SEL Spotlight

5 Essentials for Creating a Safe & Supportive Learning Environment

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When it comes to Social Emotional Learning and trauma-informed teaching, establishing a safe and supportive environment is foundational. While the work to maintain a supportive environment is ongoing throughout the school year, the groundwork you lay at the beginning is critical.

This article outlines 5 essential aspects of a safe and supportive environment no matter the learning context (in-person, online, academic, or enrichment). These practices are applicable to any kind of learning but are particularly important as a gateway for fostering creative self-expression. Students must feel a sense of trust and comfort before they can open themselves up to freely and authentically express ideas, thoughts, and emotions.

#1  Provide a Safe & Welcoming Environment

Creating an atmosphere that feels warm and inviting and sets the tone for all who come into your space. In a classroom, this can mean an organized and uncluttered room with furniture and decorations that let students know that the space is set up with them in mind. Beyond the physical aspects of a space, you can also establish a welcoming environment with music. It’s amazing what a bit of welcoming background music can do to put everyone at ease as they arrive. Lastly, a greeting or check-in ritual provides a way for each student to be individually acknowledged and welcomed every time they enter the classroom, and this applies for both in-person and online learning.

#2 Build Trust

Trust is something that takes time to build and needs to happen on two levels. First, it’s important that teachers take active and intentional steps to build a trusting student-teacher relationship with each of their students. This starts with getting to know students on an individual level by asking authentic questions, listening to their responses, and validating their emotions with empathy. It also means opening up to students with information about yourself and letting them see your humanity.

Next, it’s also key to develop a positive classroom community in which students feel safe among their classmates. This can start with having a conversation about trust and engaging students in helping to define and agree to class norms about what makes for a safe and supportive classroom. Guide them through their senses: What does a trust among classmates look like? How does it sound? How does it feel? Help students develop a shared set of values and take on a sense of personal responsibility to contribute to the classroom community.

#3 Establish Safe Processes

Teachers can establish and maintain safe processes by offering student-centered choices and adjusting pace to fit student needs. When students know that they have a say in what they learn and the pace at which they work, they will feel much more relaxed and in control of their personal experience in the classroom. Teachers can do this by offering multiple ways to practice skills, allowing students to choose the order in which they complete tasks, and differentiating instruction depending on the needs of each student.

#4 Offer Structure and Predictability

While choices provide the opportunity for student agency, they must be offered with some degree of structure and predictability. A big part of feeling safe and supported is feeling that you are in control of your own destiny. When classes are disorganized and students don’t understand what their choices are, or never know what’s coming next, not only do they feel a lack of personal control, they may feel a threatening sense of chaos. Create rituals for every transition that happens throughout the day and offer choices in a consistent and predictable way. For example, if your students always have 3 tasks to complete but are aware that every day they can choose the order in which they complete those tasks, you’ll be offering a balance of predictability and choice that is both comforting and empowering for students.

#5 Cultivate Self-Esteem and Self-Efficacy

Finally, students’ belief in themselves and a sense that they can successfully set and achieve goals will enable them to flourish. Start with a strengths-based approach where you help students identify and celebrate their best qualities. From there, you can guide them to set goals that draw upon these strengths to learn and grow. Try to tap into students’ intrinsic motivators by paying attention to their personal interests and learning preferences. Help students set realistic and achievable micro-goals and build reflection activities around those goals so they can recognize their own growth and progress in a very personalized way.


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Margot Toppen

Margot Toppen

Margot Toppen is a visionary educator who works at the intersection of SEL, arts, and physical education.

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