5 Ways To Help Children Feel Safe
If you took an introductory psychology or child development class, you might remember learning about Abraham Maslow and his suggestion that all people have a Hierarchy of Needs. Before advancing to a higher level of actualization, the level before it should be satisfied. It makes perfect sense that before you can concentrate on love and relationships you must have food, sleep and shelter checked off of your list of needs. Before you can concentrate on learning, you must feel safe and protected.
It is becoming more and more common that we have children in our classrooms in survival mode. They occasionally come to school hungry, cold, or tired. Makes it hard to learn. Some parents struggle to pay bills or lose their jobs, or the family is divided. Makes it hard to learn. It’s also true that sometimes we are asked to teach a particularly anxious child–one who has difficulty feeling safe. Can’t learn then either. As we set up our classrooms and prepare our academic lessons and high expectations, we have to remind ourselves that while we know that our students are physically and emotionally safe, we must take the time every school year to help them believe it as well.
Strong Relationships Are Key
Except in extreme cases, children come to us with basic needs met, but even more important for their intellectual development is that they have a nurturing and consistent relationship. This is most true for babies and young children. By the time they reach our door there has already been an abundance of experiences with their caregivers that hopefully have fostered warmth, intimacy, furnished security, physical safety, and protection from harm. Good relationships have taught appropriate behaviors through facial expression, tone of voice, gestures and words. Emotions are actually the internal architects, conductors, or organizers of our minds according to Brazelton and Greenspan.
Relationships enable a child to learn and think. This is why a substantial portion of our precious class time in the beginning must be spent crafting authentic individual relationships with our students. We are their new nurturers during the day, and we must be sure that their basic needs are filled before we can begin to teach. Physical needs, of course, but emotional safety as well. Children in our care need to feel safe to feel, safe to fail, and safe to be themselves.
Every child feels anxious to a different degree in the fall until we can do these five not so simple things to help them feel safe.
Number 1: Foster Trust
The children’s eyes are on you all day long and they listen to every word. They are masters at spotting fakes. How to you communicate? Do you kneel down to their level and smile? A gentle touch and kind tone of voice tell children at a glance that you are kind and caring. Do you soothe children in distress with honest concern? Do you listen so they know they are heard? How do you handle your frustration? Do you notice (not praise) good things children do? Do you keep your promises and follow through? You have to earn trust.
You want your students to say to themselves, “I can believe what my teacher tells me. She cares about us always, even when we act up. I trust her.”
Number 2: Consistency Is King
Routine is critical for young children, as I am sure you know. The first teacher I ever worked under took it to the extreme. She washed her outfit every night and wore it again for the entire first week of school, telling me that it helped the children identify her more quickly in a classroom full of “new.” She was right to respect and honor the fact that large amounts of “new” can be stressful for young children.
Making small changes in the order or content of the day makes sense to us, but can be confusing or even upsetting for them. For instance, having a familiar but different adult greet them in the morning, having them rush to finish lunch, or skipping story time can keep children guessing and on “high alert.” Especially in the beginning of the year, keep things as consistent as possible. The adult faces they see every day, the songs you sing together, the sequence of activities, and the rules all need to be predictable and in place.
You want your students to say to themselves, “I know what to expect. If something changes, there is a very good reason, and it will be explained to me. I can relax and think about learning.”
Number 3: Freedom within Boundaries
The routine that was described above is called “temporal” order. We do things in the same sequence every day, but we allow plenty of choices and freedom within the boundaries of our schedule. Decision making is a critical skill for all children to acquire, so let them practice and practice some more. They will learn more from their good and bad decisions than they will from our rules.
The playground is an easy example to understand. Adults tend to create way too many rules. On our playground we huddle up on the very first day. All I say is, “There are just two rules: Be safe and be kind.” That’s all they need. From then on, we decide every disagreement or infraction based on that simple framework. Less is more.
You want your students to say to themselves, “I can make many choices at school, but I know exactly where the boundaries are and don’t feel like I need to test them.”
Number 4: Rhythm and Balance
The goal here is to design spaces and activities that help children learn to self-regulate their emotions and their own rhythms. Encourage children to follow their personal needs for space, stimulation, quiet, challenge, and comfort. Some children need a break from the bright lighting or need some time to warm up to being with friends in the early morning. Some don’t want to work at a group table and others aren’t comfortable working alone. Create the time and choice for busy activity and rest, socialization and alone time, focused concentration and daydreaming, indoors and outdoors. If we provide a well-balanced diet of activity and rest, children will learn ways to personally handle their stress.
You want your students to say to themselves, “I know what I need to feel calm and happy, and I can find it at my school.”
Number 5: Help them Trust Themselves
Begin by saying, “Yes!” whenever possible. Many adults are guilty of overprotecting young ones from trying. Climbing a tree, cutting the carrots, ice skating, standing up on the slide, drilling the hole, reading a book, carrying the platter, playing in the stream. Instead, say, “Yes…what do you need to keep yourself safe while you do that?” “Yes…what skills do you think you might need to work on first?” “Yes…what will you need to keep yourself warm?” “Yes!!”
Help children find confidence. Help them think about risk assessment, learn their own limits, and how to set goals. Help them see that practice and perseverance are allies, not opponents. Many young children start out by thinking they are all powerful until we crush them often enough by saying “No.” If we don’t trust them, how can they ever trust themselves?
You want your students to say to themselves, “My ideas are good ones. I will get help only when I actually need it. I can do hard things if I work hard.”
I guess we’ve come full circle now, back to basic trust. Be the adult who trusts and can be trusted. If we devote real time and thought to building trust… look out, because children who are physically and emotionally ready to concentrate on learning are amazing to behold!