When you hear the word safety, what comes to mind? Is it all the different drills (fire drills, tornado drills, and lockdown drills) we practice throughout the school year? Or do you think of online safety or data security?
There's another kind of safety that doesn't usually come to mind, yet it's extremely important if we want to see our students become successful: psychological safety.
Let's define what psychological safety means. According to Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor, psychological safety is "a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking." It's a feeling of confidence that you won't be punished or humiliated for speaking up or making a mistake.
In an educational setting, this means creating an environment where students feel comfortable taking risks, sharing their ideas and expressing themselves without fear of judgment or negative consequences. It’s hearing students say, “I have an idea,” “I made a mistake,” “This might not work,” “I need help,” or “I have a different view." This type of environment can lead to increased engagement, creativity and collaboration among students, ultimately leading to better learning outcomes.
So, how can we create a psychologically safe environment in education? Here are some steps and ideas:
1. Provide clarity
A psychologically safe environment fosters a space where students feel comfortable seeking answers and clarification, which helps to improve their understanding and overall performance. When students feel safe to ask questions, seek clarification and express their thoughts, they are more likely to thrive.
We can set clear expectations by creating a shared definition of fun. By definition of fun, we mean a classroom agreement on what is needed and expected in order to feel safe and enjoy learning and working together.
When providing clarity we can use the Wonderwall approach to learning, which empowers students to have a clear focus on what they are learning, why they are learning it and how they will learn it.
2. Build self-awareness
A psychologically safe environment encourages students to be reflective and self-aware. When students feel safe to share their thoughts and feelings, they are more likely to understand their own learning process. They can identify areas where they need help, seek feedback and make adjustments to their approach. This builds self-awareness and helps students take ownership of their learning.
The traffic light reflection can help students identify habits to stop doing and keep doing. This reflection is used in a variety of areas. It is important to remember that change takes time and effort, but by reflecting and taking action, you can empower positive change in your students’ lives.
Using the Rock, Paper, Scissors reflection allows students to reflect on themselves as learners. Students think about the hardest part of being a learner (rock), what habits and strategies they should write down and remember to incorporate into their lives (paper) and what habits should be removed or cut out from their life (scissors).
3. Encourage expression
A psychologically safe environment encourages students to express their emotions. When students feel safe to share their feelings, they can better understand their emotional responses to different situations. This self-awareness and understanding can help students better regulate their emotions.
Check-ins can be a great way to learn students’ emotions. Once we know how students are feeling, we are able to address them, understand their reactions, and meet them where they are. One way Philly educator CJ Reynolds does this is by asking students, “I am just curious here based on what I am seeing. I am wondering if I did anything to upset you.”
Not only can we use check-ins individually, but we can also kick off a lesson or gather the whole class together during circle time to create a safe and welcoming environment where students feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and emotions. This way, we are promoting social and emotional learning, and also helping our students build a stronger sense of community and support.
4. Facilitate class discussions
When students feel safe speaking up, they are more likely to contribute to class discussions and share their ideas. This promotes an inclusive learning environment where all voices are heard, and diversity of thought is celebrated. It also helps students develop confidence in their abilities to speak and express themselves.
Discussion diamonds are a great way to facilitate effective student discussion. The facilitator first introduces the topic and sets the ground rules for the discussion. Students then explore the topic on their own by looking over resources and jotting down their thoughts and findings. At the next stage, students get an opportunity to share their thoughts individually. Then the groups develop the best answers. The students come back as a whole class to share their final thoughts or ideas.
5. Nurture a growth mindset
When students have a growth mindset they are willing to take risks, collaborate, foster creativity, build resilience and improve self-awareness. A growth mindset in a psychologically safe environment can help individuals to feel more empowered and engaged, as well as develop greater resilience and creativity. Promoting risk-taking, collaboration and self-awareness, can also help to build a stronger sense of community and trust within the group.
When developing a growth mindset, it is important to make students aware of the differences between a fixed and a growth mindset. This will help them become aware of their mindset and what they need to work on.
It is also essential to help students understand that attitude and persistence play a crucial role in learning. American psychologist Carol Dweck invites us to believe we all have the ability and possibility to improve, and it’s our beliefs that usually put our learning at risk. Helping students believe they can do something is key. One way to do this is to help them change their mindset from I can’t do this, to I can’t do this YET.
6. Preach positive feedback
A psychologically safe environment embraces the exchange of feedback in meaningful and authentic ways, a forward-looking approach that creates a more positive and productive learning environment. Students can give and receive feedback in a respectful manner, which helps them learn from their mistakes and grow. When students feel safe to share their opinions, they can also give constructive feedback to their peers, helping them improve their understanding of the material.
Protocols such as tag feedback can guide students to provide positive and forward-looking feedback. Having a protocol in place for feedback can help students provide meaningful and empathic conversations.
A Glows and Grows reflection can help students analyze their assessment data and set personal goals. Reflecting on what they are proud of and what they need or want to improve or get better at empowers them to take ownership of their learning.
7. Infuse joy
Bring joy into the classroom, embrace fun and create moments of play. When students have fun while learning, they are more willing to take risks and learning becomes memorable.
Game-based learning can be a powerful tool for sparking joy in the classroom. Games are engaging and help students stay focused and interested. Friendly competition can be motivating, as students work together or against each other to learn and develop different skills. Games typically provide instant feedback, which keeps students engaged and also allows them to adjust their approach and make progress more quickly. Also, why not take gaming to a new level and encourage students to design their own games? Some fantastic gaming platforms to explore include Blooket, Quizizz and GimKit.
Creating a collaborative classroom playlist where students can add their favorite tunes to listen to while working on projects is an excellent way to infuse some joy into the classroom atmosphere. Music can foster a positive learning environment, and it can also be used as a tool to explore language features and connect songs to different topics or reading materials. By inviting students to contribute to the playlist, they become active participants in shaping the class culture.
Consider buying a bubble machine. These devices that quickly create a roomful of bubbles can make anyone smile. When your students are having a difficult day or you just need a quick reset, grab your bubble machine and create joy.
Creating a psychologically safe environment takes time and effort, but the benefits are well worth it. When students feel safe and supported, they're more likely to engage in learning and reach their full potential. If we want our students to thrive, we must always keep in mind that students must Maslow before they can Bloom. As educators, it's our responsibility to create an environment where all students feel welcome, included and valued.
Greta Sandler is a learning innovation—n leader at Belgrano Day School in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is a 2022 ISTE 20 to Watch awardee who is passionate about creating safe learning environments and empowering learners by giving them a voice and choice in their education. Greta is an ISTE Certified Educator and a Google Certified Trainer who advocates for agile, student-centered classrooms and project-based learning.As an ISTE Community Leader, Greta enjoys working alongside educators worldwide, exchanging ideas, and empowering teachers everywhere to elevate their practice.
Stephanie is the CEO of Gold EDU, Control the Chaos EDU, and is also the edtech lead for the Pickerington Local Schools District. She is a 2022 ISTE 20 to Watch awardee and is a member of the team named ISTE’s Distinguished District. Stephanie is one of the founding members of Global GEG and Gold EDU. Stephanie has a masters in curriculum and instruction and educational leadership.