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Emotionally Safe Schools

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Creating an emotionally safe school is essential in developing intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence (Bluestein, 2001). Emotionally safe schools can be established through creating environments where children feel safe, can take risks, are challenged but not overly stressed, and where play, pleasure, and fun are facilitated (Bluestein, 2001).

Safety

In order for trust to be established, children must feel safe (Bluestein, 2001). If a child goes to school with fear of being bullied, beat up, or murdered, personal intelligence (along with most other intelligences) is not going to develop appropriately. A safe environment is created by not allowing one child to invade another child’s body, space, and material boundaries. A safe environment is one which has clear expectations regarding the safety of all students. Bullying is not tolerated. Conflict resolution skills are taught and modeled by teachers.

Risk Taking

An emotionally safe school allows the child to fail without feeling he is a failure (Bluestein, 2001). Appropriate challenges are facilitated by teachers. Children are not pressured to receive a particular grade or obtain a particular score. Children are expected to debate, discuss, and problem solve. If they come to an incorrect solution, they are encouraged to try again or to try another method of problem solving. Children are not belittled, punished, or embarrassed when they do not succeed or meet their own goals. The child’s worth is not determined by his test score or performance. The child is valued because she is a member of the class. In an emotionally safe classroom, teachers make mistakes. They share these mistakes with children and sometimes elicit the children’s help in solving their problem.

Stress

Contemporary schoolchildren bring many forms of stress with them to the classroom. The stress can take the form of academic pressure, familial pressure to perform, being part of a single-parent family, hurried schedules, and pressure to grow up too fast (Elkind, 1988; Bluestein, 2001). The pressure can come from school, home, or the media.

Stress causes wear on bodily systems and when one is overstressed, the immune system can be directly affected. Stress uses up energy reserves, demands a greater amount of energy, and forces the body to respond physically through aggression, outbursts, or illness (Elkind, 1988).

Stress can be reduced by making sure children’s basic needs are met, they feel safe, and they are able to take risks without fear of failure; and by having appropriate expectations of children at specific ages.

Play, Pleasure, and Fun

Part of developing intrapersonal intelligence is being able to freely engage in pleasurable experiences and recognizing that pleasure, fun, and play are a normal and healthy part of life. Play can encourage the personal intelligences in a variety of ways. A quiet center can be incorporated into the classroom. This is a space where the child can retreat, rest, be alone, work on journals, or calm down. Soft, soothing sensory materials can be available for children to look at or touch. A cardboard box for a child to crawl into with pillows and blankets can be created for children who need to get away from the normal routine for a few minutes. (This is not used as a punishment, but as a child-initiated or teacher-suggested experience to help a child who needs to be alone for a few minutes.)

Puppetry can offer the child an opportunity to communicate feelings and emotions in a nonthreatening environment. The author has made some interesting observations as a puppeteer. Children often try opposite roles with puppets. For example, a child who responds very physically or aggressively will often choose a shy or timid puppet. An introverted child will often choose an aggressive, loud, or large puppet. Children with emotional disorders often prefer to share emotions through the use of a puppet.

The dramatic play area can have props available to encourage children to explore different familial and community roles. Children can begin to establish empathy through role-playing and risk-taking. The dramatic play and music area can also offer culturally appropriate props and instruments. Props that accurately represent various cultures that are relevant to the children’s lives can be available for exploration and play.

The personal intelligences can be integrated throughout the rest of the classroom with appropriate facilitation. If a conflict arises between two children, the teacher can help facilitate a resolution. The conflict can be resolved by helping the children to verbalize the situation and allowing each child to state her/his side of the conflict. Acknowledge the child’s feelings with words such as, “I can see that made you angry,” or “I can see that you are frustrated by this.” This validates the child’s feelings without judging them. After both sides have been stated, encourage the children to discuss and brainstorm possible solutions to the problem. The teacher should then accept the solution (as long as it respects the safety of the children involved), even if the teacher disagrees with it. This type of conflict resolution encourages the child to take responsibility for the situation, encourages negotiation, and values each child’s ideas and input.

In addition to stress, risk-taking, safety, and fun, teachers also have a responsibility for bringing experiences into the class that are emotionally relevant. Emotional relevance depends upon many factors. Culture, age, developmental level, interest, and experiences influence emotional relevance (Hyson, 1994). Hyson (1994, p. 84) advocates materials that “encourage children to talk about, write about, and play about emotionally important ideas.” For example, if a plane crashes nearby and children in the class know about it, planes, ambulances, policemen/women, EMTs, and hospital props would be necessary for children to express the events emotionally and cognitively. If a new baby were expected in the home, new baby dolls and care props (diapers, bottles, pacifiers, etc.) would be added to the housekeeping center. Through providing meaningful emotional experiences, a sense of community develops that greatly influences the child’s emotional development.

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