Creating Safety in the Classroom

The increasing number of school shootings continues to fuel a national debate on how to make our schools safer for children. District, local, and state-initiated proposals have sought to arm teachers with guns, install metal detectors at building entrances, supply students with bulletproof backpacks, and assign police officers to schools.

However, in response to the Florida Parkland shooting, a group of leading experts on school violence created a Call for Action to Preventing School and Community Violence, signed by over 200 universities, school districts, and mental health groups, which recommends a public health approach to preventing the issue of school violence. They recommend three “levels of prevention: (1) universal approaches promoting safety and well-being for everyone; (2) practices for reducing risk and promoting protective factors for persons experiencing difficulties; and (3) interventions for individuals where violence is present or appears imminent.” Included in this call to action are recommendations for creating a positive school climate, including the prevention of bullying, harassment, and discrimination, fostering the positive social and emotional health of children, and reforming school disciplinary practices.

Creating identity safety for students is crucial to creating a positive school climate. Without a sense of physical or emotional safety, there is fear. When people are afraid, their logical, thinking brains shut down, and this affects their behavior and interactions with others. For children, this can look like running away, hiding, acting out, yelling, hitting or kicking, crying, and other disruptive behaviors. It also means that learning is not happening.

But what makes a child feel emotionally safe in a classroom? Shirrocky Hollie (Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching and Learning, 2011) suggests that educators consistently and actively validate and affirm their students’ ethnocultural behaviors. This is one step to being culturally and linguistically responsive, but it goes deeper than that. Validating and affirming children’s identities, lived experiences, and ways of being enables children to bring their whole selves to the classroom and create a sense of identity safety for them. Identity safety allows them to develop healthy, complex identities. When children feel confident and supported in who they are, they stay engaged in their learning and have more positive relationships with others, both of which foster positive a school climate.

Given that most school shootings are carried out by white males, we must foster healthy identity development for them as well in order to attend to the complexity of white male privilege and fragility. Healthy identity development for white males means nurturing empathy and emotional safety, breaking down toxic masculinity, and helping them respect and appreciate the ways in which they are different from dominant society norms so that they can respect and appreciate the differences in others.

This is the work that AMAZEworks does. Using Anti-Bias Education theory and practices, we work with teachers to create classrooms and school communities of belonging and inclusion where ALL students feel seen, heard, and valued in all of their diverse identities. Our programs help teachers support students so they can develop healthy, complex identities while appreciating and respecting the ways they are different from others. Anti-Bias Education helps to reduce the emotional violence schools can sometimes inflict on children’s identities and sense of selves, thereby also reducing the physical violence children inflict on each other.

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