Safety and Security

Most students need a strong sense of comfort and safety from both physical and emotional abuse and criticism in their classrooms. Teachers need to have enough order that students do not intimidate, bully, insult, or overly criticize each other. You achieve this sense of positive order by teaching and developing positive social skills. Students do well when they believe that they can depend on the teacher and their classmates. This comfort is achieved by rules and regulations in the classroom that are sensible and consistently enforced. Teachers build a trusting relationship by helping and encouraging students and by stopping inappropriate behavior, such as racial and gender harassment.

At all ages, students are very sensitive to what they perceive as unequal treatment. When students believe that their teacher favors some students over others, conflict grows in the classroom, and their trust in the teacher declines.

In secondary schools, teachers have more students and therefore often know them less well. Secondary teachers place more emphasis on teaching subject matter, and some tend to place less emphasis on serving as coach, mentor, counselor, or cultural mediator. The lack of opportunity to develop personal relationships and the variety of teacher and student personalities create alienation. Students want to be listened to and respected as human beings with wants, desires, fears, and emotions (Valenzuela, 1999).

Over the years, students need to develop a strong sense of security, and they should have the opportunity to develop a trusting personal relationship with some teachers and students. For some students, the school’s teams, clubs, and student government projects contribute to this important sense of belonging. Each student should encounter at least one teacher or counselor who is interesting and motivating each day. If this does not occur, the school will lose the student. Without positive personal relationships, schools become warehouses for students rather than learning centers.

Teachers and students without a sense of security develop symptoms of stress, anxiety, and alienation. They resist change to a multicultural paradigm. When schools are full of interethnic conflict, bullying, or sexual harassment, the violent environment prevents many students from learning. Human relations lessons and strategies, such as those found in the curriculum The Wonderful World of Difference (B’nai B’rith Antidefamation League, 1996), help to build classrooms where students feel safe and comfortable.


When schools serve students well, students develop a sense of self-worth and competence and come to expect to succeed at classroom and social projects. The curriculum should be planned and presented so that all students succeed each day.

In the primary years, students should learn to read. If they are not successful readers, additional support in the form of increased teacher time, tutors, and special instruction along with a rich variety of reading strategies must be provided so that students learn to love reading and so that they do not fall behind (Slavin, 1998). Learning successful reading skills and acquiring joy and interest in reading contribute to a positive sense of self-worth in school.

A strong relationship exists between poverty (social class) and reading scores (Finn, 1999). Teachers of grades 4 through 8 need to help students to improve their reading. Lessons in history, science, and literature should systematically include high-interest literature, allow students choice, and emphasize skill development.

Upper elementary school students (grades 4–6) and middle school students (grades 6–8) also improve their sense of self-worth by learning to set immediate, accomplishable goals and establishing clear criteria for achieving them. With clear goals and lessons, students can recognize and improve their study and interpersonal skills. Quality literature and guest speakers can regularly present positive lifestyle choices to students.

Students who believe themselves competent become more willing to take risks. They generally feel successful at important tasks and school subjects. Such students are willing to share their ideas and opinions and to recognize the accomplishments of other students. Too often teachers use theories of motivation based on the competitive tendencies in the macroculture and poorly informed teacher folk knowledge about testing, measurement, and grading (Nichols & Berliner, 2007).

Students in supportive environments develop a positive sense of self. Violence, drug use, and alienation among teenagers indicate a struggle for a clear identity. Students bridging two or more cultures and identities may suffer increased stress and conflict as they develop their own identities (Foley, 2001). Literature and lessons about teen conflicts, challenges, and successes offer opportunities for support. Students need to find themselves and recognize their conflicts in the curriculum, and the literature used must include teens from the cultures represented in the classroom. As a consequence of political power, state content standards often are ethnocentric and impede inclusion of diverse literature and authors.

A process of supporting students through asset development has been devised developed by the Search Institute and others (Scales & Leffert, 1999). This approach focuses on building on the students’ strengths, such as energy and creativity. Focusing on strengths can help students develop resiliency to deal with serious problems, such as teen pregnancy, violence, and dropping out of school.

Sense of Belonging

Students at all ages have a strong need to belong to groups. The desire to fit in provides a major source of motivation and—at times—challenges to school rules. Students may feel conflicting desires to belong to an ethnic or cultural group, girls’ or boys’ athletic teams, or any one of a number of other groups. Learning to work positively within a social group is important to maturity.

Students strengthen their sense of self-worth when they receive recognition, approval, appreciation, and respect from their peers. Lessons should promote inclusion and acceptance of all students. You can promote these important feelings in the classroom by using cooperative and collaborative learning and classroom projects. Lessons should draw on the diversity of languages and skills students bring to school. Make every attempt to recognize leaders, authors, scientists, filmmakers, and teachers from all cultural groups.

Deliberately developing peer support groups and recognizing the diversity of talents—for language, music, math, social leadership, and so on—help students to develop a sense of belonging to one or more of the groups in school.

By adolescence, group affiliation can at times challenge school rules and norms. Teen culture, like African American, Latino, or teacher culture, must be respected. If schools set themselves against teen culture, the conflict will destroy many students. Only negative aspects of teen culture, such as drugs, violence, and theft, should be opposed (Garcia, 2001; Reveles, 2000). In the many classrooms and schools that seek to impose a Euro-centered culture and to defeat teen culture, student conflict and opposition can reach destructive levels. Defeated students withdraw from school and peers; they become isolated, alienated, lonely, and, at times, dangerous to themselves and to others.

Principals have turned to peer conflict resolution and gang and narcotics units of police departments to augment inadequate resources for gang intervention. Students need to be recruited and encouraged to support the positive aspects of school through clubs, team building, conflict resolution, and leadership development programs. The school must become a student-friendly, safe environment.


The theories of promotion of positive self-esteem derive primarily from a humanistic psychology that has taken too-limited notice of cultural differences. Behavior that would illustrate a positive self-concept in one culture, such as assertiveness, might be interpreted as a sign of poor education in another (Bruner, 1996). Separate from this debate, teachers have developed a series of classroom strategies to encourage students to conduct themselves appropriately.

A Sense of Direction

Although young students often accept the direction of their parents and the school, by adolescence many students are redefining their roles and their choices. Some students need repeated lessons on setting goals and establishing their own sense of responsibility and direction. Students can learn to make decisions and identify consequences. Experiential education programs and outdoor programs help students with goal setting and motivation. Through coaching and counseling, teachers can help students make preliminary career and college choices. Teachers serving as advisors to clubs—such as MECHA, MAYA, African American clubs, ski clubs, teams, and journalism clubs—often play important roles in helping students to define and to select their future.

A Sense of Purpose

Students succeed more when they have a sense of purpose to their school life. Essentially, success at school is their job. School needs to prove its worth to them. Students benefit from lessons on and experiences with decision making and cooperative problem solving.

Teachers encourage positive self-esteem when they recognize, validate, and respect students’ own cultures. Cooperative learning and other human relations strategies teach students how to achieve positive interdependence and how to create and maintain a cooperative working environment . Students learn the rewards of shared responsibility and cooperation.

Teachers make decisions to structure their classrooms in ways that encourage learning and cooperation or in ways that produce anxiety, frustration, competition, failure, and disruption. In particular, a highly competitive classroom environment discourages trust and cooperation. Some students always lose, and these students legitimately feel alienated and angry. Students must come to trust that the teacher has their own best interests at heart, even in difficult times. Teachers achieve this goal by demonstrating their respect for the fundamental dignity and worth of each student (Valenzuela, 1999).

Stopping Demeaning Comments

Too often, particularly in grades 4 through 10, classrooms are the scene of bullying, intolerance, and demeaning comments among students. All students deserve a safe environment in which to learn. Teachers should prohibit demeaning and derogatory comments, particularly those that invite racial and gender conflict (see Chapter 8). Teachers need to work against this intolerance by presenting lessons and activities that promote tolerance and respect and lessons that oppose scapegoating.

You improve your classroom climate by modeling positive, supportive communications skills and by teaching these skills to students. The great majority of interactions in classrooms are among students. You can influence and encourage respect in these interactions by teaching positive skills. Lessons in listening actively, using “I” messages, and negotiating conflicts show students how to treat each other with respect.

Teaching democratic participation and decision making encourages positive self-esteem.