Emotional safety

Emotional safety

Teacher readiness series #7

I’m not nearly as concerned about student readiness for school as I am about teacher readiness.  Safety is key to student success.  Where I want to start is a little different than you might expect.  We will get to the famous freeze, fight, flight response in the next article, but I want to make sure you understand a less obvious, but equally important, function of the brain in relation to safety.

First we need to understand that decision making is powered by our emotional capability.  In the book Descartes’ Error by António Damásio, he makes clear the principle that if you lose your emotional capability, you lose your decision making capability.  Emotions and decisions are closely tied.  We need to keep in mind that with our students emotions are an essential component of their decision making.

Many emotional states are not conducive to learning.  Frustration is a good example.  If a student is continually frustrated by an inability to measure up to what is expected in the classroom, they will use that emotion as a part of their decision about the value of school.  One aspect of frustration to keep in mind is that some students can hide it better than others (I was one of those students).  It could be that a student showing a lack of enjoyment of learning, or having a lack of successes is experiencing a negative emotion like frustration.  Negative emotions are dispositions that do not help the learning process.

Embarrassment is another emotion that hinders learning.  We should all remember that the stakes for acceptance and reputation are very high in the classroom, and it is very easy to be embarrassed in front of your classmates.  We’ve all experienced the feeling of failing in front of others, and it is a powerful demotivator for learning.  One common experience of students is having their mind wander.  We can all agree that no matter how we try, there are times when our mind wanders.  A teacher wants a student to be engaged, but sometimes we call out their lack of attention in a way that embarrasses them in front of the class.  If this happens, we have missed our goal.  It is much better at this point to unobtrusively bring their wandering mind back into the classroom by something as simple as walking down their row and resting your hand on their shoulder as you walk by.  If you see lots of students’ minds wandering, it is time for a break.  Have the students stand and do a few stretches before you continue.

Another demotivating situation that happens is when you get a student, say a third grader, who does not read well or maybe not at all, and you give them high-skill directions.  Their lack of reading ability could be because of a learning disability, or they just arrived in the US and don’t speak English.  Often in our classes we tend to give high-skill directions to have students do high-skill tasks.  A non-English speaking third grader is likely capable of high-skill tasks, but they need to be given low-skill directions.  Earlier in this series we discussed simplifying directions.  If you speak the directions, you need to break it down and give one direction at a time.  If the directions are written, then either use symbols and simple words, or you provide the directions in the student’s native language.  To not do this can result in boredom and frustration.

While kids are pretty durable, extended frustration, embarrassment, boredom and similar emotions have a direct impact on their decision making process.  Because emotions are integral to that process, they are being given powerful influences that may result in a decision that school isn’t worth the effort, and their time is better spent elsewhere.  This happens to a lot of kids.  It isn’t that they are bad or unmotivated, it is that they are making a decision based heavily on emotional input, and if that emotional input is negative, they may check out of school mentally.  They might even use these negative emotions to decide to become the class clown or act out in other ways.  We’ve all seen this, but we may not have thought of this as an aspect of safety.  It is emotional safety.

To be emotionally secure, your students need to feel confident that in spite of some ups and downs, they will be protected from extended frustration, embarrassment, boredom and other similar negative emotions.  Learning is inherently fun, and your classroom should be a place where students experience the joy of learning, exploration, and success.  Next time you look out and see some expressions that show boredom, embarrassment or frustration, ask yourself if you are protecting your students from those negative emotions.  To thrive in a learning environment, students need to feel emotionally safe.


1 Comment

  1. After reading this article it reassures me how important it is to maintain emotional stability in the classroom. The goal of creating a positive learning environment include but are not limited to emotions of feeling safe, encouraged, motivated, building relationships, and opportunity for students to regain confidence when necessary. Emotional securities need to be established in order for decision making to occur. Yes, I agree students need to feel emotionally safe. Also, differentiation needs to be in placed so leveled skilled directions and task are intended for the students need and ability. Great article!

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