When Students Return: How to Create a Safe and Welcoming Learning Environment

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

When Students Return: How to Create a Safe and Welcoming Learning Environment As summer comes to a close, many of us are looking ahead to the beginning of a new school year. Some of us may feel trepidation about the coming year, considering what we all went through over the past year. I know that many students are feeling anxious about the full-time return to in-person learning. So, to assist both our students and ourselves in getting back into the swing, I have some suggestions for you to start the year off right.

As I’ve stated many times, “How we feel about a learning setting determines the focus of our attention.” Significant research suggests that a student’s emotional state has a strong impact on what and how much they learn. To ensure that students are ready for the complexity of thinking, we need to ensure the learning environment is safe, welcoming, and nurturing of each child’s development.

In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow introduced his theory of human motivation development through a hierarchy of needs. His theory postulates that we move from meeting basic human needs such as food, shelter, and water, security, and safety, to the psychological needs of belongingness and self-esteem, to ultimately reaching self-fulfillment such as achieving one’s full potential. I’ve used this model to craft ways to start your year off right by building a solid foundation of the basic human needs and a sense of safety in the classroom. Consider the following four categories to support the emotional growth of your students from the very beginning.

Predictability in the Environment

Students who may be dealing with high levels of stress and anxiety need to know what they will encounter each day. This is also true for students diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit disorder (ADD), or a learning difference (LD). Additionally, some students have highly unpredictable home settings. Making sure students know what to expect and how to make changes throughout the day will be critical at the beginning of the school year.

Ideas for establishing predictability:

  • Ensure that classroom rules/norms are clearly understood by every child and that these norms are framed in the positive. Three or four general statements are all you need, such as:
    • Be prepared to learn.
    • Be accepting of yourself and others.
    • Be helpful to others.
  • Post timelines, schedules, or schedule changes for all students to see.
  • Clearly state and address lesson objectives throughout the learning cycle.
  • Ensure that students know the consequences and rewards for classroom interactions and behavioral expectations.
  • When changes do happen, give students sufficient time to adjust or prepare for the shift.

Feeling Secure in the Learning Environment

One of the most basic functions of our brain is to seek out safety. In fact, our brain is constantly scanning the environment for those things that could injure or kill us. To move students’ brains out this fear-based survival mode and into higher cognitive functioning, here are some ideas for creating a safe classroom space:

  • Teach students that mistakes are opportunities to grow. Share your own experiences and growth from making mistakes! Kids need to know it’s okay to make mistakes and that your classroom is a safe place to do so.
  • Establish guidelines ensuring that all classroom members use positive and affirming language—there is no room in any classroom for deficit thinking, sarcasm, put-downs, or bullying.
  • Organize the classroom in a way that promotes interactions among learners, such as pods, desk groupings, or students facing each other during the learning process.
  • Guide all students to be supportive of each other and offer encouragement when things get challenging.
  • In the classroom, post student work that shows exceptional effort and success.

Consistency in Mood and Management

Along with the desire for predictability in the classroom, students also need to know there is consistency in how the classroom is managed. Equity and accountability are the cornerstones to developing a socially just learning space. To ensure consistency, I suggest:

  • Apply classroom rules/norms equally and equitably.
  • Be sure that all students understand and agree to the norms of respectful classroom interactions, discussions, group work, and independent work. Such norms might include:
    • All students’ ideas are valued.
    • Intellectual risk-taking is encouraged.
    • Each person contributes to the best of their abilities.
  • Reference learning objectives routinely throughout the learning process.
  • Strive to remain even-keeled when dealing with stressful or difficult situations. The reliability of the teacher’s persona is particularly important to creating an enjoyable learning space.
  • Demonstrate organization and display a sense of confidence.

Feeling Comfortable in the Classroom

Another of our human traits is to want a space of our own. Students will spend anywhere between 45 minutes to six hours a day in the classroom, so it’s important that it be comfortable and conducive to learning. Here are some ideas to increase the comfort of your classroom:

  • Be sure that each student has a seat or other place of their own to conduct their learning. This can be a desk, a beanbag, a couch, a high-top table, or a space on the carpet. Allowing students some flexibility around where and how they like to learn gives them a sense of ownership.
  • Make sure the lighting is appropriate to the learning situation, such as not being too low when viewing a screen and taking notes.
  • Keep noise to a minimum and ensure that it’s appropriate to what’s happening during learning.
  • Avoid strong odors, such as heavy perfume, air fresheners and incense—these can be very distracting without students recognizing it.
  • Smile, smile, smile! There a science to smiling—when we smile, our brain stimulates our reward system and increases the level of “happy hormones,” or endorphins.

You may have noticed that the ideas in this framework are tied into social and emotional learning (SEL). In fact, SEL is a key part of developing self-regulation for learning (SRL). To support our students’ needs, we must make sure our classroom environment pays attention to their social and emotional growth as well as their development of self-regulation.

Let me know how these ideas work for you, and what other ways you encourage kids to feel safe, secure, and a part of your classroom community as you begin the school year.

Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition

Differentiation For Gifted Learners


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About Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

Writes the "Cash in on Learning" post series for Free Spirit Publishing.
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