Committee for Children Blog

Four Tips for Creating a Safe and Supportive Classroom

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Bridgid Normand, M.Ed.

Imagine this: It’s Monday morning, and one of your students (let’s call him Charlie) storms through the door, pushes one student out of his way, and glowers at the rest. He yanks his chair off his desk. It clatters noisily as it lands on the floor. Once seated, he slumps forward and leans his head on his arms. “Oh no—it’s going to be one of those days!” you say to yourself.

With Charlie, there are lots of days like this, especially after the weekend. But what you do next can make a big difference to Charlie’s day, to your day, and to his overall experience in school.

We know that students don’t come to school as blank slates ready to receive instruction. Life experiences, both in and out of school, leave their mark every day and have an impact on students’ ability to learn. If those experiences are difficult ones (such as witnessing domestic violence, living with food insecurity, or being abused themselves), their ability to cope may be overwhelmed. And then what you’ll see in the classroom are difficult behaviors for you to cope with. Students with these experiences can become angry and aggressive at school or withdrawn and uncooperative.

While all students need to feel safe and supported in order to learn, it’s especially important for students like Charlie who might get further overwhelmed at school. Without that safety and support, his behavior could easily escalate.

So how do you create the safety and support Charlie needs? Here are some tips to help you get started—and these tips apply to all of your other students too.

 

Tip 1: Respond to His Behaviors in a Supportive Way

Do a SELF-CHECK to calm down so you can respond to his behavior in a calm, supportive way. You can use the Calming-Down Steps students learn in their Second Step lessons:

  1. Stop.
  2. Name your feeling.
  3. Calm down: breathe, count, use positive self-talk.

Do a CHILD CHECK to help you reframe Charlie’s behavior so you can understand what the behavior is telling you. Thinking of the behavior through a supportive frame rather than a corrective frame can help you respond appropriately and avoid blaming or punishing him for his behavior.

Corrective frame                                                 Supportive frame 

Charlie is a problem.                                           What is Charlie experiencing in his life?

What’s wrong with him?                                      What is he trying to say with his behavior?

I need to correct his behavior.                            I need to support him.

Once you’ve done the Self-Check and the Child Check, you’re ready to RESPOND to his behavior in a supportive way by listening to him, showing empathy, and providing him with support.

 

Tip 2: Help Him Feel Safe in Your Classroom

Charlie will engage better with learning if he feels safe in your classroom. How you act and speak can make a big difference to his sense of safety. When you use a calm voice, smile with your eyes and mouth, and show friendly, relaxed body language you will send him a clear message that he doesn’t need to feel afraid of you. When you provide him with consistent expectations and predictable routines, he will know he can count on you. Finally, when you choose respectful, nonjudgmental words to address his behaviors, he will not feel attacked as a person and will be more willing to think about his own behaviors.

 

Tip 3: Build a Positive Relationship with Him

When you clearly indicate that you want to have a positive relationship with Charlie, he will begin to feel like he belongs in your classroom. You can do this by greeting him every morning by name and connecting briefly with him at some point during the day and for a longer time during the week. Use these times to find out about his interests and his family. And as it’s all too easy for you to notice only his negative behaviors, make sure to notice and reinforce any positive behaviors you observe.

However, it’s important to note that students who are dealing with adverse experiences (and possibly suffering trauma as a result) may have a limited ability to form a relationship. But using the relationship-building strategies anyway will still help Charlie feel supported.

 

Tip 4: Support His Success by Building Skills

Charlie needs strategies to manage his response to whatever is going on in his life. Using the Second Step program in your classroom will help Charlie build self-regulation skills and be a better learner. It will also develop the social-emotional skills he needs to identify his feelings, manage his emotions, and solve problems with other students.

Finally, consider working with a counselor or other mental health professional to determine any individual accommodations that Charlie might need to feel safe, supported, and successful in school.

If you continue to feel concerned about Charlie, find an opportunity to talk with him about your concerns. Once he feels safe and supported by you, he is more likely to tell you what is going on in his life. And if he discloses abuse or neglect, intervene to protect him by reporting it to child protective services.

Some children when overwhelmed act out like Charlie, others become withdrawn, anxious, or even invisible in your classroom. Paying attention to these types of changes in behavior can help you identify children who internalize their distress and need to feel safe and supported too. If you have a gut feeling of concern about a child that’s not engaging in learning, become curious about what the child’s behavior is telling you.

The Second Step Child Protection Unit’s Student Support Plan captures all the above tips in one place in a simple form you can complete for an individual child you are concerned about. Download it here.