Safety First (Learning Second)

by | Mar 25, 2018 | Behaviour, Classroom Practice, Inclusion, Leadership, News, SEMH, Teenagers, Wellbeing | 0 comments

I have taught in various guises for 17 years. I have mentored trainee teachers, taught PGCE students at University and written articles on teaching. But it is only in the last 2-3 years I have been able to reflect and articulate the first step to my teaching approach. This enables me to more easily share it with others.

Just looking at it on (virtual) paper it looks so simple and obvious, but missed out, your lesson/workshop/assembly will not work.

Sometimes the step is barely noticeable – you walk into a high ability year 8 class who are thirsty for knowledge and you teach them the subject you’re passionate about. They feel safe with the usual teacher/student setup, and off you go – blissful.

Sometimes however, this step can take weeks or terms to put in place, depending on the needs of the students: you’re the fourth short term supply teacher a class has had this term. They are completely lost on the curriculum and have developed a deep distrust for the adult stood in front of them. They did that assessment last term, why should they do it again just because the last teacher left and took them with them?

Then there are extremes. I often work in educational settings with students who have experienced the kind of trauma that’s difficult to talk about, sometimes at a very early age. The fear they have around being in a room alone with an adult, being in a room with a closed door, being part of a large crowd, being requested to do something by an adult they don’t know – these situations can trigger devastating memories that they don’t have the capacity to understand and your attempt to just ‘get them to learn one quote’ will fall on deaf ears.

Unless we feel safe and included we cannot learn.*

My colleagues who are pioneering some great education work with refugees know this first step all too well.  

You can’t take it for granted that once you have created this safe environment that it will remain a constant either.

A Trans student I had supported through their early months of transitioning had built up a huge confidence in my class and was able to take on roles in our class reading of Romeo and Juliet. Then one day a boy from another class was moved to ours. My student became a different person. They could only sit at the side of the classroom, near the door. They could no longer speak in front of the class and asked to leave a number of times. I discovered that this student had had a negative experience with this new boy, when they first started transitioning. I don’t believe my student took in any of Act 3, Act 4 or possibly any of the rest of the play – it took another 6 weeks, until I was able to create the safe environment again for them.

Unless we feel safe and included we cannot learn.*

So how do we do it? How can we account for all the different people stood in front of us, and what may or may not make them feel safe?

There are some basics that most teachers know built around routines and consistency – however that looks for you and your specific students (usually it involves a few plants in the classroom for me).

The aspect I feel is often left out of though, is communication.

Asking and listening.

When we ask, we can find out what safe feels and looks like for the people we’re supporting.

In my work with students with Emotional, Behavioural and Attachment Difficulties this is vital. Asking if they want me to sit next to them or opposite them whilst they’re reading can make them feel safe – in control of themselves. Listening whilst they explain why sitting under the table is a good idea for doing this particular piece of work, or why their bag needs to be on their knee.

I have to watch my own behaviour too. Whilst they push to learn where my boundaries are – setting paper alight, throwing books around, ripping down displays – can I remain calm and strong? Can I be a secure, safe adult for them?

It is definitely a challenge sometimes.

There are many benefits to creating safe environments in the classroom. In a long term position at a mainstream school, my students would refer to my room as a “happy classroom” they “didn’t feel stressed” when they were there. 

The result was that many students would visit me in breaks, lunchtimes and after school – they would share worries and concerns, sometimes disclosing information around their mental health, bullying or difficult home situations. 

They felt safe and shared – which means I could help.


Without Step 1 any notions of learning will fly out of the window.

* N.B. This step also applies to staff:

Unless we feel safe and included, we cannot successfully teach – but I think that’s another blog. 


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