The task of being a school aged child is difficult. Each academic year brings increasing challenges, expectations to stretch and learn and grow, social dynamics, and all of the developmental tasks that are included in child and adolescent development. Increasingly, feeling safe at school has been added to the stressors that kids face. In addition to increasing accounts of school violence, bullying, and increased hate crimes in schools and college campuses, there are increased pressures within social rules and roles, including cyber-factors that simply weren’t there 20-30 years ago.
Regardless of the changes that our society has been faced with, we have an obligation to help kids feel safe at school. When children and adolescents don’t feel safe, they don’t perform as well in school, they have less engagement in academic and extracurricular activities, both of which are long term predictors of success. The solution involves the whole system. After recent national news events, such as horrific school shootings, an outcry to increase safety included placing armed officers on campuses, and using metal detectors and lock down procedures. The results have been mixed, and the children and adolescents themselves report feeling less safe with the presence of these increased measures, as it draws attention to a problem that kids never wanted to think about. Conversely, school campuses with improved maintenance, newer facilities, and more green spaces has translated to better social – emotional learning. The environment is one aspect to helping kids feel safe.
Using a “Whole Child” approach helps as well. Increasing community engagement, increasing family collaboration and connection with school and with learning, and addressing children holistically, are markers of this approach. This also includes personalized learning, which is a shift away from standardized tests and performance indicators. This is not to say that academic rigor is not important; conversely, it is the combination of academic challenges along with emotional and social supports that translates to the best outcomes for kids.
Children with high stress, or traumatic experiences, are at a particular risk. The number of children impacted by these definitions are likely higher than you’d guess. In the United States, 34 million children have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE), which can include abuse, neglect, or trauma. For many children, teachers are some of the more stable adult figures in a child’s life, and warmth and understanding is critical. Knowing how to respond, how to help children open up when they don’t feel safe, and teaching kids how to support and advocate for one another is powerful. Many classrooms are incorporating strategies like emotional learning, coping and self-regulation, and direct social teaching. The payoff is huge – kids are experiencing fewer out of classroom disciplinary consequences, create more powerful relationships within the classroom, and are better equipped with tools and technique to use in their out-of-classroom lives, as well.
All children have the right to feel safe at school, but it can take a community to help make that a reality. Parent and family member involvement, communication, and community outreach are starting points, as well as the shift towards more individualized and holistic learning. One of the most critical factors is that the helpers and healers within the school environment receive support too! To prevent teacher and administration burn out, be proactive about your own mental health and support needs. These things tend to trickle down, and support begets support.