In her final article on how teachers use emotions, teacher trainer Susan Gibbs discusses why emotional safety is so important in enabling children and young people to learn.

Staying safe’ is one of the outcomes defined by Every Child Matters as something that every child should be entitled to expect at school. It is seen as the teachers’ responsibility to care ‘for the emotional and physical wellbeing’ of their pupils, so that they can realise their full potential in the classroom.

Psychotherapists agree with the importance of creating an appropriate ‘emotional environment’ for learning. Learning can only take place, they say, when children have feelings of belonging and safety. If they don’t feel safe, they will not be able to trust anybody, or themselves.

Such negative thoughts result in young people feeling that they do not belong, and consequently not being open to learning. When asked, children are clear that when they belong, they get more work done and they can ask for help with their learning.

Belonging ‘Feelings of belonging are to learning,’ one psychologist has said, ‘as soil is to a seed’. Belonging, positive regard and respect form the basis of the learning relationship in the classroom. When children feel safe, noticed and understood at school, they become more:

  • attentive
  • open to new ideas
  • willing to listen and engage in classroom tasks and activities in the classroom.
  • motivated and engaged in their learning.

The more a pupil achieves, ‘the better they feel about themselves’. This suggests that self-esteem evolves through positive learning experiences. This cycle is self-perpetuating, as positive self-esteem is related to pupils’ continued success in learning.

Self acceptance Some dismiss this focus on self-esteem as suggesting that pupils only feel good about themselves when their work is going well. However, making students aware of the value of self-acceptance teaches them that, although you want to do well, you don’t always have to and sometimes you are unable to.

Teachers are mindful that children need to be comforted as well as being stretched and challenged in the classroom. They need to be accepted, understood, valued and prized by the teacher. This is about a personal recognition of pupils and their lives. It is also about acknowledging their feelings, opinions and attitudes. It is this affirmation or ‘acceptance in the eyes of another’ as psychotherapist Susie Orbach describes it, that can help pupils develop a more caring attitude towards themselves.

What may seem like small concerns or ‘fragments of routine experience’ are important to pupils. It is these small things that work to influence them in their feelings as to who they are. Being there for the person nourishes self-respect because it says, ‘I care about you, your progress and aspirations’. It is by encouraging pupil self acceptance and self-respect that teachers break down the ‘barriers to learning.’

Belonging, positive regard and respect form the basis of the learning relationship in the classroom

Returning trust When pupils bring emotional issues and problems to the classroom, teachers try to return ‘balance and trust’ to these pupils’ lives. Without the significant emotional and social security and support they provide, pupils may miss out on learning or even develop emotional difficulties. The experience of a ‘trusting relationship’ with their teachers is clearly psychologically significant for pupils. This experience of ‘trust’ can lead to ‘mutual trust’ and ‘mutual respect’ between the teacher and pupil in the classroom – and with other pupils in the classroom.

This shows that trust and respect cannot simply be expected from pupils in the classroom. Rather, the development of trust and respect are a fundamental pedagogic responsibility of the teacher, as they help to establish ‘conditions of learning’ in the classroom.

Within this pupil solidarity and acceptance, there is also a necessary emotional distance between the teacher and pupil. It is a balancing of an acceptance/distance dynamic in the learning relationship that enables the teacher to provide a form of ‘emotional security’ or ‘psychological safety’ but at the same time recognises and encourages the pupil to develop the capacity to manage on their own.

Supportive relationships The psychotherapist Carl Rogers placed great emphasis on ‘growth promoting interpersonal communication’, which he defined as the finely tuned understanding of one person by another individual that gives the recipient ‘a sense of personhood, and identity’. He found that, as individuals are accepted and prized, they develop a more caring attitude towards themselves. It is as they are listened to in an empathic way that it becomes more possible for them to listen more accurately to ‘the flow of their inner experiencings’. As someone begins to understand and prize themselves, their sense of self becomes more congruent with their inner world. As a result the person becomes more ‘real’, authentic and genuine in their relationship with themselves and others.

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Ofsted looks at safety
‘A significant minority of younger pupils find their enjoyment of school spoiled by harassment from older pupils. They feel that this is part of the school’s culture and that there is little that can be done to improve matters. Pupils say the school deals with bullying when it is reported but not quickly enough.’Ofsted report on a specialist school for the performing arts, put into special measures in the autumn 2005.

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