Creating Emotionally Safe Schools: A Guide for Educators and Parents

Creating Emotionally Safe Schools: A Guide for Educators and Parents

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by Jane Bluestein

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Something is terribly wrong with our schools. How did a place that should be a sanctuary for kids becomes a source of fear and intimidation? What has happened?

In Creating
Emotionally Safe Schools,
Jane Bluestein offers a plan to return schools to havens of nurturing and learning. She examines environmental, historical, developmental, psychological,

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Something is terribly wrong with our schools. How did a place that should be a sanctuary for kids becomes a source of fear and intimidation? What has happened?

In Creating
Emotionally Safe Schools,
Jane Bluestein offers a plan to return schools to havens of nurturing and learning. She examines environmental, historical, developmental, psychological, sociological,
interpersonal, instructional and administrative factors that contribute to the emotional climate of an educational institution. This is a comprehensive view of what makes a school feel the way it feels, and what we can do to make it feel safe for every child-and every adult-who walks through its doors.

Emotional safety has many dimensions, such as: the impact of the family and early development, childhood stress and coping, the changing role of the school, acceptance and emotional support, respect and belonging, temperament and labels, gangs and violence,
instructional strategies, learning styles and multiple intelligences, teacher training and support, and the inherent need for a sense of community.

The message Jane Bluestein brings is positive: information, programs and solutions are available that can ultimately make our schools inviting, inspiring, and, yes-safe.


  • Comprehensive list of references and resources
  • Complete index

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Educational counselor Jane Bluestein (21st-Century Discipline) challenges educators, parents, communities and corporate citizens to consider school safety beyond the presence or absence of violence. School safety can be measured psychologically, she claims, and is influenced by everything from a school system that does not respect the expertise and individual styles of its teachers to teachers who use grades and pop quizzes to ridicule slow learners and students who tease and harass even one classmate. In Creating Emotionally Safe Schools: A Guide for Educators and Parents, Bluestein brings together social, biological, educational and environmental perspectives in a weighty and timely book. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Every teacher dreams of having his or her educational philosophy and experiences heard. Bluestein makes her dream a reality in this collection of essays that cover absolutely everything having to do with schools except subject matter. Each essay starts with a list of four to five quotes from a wide range of sources—from the words of kindergartners to Chinese proverbs and from unknowns to Charles Dickens and Bart Simpson. Parents will appreciate these quotes more than teachers will because educators have been muttering such wisdom to themselves since they started teaching. There is nothing new in this book. After the nearly four hundred pages of essays, there are more than one hundred pages of appendixes, chapter notes, recommended resources, and an index. It is overkill. As in every other aspect of human life, there are no easy solutions, and readers might respect Bluestein for not trying to provide them; however, simply restating all the problems that exist in education and reminding readers of the ideals that they would like to make realities can feed frustration. Schools, teachers, and students are doing many, many things right. A book of this size and scope that spotlights the successes out there would do more to encourage and refocus lost hopes. Reiterating that a safe school environment needs to be created does not make it happen. Merely writing that there are "no ADD kids but many different kinds of children who are hyperactive and inattentive for many different reasons" does not give teachers with fifteen to twenty-five different "not ADD kids" a way to involve the whole class. As a teacher of twenty-eight years who still likes being in the classroom with a mix of wild andwonderful kids, this reviewer found Bluestein's book discouraging. 2001, Health Communications, 498p, Bott
Library Journal
Emotional safety in American schools is not only about guns and violence and getting kids to and from school in one piece but also about learning styles, social interactions, discipline, and the roles schools assume in our society and economy. Bluestein, the award-winning author of such works as 21st Century Discipline, Being a Successful Teacher, and The Parent's Little Book of Lists, sets out to highlight the core issues and dynamics that keep feeding the headlines of violence or vandalism. Offering examples of schools where children and adults are reported to feel "emotionally" safe, Bluestein discusses ways in which any academic institution can become a safer place. Chapter notes and a long list of recommended resources make this a useful reference for anyone interested in school reform, educational growth, and current educational perspectives. A realistic look at what is wrong with our schools, this timely book belongs in academic, public, and school libraries. Leroy Hommerding, Fort Myers Beach P.L., FL Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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Part I - Dimensions of a Very Big Picture

Teaching is the greatest act of optimism.

Colleen Wilcox

The starting point for a better world is the belief that it is possible.

Norman Cousins

Before the beginning of great brilliance, there must be Chaos.

I Ching

There's this commercial that begins by showing us a couple standing on top of a medieval castle. As the camera pulls back, we see that the castle is actually a chess piece on a board between two people riding on a train. The camera pulls back again and we see the train through the window of a house-as part of a model railroad in a family's playroom. Each time we step back, we realize that each world-within-a-world, complete as each seemed to be, is simply a part of a much larger reality. The continual change in perspective is both breathtaking and brilliant, an important reminder about how an image or event can, in fact, simply be one small facet of a far bigger reality.

So it goes with safety in schools. Invariably, whenever somebody brings up the topic, the conversation seems to focus on one little piece of this reality-usually a headline-grabbing instance of violence or vandalism. However, if we apply the "big picture" perspective to this issue, we realize that the more extreme breaches of school safety are only a very small part of a much larger issue. Unfortunately, despite our efforts to place these events in a larger context, we can easily become fixated on the intensity of a terrible moment, and lose our sense of the multidimensional reality in which the events occurred. When our focus narrows to one little corner of the picture, we can neglect the millions of other details that are also a part of the scenery, much less how all these threads are woven together or how they impact one another. When our vision fails to go beyond the immediacy of the moment, our lack of perspective can have serious consequences, particularly with regard to how we respond to the event and the solutions we propose.

Certainly safety is an issue whenever violence occurs. But it's also an issue for the student who is terrified of being called on to give an oral presentation to the class, the kid anticipating being harassed or attacked on the playground, or the child who knows that the end of the school day leads back to an unstable or violent home. It's an issue for kids who don't test well, for kids who learn best by touching and moving, and for kids whose strengths lie in areas the schools neither assess nor value. It's an issue for the child nobody notices, the child nobody will play with, the child who camouflages inadequacy with a string of achievements. It's an issue for nonlinear thinkers and for students who look "different." It's an issue for parents, particularly when their kids are having-or causing-problems. And it's an issue for teachers who are faced with increasing demands and inadequate resources, who are held accountable for many things over which they have very little control, and whose work often fails to generate the respect and compensation it deserves.

For the most part, we haven't placed a very high premium on providing emotionally safe learning environments for kids or adults. Even when we acknowledge its importance, safety can easily become a casualty to traditions that make assessment more important than learning, or those that value subject matter over students. We sacrifice safety when we fail to notice a child in distress or ignore the hurtful behavior of one student to another, when we use tests or grades to punish, when we ignore academic needs in favor of curricular mandates. Emotional safety is undermined by sarcasm, impatience and contempt, by "gotcha" discipline policies, by pop quizzes, by teachers who yell or humiliate.

In fact, emotional safety is an issue in so many situations in school that any improvement effort worth its salt-as narrowly focused as that effort may need to be-will necessarily take the "whole" into account. Yet how often are policies implemented or programs adopted before their potential impact on the emotional climate of the school is taken into account? It's one thing to expect our schools to produce every type of outcome under the sun-from higher academic performance to good citizenship-and quite another to create the type of environment in which these reasonable expectations can actually unfold. In the absence of a safe learning environment, a great deal of energy is expended in an effort to create safety, self-protecting by any means necessary, and not always in the most constructive ways. Learning is undermined and teaching is far more difficult than it needs to be. So we deal with the symptoms and react to the events, but until we quit dancing around the core issues and the dynamics that keep feeding the beast, we will continue to be disappointed when quick-fix surface solutions fail, one after the other-or make the problems even worse.

So here's the deal: Let's look at the big picture and some of the factors that play into making a school climate what it is. And let's look at some of the ways that kids and adults need to feel safe before we zero in on one little corner of the room and imagine that if it's clean, the rest of the house will be just fine. Yes, it's big, but it's doable. Maybe all we need to do is step back and take in the immensity and complexity of it all, for therein lie potential and magnificence. And in the end, what could be more worthwhile?

Chapter 1 - What Safety Is

I have this recurring nightmare: I'm back in high school and I can't get out.


I was a slow reader and a slow answerer. My learning style didn't "work." I was terrified. I never understood anything right.


Of course I'm right-handed. I went through three years of school with my left hand tied to my desk.


Forty-five years later, there are two words that still strike an icy fear in my heart: Gym Class.


I was never afraid of my teachers, unless I didn't know something. Or forgot my book. Or came late. Or made a mistake.


Excerpts from various survey and interview responses to questions about emotional safety in respondents' school experiences

It's 1999, right before Thanksgiving, and I'm sitting down to breakfast with the Sunday paper. I reach for the comics and the color supplements, which is where I normally start, but I can't get past the headlines: Deming Girl Dies. A thirteen year-old middle-school student in southern New Mexico is now dead at the hands of a classmate, shot in the back of the head in the lobby of the school. On page two, a story about a boy the same age in Palmdale, California, dead after a fistfight in which he hit his head on the sidewalk. On the following page are details of the Texas A&M University bonfire tragedy, which killed twelve and injured twenty-seven. I haven't even been at the table ten minutes, and I've gotten a very strong message over and over in the first three pages of our local newspaper: Our schools are not safe.

We read and hear much about death and violence in schools, even though fewer that 1 percent of all violent deaths of children occur on school grounds.2 In fact, assuming we can trust the numbers, schools are safer for children than their homes or communities. And yet, what gets the greatest attention and the widest coverage? Even the U.S. Department of Education's Annual Report on School Safety, which affirms that "the vast majority of America's schools are safe places," focuses much of its reporting on crime, substance abuse and violence. These statistics, and the stories we see in the papers and on the news, are important and valuable for bringing attention to the need for safety in schools. My concern is that these resources, understandably, perhaps even necessarily, work from a definition of safety that is deceptively narrow.

I don't think we can expect to see sensational media accounts any time soon of the student who is berated for a wrong answer or the child who is teased and humiliated by her peers, unless, of course, these events end in violence. And while no one would presume to compare the relative traumas of a scolding to a shooting, make no mistake about it, these and countless other interactions compromise and erode the emotional climate in schools on a daily basis. These incidents, and the hundreds of other situations, techniques and exchanges that do not support basic safety needs, may be harder to spot, document or measure, but they deserve our attention, and they deserve to be taken seriously, for they, too, leave scars. It's easy to get caught up in the extreme events we have witnessed, as well as the finger-pointing and hand-wringing that occur in their wake. But the headlines also point to a host of other serious, if grossly subtler, problems, and as far as emotional safety goes, we've got bigger fish to fry.

In a hierarchy of more than two dozen human needs compiled from the works of Abraham Maslow, Alice Miller, Andrew Weil and William Glasser, "safety" is number two, just above basic survival needs, like food and shelter. The need for safety-and I want to stress that I am talking about emotional and psychological safety, as well as the absence of physical threat-is so basic and so important, that unless this need is met, all other higher-level needs, like the needs for belonging, success and purpose, to name a few, become extremely difficult to satisfy or achieve in healthy ways. Oh sure, most of us become masters of adaptation, and anyone who spends much time with kids with a history of not feeling safe can probably reel off a long list of behaviors and attitudes used to compensate. But this is hardly the same as learning, inquiring and relating, much less self-actualizing, and few parents or educators would suggest that we should be satisfied with compensation.

We react to tragedy wanting to know why, but I want us to start asking different questions before another tragic event occurs. For the moment, at least, I'm far more concerned with how schools feel, and if kids-and their teacher's-are not looking forward to school each day as an exciting and enriching opportunity to meet their higher-level needs, I want to know what we can do to make it right. I want to know how kids and grownups are treated in school, and the degree to which all are (and feel) valued. I want to know what kinds of opportunities exist for all students, not just for learning, but for success as well. I want to know how we're listening, and how we let kids know they're worth listening to. I want to know how we're supporting personal and social development, and teaching kids ways to deal with problems and hurt feelings without hurting themselves or anyone else. I want to know, if I walk into your classroom as a student, if I will be welcome there, regardless of my previous grades and test scores, my appearance, my personality, my learning preferences or how much I love your subject area. As counselor Barbara Wills reminds, "Emotional safety is in the eye of the beholder. A place can be very safe, but if the student perceives it not to be, it isn't."

The good news appears in the form of new research, new technologies and new programs, and the fact that schools throughout the world are starting to examine and address issues that go beyond the academic concerns that have grabbed the lion's share of our attention in years past, often to the exclusion of other, equally important dimensions of human growth and development. Much of the research I uncovered and many of the people I interviewed point to large numbers of individuals who are working very specifically on quests that will ultimately contribute to advances and improvements in emotional safety, whether or not that was their initial intention. And I have seen much evidence to suggest that as we strive to eliminate the emotional, psychological and even instructional injuries that children sustain in schools, we're going to see fewer and fewer headlines of horrifying violence, despite numerous other influences that could, indeed, lead children in that direction.

I pray that we never see another tragedy in school and would give anything if the ones that have occurred could somehow, magically, be reversed. However, if recent violence forces us to step back and see how much this issue of safety really involves, if it bring us closer to a willingness to look at all of the factors that impact a child's life and learning (including the factors we don't want to look at or don't believe we're equipped to handle), if it can somehow take us from blame and regret to prevention and solutions, then perhaps some greater purpose will have been served.

Defining Emotional Safety

Emotional safety means seeing a smile on my teacher's face the first day of school instead of a list of rules that is taller than my arm is long. It means being able to use the word "Neanderthal" instead of "caveman" and not be made fun of because my vocabulary is too big. It means being able to go through the lunch line without fear of somebody grabbing for my money or my cupcake. It means having a teacher who hands back papers privately instead of reading the grades out loud as I pick up my test. Emotional safety is unconditional acceptance of me. Emotional safety, first and foremost, allows me to wear my natural face instead of a fake one . . .

James Delisle, Professor, Education Foundations

Emotional safety means being able to act, think and feel without fear. It means being able to try activities I'm not good at, express my ideas without censoring them, display my feelings and have them respected, question my teachers without fear of punishment. It means being able to take risks and expose what I don't know. It means being valued for who I am instead of how well I perform. It means that the teacher is interested in me, in my ideas and experiences . . .

Debra Sugar, school social worker

A 1992 district-wide survey of over sixty-five thousand students in Houston showed that 48 percent either "disagreed" or "strongly disagreed" with the following statement: "The school is a safe place." Another 12 percent did not know. These are troubling statistics, and even without knowing the specifics of what the surveyors or students meant by the word "safe," we have to wonder about the climate, not to mention the amount of learning going on in an environment in which a sense of safety is not a given for more than half of the student population. Yet what do these numbers really tell us?

The emotional climate in a school is the complex product of a huge number of factors. How a school feels on any given day can be influenced by, among other things, the condition and design of the physical structure itself, the community in which the school exists, the mental health of the adults in the building, the functionality of the families whose children attend, the political and economic climate of the area (and the world), the calendar, the weather and, perhaps, the position of the planets as well. Local events can have big impact: A community crisis, a mean-spirited editorial or even a winning football season can add a layer of energy to a school environment that hits you the second you walk in the door. Add to that the normal social hierarchies, power dynamics, agendas and unresolved personal issues that are present any time you have a group of people living or working together, and you've got a pretty volatile mix of factors, all of which have an impact on how people work, learn and interact in this environment.

In order for schools to be safe-and to feel safe to all concerned-a number of things have to happen, and, for the most part, they have to happen together. It's much like a recipe that requires a balance of certain ingredients, procedures, techniques and sanitary considerations, none of which can be ignored or left out without affecting the final product's appearance, taste or nutritional potential. The number of factors in this instance can be more than a bit overwhelming, to be sure, but if this book does nothing else, I want it to shine some light on just how much this issue entails by addressing as many of these factors as possible.

Author-educator Rita Mercier defines a safe school as one that "creates an environment for learning that allows all students, regardless of mental ability, language, culture, race, appearance, physical differences, economic status, emotional, social or physical challenges, learning styles, temperament, gender or any other diversity, to achieve their maximum potential-academically, personally and socially." Or consider the definition by elementary counselor, Christina Mattise, created for her developmental guidance program in which emotional safety means, "I have the right to be myself and to have the freedom to learn, work and play without having my heart, my head or my body hurt."

Both of these definitions say a lot more than it might seem at first glance, and encompass a large number of safety factors. Let's go a little deeper now, and look at what these specific factors include. For the purposes of this book, I use the term "emotional safety" to refer to a classroom or school environment in which students can experience all of the following:

  • a sense of belonging, of being welcomed and valued; being treated with respect and dignity; acceptance

  • the freedom to not be good at a particular skill, make mistakes, forget, or need additional practice and still be treated respectfully and with acceptance

  • encouragement and success; recognition; instruction, guidance and resources according to need (developmental, cognitive, affective, modality) and regardless of need

  • having one's own unique talents, skills and qualities valued, recognized and acknowledged

  • understanding and clarity (about requirements and expectations); predictability (consistency of follow-through); freedom from arbitrary, indiscriminate and unexpected punishment and reactivity

  • the freedom from harassment, intimidation (including labeling, name-calling, ridicule, teasing, criticism or contempt) and threat of physical harm from adults or peers

  • the freedom to make choices and influence one's own learning, pursue personal interests and control various factors in the process of learning (such as content, presentation, media, location; social context; direction; specific assignments or approaches) based on personal needs and preferences

  • the freedom from prejudice, judgment and discrimination based on physical characteristics and general appearance; religious, racial or cultural background; sexual orientation

  • the freedom from prejudice, judgment and discrimination based on academic, athletic, creative or social capabilities; modality or learning-style preferences, temperament, hemispheric dominance or similar profiles

  • the freedom to have (and express) one's own feelings and opinions without fear of recrimination

Clearly, "creating safe schools involves much more than preventing crimes on campus," as Mercier points out. In the absence of the full complement of the above safety factors, two important "saving graces" exist. One is having some place to connect-that is, having a person or a group who values and respects you, having some in-school relationship in which you can truly be yourself, or, as survey respondent Dee Brumley suggests, "having someone or a lot of someones there to support you when you fall or just need a shoulder to cry on."

The second is having some place to succeed. Many of the individuals who shared their experiences with me said that they created a sense of safety in school simply by doing well there. Others claimed that they never would have made it through school if they hadn't had one class or subject area-often music, art, theater or gym-that offered them a refuge from difficulties in other classes, mistreatment or rejection by their peers, or a miserable home life. Certainly other valuable support influences exist, in and out of the educational environment, and differences in personality and temperament will make some children far less vulnerable than others to unsafe conditions and interactions. But sadly, many children go through years of school without even these most minimal of benefits.

Safety for Adults in Schools

I've had to break up a number of cliques among my faculty. I want everyone to feel that they belong in our school community.

Elementary school principal

Nobody messes up with a kid in the classroom because they want to. But that's what we hear about. The lack of respect and constant criticism, from everyone from parents and upper administration to the media, makes it hard to support one another if our morale is shot.

Middle school teacher

Emotional safety means I can live and work without being afraid of threats of abuse. Where parents have the right to know and participate in their child's education, but do not have the right to physically or verbally abuse the administration or staff in the school system. Where administrators, have the right to effectively manage, but not through fear, intimidation, bullying, anger or any other manner that would be construed as emotional intimidation or harassment.

Ross Logan, Elementary school counselor

If schools are going to be safe for kids, they're going to have to be safe for grownups as well. Teachers, counselors, administrators and other school staff whose energy is distracted by a need to self-protect for any reason just don't have as much to offer kids as adults who feel secure, supported and valued in their positions. Interestingly, the factors listed in the definition of emotional safety for children are quite similar to those required by educators, counselors, administrators and other adult staff, with the important addition of the ability to experience the following:

  • respect for one's professional judgment and opinions

  • respect for one's teaching or management style, special skills and preferences, especially when these can be matched and accommodated with appropriate grade level, subject area or administrative assignments, partner and schedule configurations, room and environmental configurations, resources and materials

  • requests and respect for one's input, and a feeling of being included in decisions that have a direct impact on one's well-being and ability to perform effectively

  • a sense of being valued and respected by the administration, policy makers and community

  • a sense of being supported (backed up) by the administration, policy makers and community

Just imagine the climate in a school in which all of these safety factors were present! Indeed, there are currently many, many people committed to making sure that these conditions are in place in their own classrooms, schools and districts. The point is, once we agree that creating schools that are emotionally, socially, intellectually and psychologically safe-in addition to being physically safe-is a goal worth pursuing from a comprehensive and inclusive standpoint, we can start working to achieve the specifics described by the various safety factors above. The more of these factors that exist in any school setting, the more we increase the odds of schools not only being safe, but also feeling safe-all the time and for all students and adults. As we will see, establishing such a climate has enormous implications for student learning, success and behavior.

It's reassuring to know that kids are, in fact, safer in school than anywhere else, but it's well worth whatever commitment it will take to stack the odds in favor of an emotionally safe school climate, because statistics are, after all, just numbers. For even if there's only a billion-in-one chance of a house falling on you from out of the sky, if you are that "one," it can really ruin your day.

(c)2001. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Creating Emotionally Safe Schools by Jane Bluestein, Ph.D. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442

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