Creating a Safe School Environment That Fosters Student Academic and Social Development
Toxic high school environments have a detrimental effect on our educational system.
Students who are enduring bullying and harassment have a tough time focusing on learning because of the threats lurking behind school doors.
To make sure that future generations are spared from enduring unacceptable behaviors, such as bullying and harassment, we have to change our high school culture in favor of safer and more nurturing school environments.
Who Is Responsible for Creating a Safe School Environment?
Creating a safe school environment requires the involvement and dedication of all school stakeholders—from the students and their families to the school staff and the immediate school community. It cannot be overstated that everyone has a shared responsibility in creating educational environments that help students thrive and reach their full academic and social potential.
Most students are against bullying and other types of unacceptable behavior. They play a significant role in dealing with student safety and wellbeing (regardless of being a target, bystander, or bully). With proper guidance, students can be actively involved in developing and implementing anti-bullying policies and promoting positive and functional relationships.
Families are the first educators of young people. While schools take on the responsibility for students’ learning and skill development, it’s the parents, extended family members, and caregivers who act as primary role models for teaching young people appropriate behavior and healthy relationships.
The local community is also involved in ensuring a safe school environment. Community organizations and schools often work side-by-side to implement various student wellbeing programs such as peer support, cybersafety, student leadership programs, bullying prevention initiatives, etc.
Lastly, teachers and the school staff give students opportunities to express their concerns about their safety and wellbeing. School leaders are in charge of putting effective strategies and policies in place for preventing bullying, harassment, and other types of unacceptable behavior.
What Should Schools Do To Create a Safe and More Inclusive School Environment?
Image source: Equinet
Schools should help students feel safe and confident by focusing on inclusion and creating an environment in which they can thrive and become the best versions of themselves.
This kind of school environment can be established through various education, prevention, and intervention strategies such as:
- Encouraging reporting
- Supporting the targets of bullying and harassment
- Planting the activism seed
- Teaching civics
- Promoting inclusion
- Assessing school culture
Encourage Students To Report Unacceptable Behavior
Students who suffer bullying, harassment, and other types of unacceptable behavior have a hard time reporting these incidents to adults—this holds true even as they grow older.
Schools have a responsibility to create an environment that encourages the reporting of unacceptable behavior. Confidential reporting mechanisms have to exist, as well as clear response and investigation procedures that all students are familiar with.
Students will have an easier time engaging in these procedures if the teachers and other adults in the school community are approachable and willing to listen instead of act on the issue instantly.
Parents, teachers, and other staff members have to act as role models by openly speaking against bullying, name-calling, stereotyping, and other forms of unacceptable behavior.
Provide Support to Those Who Need It the Most
A safe school environment has to include a competent crisis intervention team. This team has to include school counselors and social workers who have adequate skills and knowledge to provide support to the targeted students and their families in coping with the impact of bullying.
Working side-by-side with targeted students and helping them build skills for dealing with similar experiences in the future is invaluable.
It is essential that, during this process, students are not made to feel responsible for bullying or harassment, nor be unintentionally punished with limited access to technology and activities.
Inspire Students To Be Active
Schools need to encourage their students to take part in making the world a better place for everybody. This means teaching them to be proactive in fighting against bias, hate, and discrimination they see in their schools and communities.
Activism is one of the best methods for empowering students and helping them mature as socially responsible citizens.
Students should be taught that activism is an essential part of citizenship. Encourage various forms of activism, such as:
|Raising awareness about global and national issues|
|Standing up for what you believe is right by demonstrating against injustice and discrimination|
|Helping non-government organizations raise money to fight the good fight|
|Taking the time to help those in need|
|Supporting good causes by signing petitions|
|Showing how each voice matters by writing letters to officials about national issues|
Shine a Light on Civics Education
High schools are the perfect time and place for teaching students about civic engagement.
They need to understand advocacy, current events, their rights and freedoms, the ways of the government, and the importance of making a change through activism.
Though civics education has become passé in today’s world, high schools must shine more light on it in order to create a safer and more equal school environment.
Focus on Inclusion and Diversity
High schools need to be public and loud about their community priorities.
Biased and discriminatory behaviors are unacceptable, and everyone involved in the school community needs to be aware of this. Inclusion is an essential part of creating an equal and just world, and students need to respect each others’ differences.
To bring the school community together, schools should ask the students, parents, and staff members to come up with ideas on how to promote school values.
High schools can achieve this through:
- Social media posts
- Events honoring diversity
- Statements at the school entrance
- Wall murals showcasing the diversity
- Updated mission statements
Assess School Culture and Make a Change
It is always a good idea to take a step back and reflect on the historical influences that have shaped the school culture.
Revisit racial and gender dynamics among the students, school vision, students’ communication, and families’ involvement in the school community.
It would also be smart to develop a new action plan that improves sub-par elements, emphasizes the strengths, and incorporates anti-biased education.
If there is enough room to call staff members to take action and do some self-assessment on their own, even greater things can emerge.
Repercussions of Unsafe School Environments
Creating a safe school environment has to be a collective undertaking.
Parents and caregivers play a crucial role in detecting and replying to unacceptable behaviors such as bullying or harassment.
Students who are experiencing maltreatment often show drastic behavioral changes that are relatively easy to recognize. Bullied students typically:
|Behavior||Attitude to School||Other Telltale Signs|
Parent Contribution to Creating a Safe School Environment
Parents and caregivers have an array of actions at their disposal when they recognize that their child is being bullied or is bullying other students. They can:
- Offer support
- Actively listen and show compassion
- Work with the school to find a solution
- Gather information
Providing the Much-Needed Support
Staying calm, collected, and open-minded is the foundation of providing adequate support.
Kickstarting the conversation about the unsafe school environment is best done through open-ended questions such as:
- “What have you done so far to make the bullying stop?”
- “Do you think that your actions were effective at stopping the unacceptable behavior?”
What parents should not do is encourage their children to fight back against bullies. This approach often leads to an increase in the level or duration of unacceptable behavior.
Parents should instead focus on helping their children develop these positive strategies:
- Find new ways to make friends
- Practice saying “leave me alone” and walking away from the confrontation
- Discover ways to avoid students and situations that can expose them to bullying
Encouraging conversations about unacceptable behaviors is also something that parents need to focus on.
No matter how difficult it may be to learn that your child is being hurt, staying calm and open-minded is of utmost importance.
Parents should try to fight back the urge to confront the students guilty of bullying or their families. Getting directly involved, more often than not, exacerbates the whole situation.
Active Listening and Compassion
Parents and caregivers should initiate a discussion about bullying and harassment if they think that their children are subject to such unacceptable behavior.
Dismissing what the child is saying with statements such as “It will make you tougher” and “Lots of students are being bullied, do not worry about it” will only make things worse.
Showing compassion is the key component of active listening, and it makes the child feel understood and more willing to open up.
Children must be reassured that it is perfectly normal to feel hurt, lost, angry, and anxious when they are being subject to unacceptable behaviors.
Because students avoid discussing bullying with their parents due to the fear of payback, parents and caregivers need to comfort them by promising to handle the situation sensitively.
Getting the School Involved
When parents recognize the presence of unacceptable behaviors, they should reach out to the school and try to find a solution together. If a parent sees the school as an ally, more efficient solutions often ensue.
It is important to make an appointment with the teacher instead of unexpectedly showing up at the school, as this will grant the educator more time to gather much-needed information.
At the meeting, parents should:
- Communicate clearly so that everybody involved knows that they are in this together
- Stay calm at all times and avoid making accusations
- Discuss the school’s policies and procedures regarding unacceptable behavior
Being a Smart Detective
Parents and caregivers should take on the role of a detective and gather as much information as they possibly can about the unacceptable behavior. They should sit down with their children and try to find out:
- Who the witnesses are
- Where the bullying occurred
- What happened exactly
- Whether any of the teachers are aware of the unacceptable behavior
- What solutions have been tried so far
Teacher Contribution to Creating a Safe School Environment
High school teachers are the backbone of our educational system. They shape the way we treat, think about, and communicate with one another.
As far as creating a safe school environment goes, there are a multitude of approaches teachers can take to help build a more inclusive and sustainable school community that never puts emotional safety in jeopardy.
These approaches include:
- Admitting that you do not know everything
- Not taking everything so seriously
- Showing that you too are vulnerable
- Never losing your temper
- Building the community continuously
- Making students feel at home
Admitting That You Do Not Know Everything
One of the most powerful tools for engaging with students on a human level is to admit that you, as a teacher, do not know everything. When these situations pop up, freely share the question with the classroom, and ask for assistance.
Not Taking Everything So Seriously
A teacher’s mood impacts the classroom significantly. That is why, no matter how stressful the period may be, you should strive to keep a positive attitude and smile as often as you can in the classroom. Expressing positive emotions will make it easier for students to connect with you.
Showing That You Too Are Vulnerable
Students are often asked to talk and write about their feelings, fears, strengths, and weaknesses. Teachers should not be exempt from this. Modeling vulnerability is often a difficult task but an invaluable one.
Never Losing Your Temper
It is important not to lose your cool in the classroom. If you feel like you are on the verge of having a fit, walk outside and take a breather. Losing your temper in the classroom will disrupt the trust that you and the students have built over time. Worst of all—that trust is not easy to rebuild.
Building the Community
Increasing the feeling of emotional safety in the classroom is best done through activities that stimulate group cohesion, such as Save the Last Word for Me. Allowing students to share their thoughts and opinions in a non-judgemental environment is a powerful tool for nourishing trust.
Making Students Feel at Home
Decorate the classroom walls with student poems, essays, exams, and projects. When students are surrounded by their own creations instead of generic images and information, they feel at home.
Best Strategies To Combat Unacceptable Behavior
Image source: Family and MWR
When it comes to combating unacceptable behavior, there are no clear answers on which strategies are the most efficient. One certain thing is that students cannot and should not deal with these issues on their own.
School leaders should carefully construct prevention and management programs that reflect the needs of the particular school community. These programs need to be critically assessed, theoretically sound, and evidence-based (in terms of delivery and pedagogy).
Some programs that have proven to be effective in creating a safe school environment are:
- Bystander training
- Assertiveness training
- Restorative practices
Bystander training is an important prevention strategy that trains students to act in a supportive manner when they are witnessing other students get bullied or harassed.
The main idea behind this approach is that unacceptable behavior will keep on happening if good people do not act on it.
Students are taught to stand up for their peers who are getting hurt and intervene if they feel confident in their own skills.
Bystander training teaches students that it is expected of them to act reasonably and challenge the unacceptable behavior directly or indirectly by reporting the incident to their teachers.
Bystander training proved to be the most effective in fighting against cyberbullying, where students would send supportive messages to their hurt peers.
Here are a few pieces of advice on what teachers can do when constructing their own bystander program:
- Use role-playing to act out potential scenarios
- Discuss with the students about the most effective forms of discouragement that would not exacerbate the situation
- Discuss with the students how they can discern non-dangerous from dangerous situations
- Talk with the students about how they would react if they witnessed unacceptable behavior
Teaching students to act assertively when faced with unacceptable behavior can be a useful and effective strategy.
When a student reacts assertively to any type of unacceptable behavior, they react respectfully to all involved parties (including themselves).
To be able to act assertively, students need to feel confident in their own skills and their knowledge of basic human rights.
Teachers can practice assertive training with their students by:
- Encouraging students to use assertive body language, including keeping eye contact and standing up straight
- Discussing, planning, and practicing responses to unacceptable behavior in a clear and assertive way
- Using role-playing to help students identify aggressive, passive-aggressive, and assertive responses to unacceptable behavior
Many schools use restorative practices to deal with and respond to unacceptable behavior. The fundamental concepts of restorative practices are:
- Problem-solving is aimed at making things right
- Violations lead to obligations and liabilities
- Harming others is a violation of human rights and relationships
Restorative practices focus on enhancing relationships and teaching students problem-solving and conflict resolution skills. Classroom management is also vastly different, as it demands the abandonment of the punitive model and a shift toward relational models that provide support to those affected by unacceptable behavior.
Most common restorative practices are:
- Classroom conferences
- Small group conferences
Classroom conferences are a powerful tool for creating a safe school environment. The whole class gets involved and discusses how bullying or other forms of unacceptable behavior have affected student wellbeing, teaching, and learning.
Staff members typically conduct small-group conferences with an individual student or a small group of students who have been involved in an incident of lesser harm. These conferences are of preventive character as they are aimed at dealing with lower levels of unacceptable behavior.
Parents are not directly involved in these conferences, but they are informed about the process and its outcome. Follow up meetings are also important because they provide ongoing support and ensure that agreements are being complied with.
A Shared Responsibility That Makes a Difference
Transforming school culture is a mandatory step for creating a safe school environment.
Everybody involved in the school community takes on a specific role and a set of responsibilities to ensure a better and more just tomorrow for future generations.
Insensitive language, name-calling, bullying, harassment—all of these forms of unacceptable behavior hinder the academic and social development of young individuals.
That is why students must not be left to deal with injustice and harassment on their own.
Let us stand up in harmony and collectively address this issue—only then will the change occur.