Guest author Chris Harrison talks about how teachers can create a safe classroom environment and why it’s so important.

Creating a Safe Space

I have recently had an increasingly large number of really deep, sometimes heart-breaking conversations with children in my class and it started to make me think: “Why me? Why now?”

I have been reflecting more on the environment I am trying to create in my classroom, and how this enables the children in my care to feel confident and safe. If we take a simple view of need, such Maslow’s Hierarchy, and apply this within an education context, it quickly becomes apparent just how much needs to be securely in place before learning can truly take place.

As a school we are pushing for self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation for both children and teachers (see Hattie’s effect size list). Within this post I hope to list a number of key strategies to support the development of a safe space, where all children present feel secure enough to take risks, try new things and open up to familiar adults.

Celebrate the journey, not just the outcome

Maslow's hierarchy of needs pyramid

I wrote a recent blog post about how the learning pit can create some confusion for children where they think learning is trying, failing, then succeeding and you’ve suddenly mastered it.

Learning is in fact much more a journey of peaks and troughs – a cycle of learning pits in a way, where we revisit and up-level skills whilst accumulating new skills and knowledge. Once children understand this, they then begin to understand how learning occurs, which is a vital step in building resilience and creating a sense of security within learning.

Make and celebrate marvellous mistakes

We all make mistakes, but for many it can be a process where we lose confidence and self-esteem.

Developing a positive culture around mistake-making is critical in creating a safe space to explore new concepts in learning. The learning pit is a lovely visual prop to use when discussing mistakes; however, modelling and making your own mistakes has far more power.

When I teach, my children are always on standby to ‘popcorn’ (jump up and shout “POP”) when I make a marvellous mistake. They then coach me through it and we log it in our class reflection journal, where children log their own marvellous mistakes throughout their respective learning journeys. A class puppet works wonders in younger years as a maker of magnificent misconceptions!

Listen…No, actually LISTEN

Popcorn exploding

It’s so easy in the hustle and bustle of the school day to neglect time to sit down and really listen to a child in our class. Due to time constraints and juggling the broader needs of the class, it can be really hard to spend longer than a few minutes in conversation with each child, if that, throughout the course of the school day.

It can also be really hard to clear our minds of all the planning and preparation that rattles through our brains at 100 mph, and as a result we are often semi-distracted at the best of times.

Taking time to stop and listen can really create a safe space for children where they can truly open up. Whilst listening we also need to make sure that we react appropriately without taking over the conversation.

Zen posture

Create a ‘Zen Zone’

Classrooms can be loud, distracting, colourful places with a lot going on and a lot to take in. Some children, when presented with even the quietest classroom, can still feel like the space is too much.

A quiet, calm space can be a safe refuge for all children and you might be surprised who uses it when it is offered. My ‘zen zone’ is used regularly by children after play and lunch as a personal place where they can reflect, relax and be alone. This space has significantly reduced the number of ‘crisis’ moments in class, despite the wide range of incredibly complex needs present.

Praise publicly, sanction in private

We’ve all had that moment when we overtly challenge behaviour in the classroom, only for it to escalate and lead to further issues.

Often this can stem from the child(ren) involved having low self-esteem that is further lowered by being singled out negatively in front of their peers. Sometimes this can lead to fight or flight responses that can be really challenging for all present.

By all means challenge the behaviour, but do so 1:1 whilst praising positive choices and actions loudly and proudly in front of everyone. While this will significantly reduce attention-driven poor behaviour, it will also create a space where children buzz off sharing positivity.


In summary…

There is no one-size-fits-all model that works across all schools, so these are more my personal thoughts and experiences rather than a school CPD model. I could have dug deeper into each example and crammed more in, but this is simply a whistle-stop tour from which I hope people can cherry-pick ideas that might work for them in the future.

If I were to recommend one single strategy, it would be to listen: nothing has a greater impact than really listening to the children in your care and investing extra time in finding out more about them.

The other strategies, when interwoven carefully and sensitively, have had a huge impact for the children in my class where not only do we celebrate and love learning, the children also feel safe enough to share big life challenges they have faced including refugeeism, disability, mental health, sexuality and gender.

As a teacher, I am immensely proud of my children for developing the confidence to share more openly, and I hope they support others to do so as they enter the larger society of secondary school.


Chris Harrison

Chris is a primary assistant headteacher currently teaching a mixed Year 5/6 class at Grove Road Community Primary School in Harrogate. He is passionate about developing meta-cognitive strategies, research-informed teaching and, above all, creating a lifelong love of learning.

You can read more of Chris’ expertise on his blog, Mr H the Teacher, and follow him on Twitter – @MrHtheTeacher.

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