Create a Safe and Supportive School with SEL

back to school

It’s that time of year again. Kids are heading back to school after a summer off. It’s time to buckle down and get back to the business of learning, but are they ready? What kind of learning environment do students need to be ready to learn?

Safety and support are important for learning…

In answer to that question, research points to a safe and supportive learning environment. A safe and supportive environment is one in which students feel physically and emotionally safe, cared about, well-treated, and accepted (Osher et al., 2003). With these conditions of safety and support met, students are more likely to feel connected to school (Blum, 2005a). School connectedness is linked to increased academic achievement and other positive outcomes for children and youth (Blum, 2005a; Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2009; Osher et al., 2003; Thapa, Cohen, Higgins-D’Allesandro, & Guffey, 2012). When students feel safe, supported, and connected to school, it also helps create a more positive school climate (Austin, O’Malley, & Izu, 2011). And in schools with a positive climate, students are more likely to be engaged in learning and staff are more likely to be engaged in teaching.

For students coping with trauma or other difficulties, the sanctuary afforded by a safe and supportive learning environment can be especially beneficial. At least one in four students has experienced a traumatic event that can potentially affect his or her ability to learn (Briggs-Gowan, Ford, Fraleigh, McCarthy, & Carter, 2010). But research shows that a safe and supportive learning environment can help buffer the effects of adverse childhood experiences (Blum, 2005b; Ozer & Weinstein, 2004).

…And their importance is gaining recognition

Recognition of the importance of safe and supportive learning environments for all students, including those who have experienced trauma, is gaining momentum. For example, Massachusetts recently passed the Safe and Supportive Schools law:

The law requires the state education department to develop a framework for safe and supportive schools, first developed by a task force established by the legislature in 2008, that provides a foundation to help schools create a learning environment in which all students can flourish. The framework is based on a public health approach that includes fostering the emotional wellbeing of all students, preventive services and supports, and intensive services for those with significant needs. (Prewitt, 2014)

The US Department of Education (ED) Office of Safe and Healthy Students maintains a Safe Supportive Learning website that offers training and support to Safe and Supportive Schools 2010 grantees and others interested in such learning environments. The ED also recently partnered with the Department of Justice for a Supportive School Discipline Initiative with the goal of fostering positive discipline practices in schools that help support safe and supportive learning environments.

So how can schools become safe and supportive?

It’s clear that feeling safe and supported is important for student learning. And the fact that this is becoming more widely recognized by policy-makers is encouraging. But it’s up to schools to make this happen. Where can they start?

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a promising place to start when creating a safe and supportive learning environment. Schools that implement SEL programs tend to be safer (Osher et al., 2003) because socially and emotionally competent students have more positive attitudes toward themselves and others, show more positive social behaviors in school, and have fewer conduct problems (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011). When students get along better with their peers and teachers, school connectedness is enhanced (Wilson, 2004). In classrooms with socially-emotionally competent students, effective classroom management is easier, and students are more likely to feel supported and respected in well-managed classrooms (McNeely & Falci, 2004).

Implementing an SEL program for all students is also the universal-level support strategy recommended when creating a trauma-sensitive school (Chris Blodgett, Director of the Child and Family Research Unit, Washington State University, personal communication, July 5, 2012). A trauma-sensitive school is one in which all students feel safe, welcomed, and supported and where addressing trauma’s impact on learning is a key feature of its educational mission (Cole, Eisner, Gregory, & Ristuccia, 2013). Students who have experienced trauma may struggle to stay regulated in the classroom (Cole et al., 2005), but when schools implement SEL programs, the skills students learn (such as perspective-taking, emotion management, and problem-solving) can help address the skills gaps experienced by students who have been affected by trauma and improve their ability to learn.

Get started with SEL

Schools can get started by choosing an SEL program like the Second Step program that promotes the development of students’ self-regulation skills and social-emotional competence. The Second Step program also offers additional units targeting bullying prevention and child protection. Together, these add up to a great start towards becoming a safe and supportive school. And when implemented with a plan that considers the role of leadership, assessment, and integration, schools are well on their way to creating the safe and supportive environment students need to be ready to learn.


Austin, G., O’Malley, M., & Izu, J. (2011). Making sense of school climate: Using the California school climate, health, and learning (Cal-SCHLS) survey system to inform your school improvement efforts. Los Alamitos, CA: WestEd. Retrieved from

Blum, R. W. (2005a). School connectedness: Improving the lives of students. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Retrieved from:

Blum, R. W. (2005b). A case for school connectedness. The Adolescent Learner, 62(7), 16-20.

Briggs-Gowan, M. J., Ford, J. D., Fraleigh, L., McCarthy, K., & Carter, A. S. (2010). Prevalence of exposure to potentially traumatic events in a healthy birth cohort of very young children in the northeastern United States. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 23, 725–733.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2009). School connectedness: Strategies for increasing protective factors among youth. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from

Cole, S. F., Eisner, A., Gregory, M., & Ristuccia, J. (2013). Helping traumatized children learn: Creating and advocating for trauma-sensitive schools. Boston, MA: Massachusetts Advocates for Children.

Cole, S. F., O’Brien, J. G., Gadd, M. G., Ristuccia, J., Wallace, D. L., & Gregory, M. (2005). Helping traumatized children learn: Supportive school environments for children traumatized by family violence. Boston, MA: Massachusetts Advocates for Children.

Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, D. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405–432.

McNeely, C., & Falci, C. (2004). School connectedness and the transition into and out of health-risk behavior among adolescents: A comparison of social belonging and teacher support. Journal of School Health, 74(7), 284­­–292.

Osher, D., Sprague, J., Weissberg, R. P., Axelrod, J., Keenan, S., Kendziora, K., & Zins, J. E. (2003). A comprehensive approach to promoting social, emotional, and academic growth in contemporary schools. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology V, Volume 4, (pp. 1–16). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) Publications.

Ozer, E. J., & Weinstein, R. S. (2004). Urban adolescents’ exposure to community violence: The role of support, school safety, and social constraints in a school-based sample of boys and girls. Journal of Clinical Child Adolescent Psychology, 33(3), 463–476.

Prewitt, J. (2014, August 13). Massachusetts “Safe and Supportive Schools” provisions signed into law, boosts trauma-informed school movement. ACEs Too High News. Retrieved from:

Thapa, A., Cohen, J., Higgins-D’Allesandro, A., & Guffey, S. (2012). School climate research summary: August 2012. School Climate Brief, 3. New York, NY: National School Climate Center. Retrieved from

Wilson, D. (2004). The interface of school climate and school connectedness and relationships with aggression and victimization. Journal of School Health, 74(7), 293–299.