Student wellbeing and engagement have a reciprocal relationship. Each influences the other such that more engagement leads to improvements in wellbeing, and improved wellbeing leads to increased engagement. It is well known that students who feel safe physically are better prepared to learn. It is equally true that students who are emotionally safe are better prepared to excel in learning. This is true at a physiological level.
Laura Erlauer (author of Brain-Compatible Classroom) explains how students’ day to day experiences in school can create an atmosphere of emotional safety that maximizes wellbeing and learning1. One important aspect of students’ experiences is creating an emotionally safe environment. To create this, each and every staff member within the school must have the ability and knowledge to build and strengthen the school environment. Implementing strategies that are simple, based on research and can be easily integrated is the first step to developing a safe school environment.
Engage in Active Listening
Active listening is an important skill that allows students to express their thoughts without fear of judgment. Active listening is defined as the ability to focus completely on a speaker, understand their message, comprehend the information and respond thoughtfully. Students should not quickly jump ahead to respond to the speaker, but instead take their time to reflect on the conversation. By summarizing the speaker's main points, this shows that the listener is engaged and that the speaker's contributions are highly valued. Good listeners will also try to include other students into the conversations. Research shows that when there is one person who always initiates new discussions this can restrict others from sharing their ideas and opinions 2. Bringing other students into the conversation helps them feel comfortable to open up and express their thoughts and ideas.
Teachers should also use active listening with their students. Dr. Patricia Deklotz, Superintendent of Kettle Moraine School District says “Listen to students and take the time to nurture the human element”. It is the small gestures such as listening to your students talk about a non-school related topic that can be extremely useful in promoting a supportive and caring environment. Listening to your students helps to bring their guard down, builds trust, and consequently improves their wellbeing.
Encourage student participation
Students should feel safe to participate and ask any questions they may have. One important approach to encourage this behavior is by allowing students to make mistakes. Building a mistake-friendly school environment, so students are not ashamed about making these mistakes and to contribute even if they have the wrong answer. Motivate your students to not give up easily and to continue to work on a correct solution using the mistake as a learning tool. As cognitive neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Harvard doctoral candidate Matthias Faeth write, "Students will allow themselves to experience failure only if they can do so within an atmosphere of trust and respect."
Empathy is also an effective method to encourage classroom participation. Let your students know that you are understanding and you acknowledge their fear of being wrong and that it’s ok if they are. Communicate this with your students, “I know this is a hard topic and if you’re struggling with it, that is ok and to be expected. Let’s discuss the challenges you are finding and work through it.” You are then showing that a wrong answer is responded with respect rather than an opportunity to highlight their weaknesses. By making the environment safe for students, they can confidently take the risks required for real engaged learning and improving their wellbeing.
Students will allow themselves to experience failure only if they can do so within an atmosphere of trust and respect.
Cultivate a sense of belonging
The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment 3 has reported that approximately one-quarter of young people do not feel a sense of belonging at school. Maximizing students’ sense of belonging in the classroom and whole school helps drive an emotionally safe environment. Research supports this, students have higher levels of emotional and physical wellbeing when students have a sense of belonging in school. It has the greatest potential to impact on those students who struggle the most to build effective relationships.
In addition to prioritizing your relationship with students, you should also focus on increasing positive peer relationships. Switch around partners and groups, and encourage students to get to know one another. Help students to join ongoing group activities and support roles where they can fully participate. One activity could be a morning meeting at least once a week. Before the meeting, create a few cards with conversation starters written on them, for example “Give one compliment to the person on your right” or “If you could be any animal, what would it be?” Each student chooses a different card and goes round the circle answering the questions, this helps students to bond and identify similarities.
Incorporate collaborative learning activities such as group or pair discussions to encourage social interactions. By using collaborative groups, this will allow students to practice and observe appropriate social interactions with their peers. Collaborative learning potentially promotes deep learning, in which students engage in high-quality social interaction, such as discussing contradictory information 4. The development of teamwork and mutual respect among students creates a sense of community. This sense of community and belonging fosters acceptance, collaboration and results in a positive, emotionally safe environment.
Ensure that every student feels valued, listened to, respected and part of the group so you can foster an emotionally safe school environment. Student wellbeing and learning are improved when both students and teachers engage in active listening, students encouraged to participate without any judgement and they have a sense of belonging through collaborative learning and social activities.
(1) Erlauer, L. (2003). The brain-compatible classroom: Using what we know about learning to improve teaching. Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
(2) Mark T. Palmer (1989) Controlling conversations: Turns, topics and interpersonal control, Communication Monographs, 56:1, 1-18, DOI: 10.1080/03637758909390246
(3) OECD (2002c), Programme for International Student Assessment – PISA 2000 Technical Report, OECD, Paris.
(4) Visschers-Pleijers, A. J. S. F., Dolmans, D. H. J. M., De Leng, B. A., Wolfhagen, I. H. A. P., Van Der Vleuten, C. P. M. (2006). Analysis of verbal interactions in tutorial groups: A process study. Medical Education, 40, 129-137.