Creating a Safe Space to Learn

Does your child have a safe space to learn?  When I talk about roadblocks to learning I usually talk about learning differences.  An entirely different kind of roadblock to learning comes when children feel unsafe.


Both physical safety and emotional safety are important in any learning environment.


Striped pillows on floor in foreground. Green chalkboard with math equations in front of a white table with dark blue children’s chairs in background. Light blue magazine boxes and small plants on top of white shelves to the side.


When we feel unsafe our nervous systems activate the fear response (fight, flight or freeze).  In that state, the brain turns down important learning skills like working memory and cognitive flexibility so we can better respond to danger if we need to. (source)


The more trauma we experience, the more easily triggered we become.  We ultimately train our brains to remain hypervigilant, waiting for the next scary thing to happen.


Naturally, an easily triggered student will be unable to learn as well as a calm and self-regulated one.  So, what can parents and teachers do to create learning environments that are safe and calm, and more conducive to learning?


While students (and their teachers) now face more stressful situations than ever before, I’m only going to focus here on three simple areas that help create safe spaces to learn.


Be a Self-Regulated Adult

Calm, encouraging words do matter of course, but so does nonverbal communication.  The tone of our voice, the way we stand or sit, these can signal safety or signal threat.  Being able to regulate our own emotions helps us support the felt safety of our students, even without saying a word.


Optimize the Physical Space

Whether a child’s classroom is at school or at home, research shows that the physical space matters.  These are just a handful of recent key takeaways:

  • Good lighting is good for learning. (source)
  • Good air quality keeps CO2 levels from negatively impacting learning. (source)
  • Excessive heat can drop test scores, so keep the temperature comfortable. (source)
  • A room with a view of nature reduces stress. No view?  Bring plants inside!  (source)
  • Acoustics matter. Kids in classrooms that sound better learn better.  (source)
  • Calm the visual chaos. A simple, calming color scheme is best. (source)


Offer Brain Breaks

Kids need to know they can let off steam at some point.  Yes, that’s what recess is for, but between recess breaks, concentrating for too long can be stressful and lead some students to shut down.  Opinions vary on how best to offer brain breaks, and how often, so consider a few suggestions.  Movement is a great way to reduce stress.  Mindfulness practices, breathing exercises and yoga are also great ways to calm the nervous system.  Since you know your learners best, you get to decide.


As we look for the best ways to create safe learning environments for our kiddos, let’s not forget one of the simplest approaches.  Want to know what helps children feel safe?  Ask them!