencing safe learning. We recognise that these fears can affect levels of involvement in learning activities, motivation and self esteem. By nurturing safe learning we will be positively influencing student motivation and self esteem. Safe learning is characterised by:

  • a safe learning climate
  • safe learning relationships
  • safe learning opportunities

Nurturing a safe learning climate may mean addressing failure in a new way. Many people see failure as the end result of a failed learning experience. I believe we should see failure as an integral and natural part of the process of learning. There have been a good number of inventions and discoveries that were accidental, unplanned ‘failures’. Some famous failures include chocolate chip cookies, Coca-Cola, the light bulb, Post-it Notes and Frisbees,to name but a few.There are numerous stories of people deemed to have failed, who later went on to succeed such as Einstein, Beethoven, FW Woolworth, Tolstoy and Martin Luther King. They can be used as motivational stories with children.

Practical suggestions:

  • open up the debate about failure with students
  • refer to examples from films, soaps, novels etc
  • create posters with motivating quotes about failure and success
  • set small targets and outcomes which arise out of learning from failure

I am not suggesting that we need to encourage failure, rather deal with it more effectively when it happens. Recovering from failure is the key to developing resilience, resourcefulness and tenacity. How often do we as teachers acknowledge our mistakes and demonstrate recovery from failure?

Nurturing safe relationships means respecting our learners.Positive relationships are built when we:

  • create rapport with our students
  • promote the rights and values of students
  • discover how different learners learn
  • express the value of our learners’ contributions

A greater awareness of the language we use when communicating with students is essential for our understanding of how this might affect the process.

Practical Suggestions:

  • Consider and adapt the feedback you give. For example, on commenting about a student’s picture, “That’s not too bad”, has potential to squash the student’s self-confidence, whereas, “I like your use of colour – what do you think of it?”, has potential to raise self-evaluation and demonstrates respect for their opinion.
  • When giving feedback try separating out the person and the behaviours. ‘You are a poor speller,’ has a different effect from, ‘You spelt some of those words incorrectly’. Failure is then expressed as task-oriented rather than person-oriented.

One of the most important factors in raising self-esteem in children is the quality of the relationships he/she has with the significant others in his/her life.

Safe learning opportunities are created when we offer differentiated learning, with a strong chance of success and challenge at an appropriate skill level. This promotes the possibility of starting work within a ‘comfort zone’ and moving into learning within a ‘stretch zone’, without venturing into the ‘overwhelm zone’. Differentiation in task, style of teaching and learning opportunities, is vital.

Practical suggestion:

  • Use different types of learning experiences for your class. Whatever subject you are teaching find ways of including activities in each lesson that involve visual, auditory and kinaesthetic activities.

Underlying the theory of developing ‘safe learning’ is an understanding that our belief systems, atti-tudes and language as teachers have a great impact on our learners.We are role models and the more developed our emotional intelligence, the more able we are to influence our learners posi-tively and nurture safe learning. TEX

Julie Bennett is the author of the pocketbook about dyslexia, The Dyslexia Pocketbook.

First published in Teaching Expertise magazine, Issue 10 Winter 2005