Why Every Classroom Needs a Safe Space for Students
Over the last several years, schools have increasingly recognized the importance of social-emotional learning.
Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which people understand and manage their emotions, achieve goals, feel empathy for others, maintain positive relationships, and make responsible choices. These factors all contribute to a positive school climate where students can learn.
As the understanding of SEL has increased, so has the use of classroom safe spaces, often described as “SEL in action.”
What Are Safe Spaces?
Safe spaces are places where children can go to calm down, be alone, and recharge so they are ready to learn.
Experts know that when children don’t feel safe or are in a state of emotional upset, they can’t learn. Safe spaces are an effective way to help children return to a relaxed state that is optimal for learning.
These spaces also support social-emotional learning because they provide children with tools to manage and regulate their emotions.
Although safe spaces are helpful for all children, they are especially effective for children with high levels of stress or trauma. These children often come to school feeling sad, scared, or angry. Having a safe space allows them to relax enough to learn, which is vital for leveling the playing field.
Safe spaces are classroom management, self-regulation, and social-emotional learning tools that promote healing and teach healthy life skills.
What Do Safe Spaces Look Like?
Safe spaces don’t have to be fancy. You just need a cozy nook in the classroom (where you can still see the child and the child can see the classroom).
Ask your students for input on what to put in the safe space. In general, you may have comfortable seating like bean bag chairs, as well as stress balls, stuffed animals or pillows, books, pictures of friends and family, or anything else your students may find calming.
Best Practices for Safe Spaces
If you decide to implement a safe space, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Never use the safe space as a time-out or order a student to go to the safe space. Students should choose when they need the safe space to transition from upset to calm. You may invite a child to the safe space if you think it would be helpful, but it shouldn’t be a command.
- Introduce the safe space gradually. Talk to students about the purpose of the safe space. Discuss tools and strategies they can use to calm down while in the safe space. Model how to use the safe space, and post visuals nearby that show children what to do.
- You may even appoint a trusted safe space helper to guide children through the process when they’re feeling upset.
- Ask children to help design the safe space. What items would help them feel safe and calm? Items in the safe space may include those listed above, in addition to headphones, journals or pens/paper, soothing music or nature sounds, and manipulatives that give children something to do with their hands.
Safe Spaces in Action: The Safe Place
Safe spaces can be called by many names and take many different forms, but one effective example is the Conscious Discipline Safe Place.
Conscious Discipline is a leading social-emotional learning program. The Safe Place is the centerpiece of the program’s self-regulation coaching.
The Safe Place is similar to other safe spaces, but it intentionally walks children through three key steps:
- I Calm (calming down)
- I Feel (identifying the feeling that led to their upset)
- I Choose (deciding on a strategy to manage the feeling)
These steps provide some structure to the safe space that helps children successfully move from upset to calm (and ready to learn).
I Calm activities shut off the brain’s “fight or flight” response with deep breathing exercises. This allows children to calm themselves enough to move on to the next steps in the self-regulation process.
These breathing exercises involve taking three deep breaths, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth. The exhale must be longer than the inhale.
Conscious Discipline uses four fun, kid-friendly exercises: S.T.A.R, Drain, Balloon, and Pretzel. However, there are many ways you can teach children to breathe.
Safe Places are usually equipped with images of the four breathing icons to remind children how to take deep breaths and calm themselves. These breathing strategies are practiced in classrooms on a regular basis.
Next, students identify how they are feeling. Labeling an emotion often makes it less scary and easier to manage.
Conscious Discipline supports students in identifying their feelings through the use of Feeling Buddies. Alternatively, you can use Feeling Faces or a How Do You Feel Chart, available as free downloads.
You may also create your own feelings chart. The key idea is to provide students with visuals that help them label their emotions. Some Safe Places also have mirrors with the words, “How do you feel?” to aid children in “naming and taming” their emotions.
Once children have identified what they’re feeling, they choose an activity to help them self-regulate. These choices are related to the items in the Safe Place and may include journaling, drawing a picture, reading a book, hugging a teddy bear, squeezing a stress ball, etc.
You can draw a chart (or make one with clip art) that shows children their options, or you can use a Conscious Discipline I Choose Self-Control Board. On the board, children indicate how they are feeling and which activity they’ve chosen by moving Velcro Feeling Faces and Velcro self-regulation activities.
After a child has completed the calming activity, they will likely feel prepared to rejoin the class ready to learn.
So, the process is as follows:
- A child feels upset and goes to the Safe Place.
- The student takes deep breaths to begin calming down.
- The child identifies how they’re feeling with support from visuals, a mirror, etc.
- Finally, the student chooses a self-regulation activity, which can be as simple as writing in a journal or hugging a teddy bear for a few minutes.
Introducing the Safe Place
Like any other safe space, the Safe Place should be gradually introduced to students. According to Conscious Discipline founder Dr. Becky Bailey, some teachers set up a Safe Place behind a yellow ribbon.
Naturally, students are curious and begin asking questions. You can start by teaching one step of the Safe Place process at a time.
First, work on calming breathing strategies until you feel your students have mastered them. Then, practice identifying emotions. Finally, talk to students about strategies they can use to calm down. Show them the items you currently have in your Safe Place, and ask if anything is missing that would be helpful.
Model the use of the Safe Place and have students practice walking through the three steps. When you and your students are ready, have a ribbon-cutting ceremony that officially opens the Safe Place for business.
Once the Safe Place is open, encourage the use of the Safe Place by going there when you’re upset too.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Conscious Discipline Safe Place, view photo and video examples here.
Whatever you call your safe space and however you set it up, what matters most is your intention. Remember that the goal of the safe space is to give children a place to calm down, feel safe, and regroup when they are overcome with big emotions at school.
Reasons to visit the safe space may include:
- having a bad day
- needing a moment
- feeling frustrated with a social situation
- missing family members
- worrying about a test or feeling disappointed with a grade
- sadness over family/life events
- anger over a conflict or an overwhelming expectation
In these scenarios, learning is difficult, if not impossible. Allowing your students a few minutes to manage their emotions makes it possible to focus on the lesson or task, collaborate and interact politely with others, and learn vital life skills.
Creating your safe space and teaching children how to use it does take some time. But in the long run, you’ll increase teaching time and give all students the tools they need to problem-solve, learn, and thrive.