Creating a Safe Learning Environment

Instructor: Erin Pugh
A safe learning environment requires physical, emotional, and intellectual security for students. Discover ways to create that space for students to think, grow, and learn.

Meeting our Needs

Fights. Insults. Jokes that go too far. All can threaten the secure learning environment that teachers strive to create. Whether it's alleviating the first-time-in-school fears of a kindergartner or ensuring a safe haven for a teased teenager, making a classroom safe is the first step to effective learning. According to the psychological theory behind Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, for people to achieve their intellectual potential, basic needs such as food, shelter, and safety must be met. Although events outside of school may be beyond a teacher's control, within the classroom walls, teachers can create a setting conducive to learning.

Pyramid showing our Hierarchy of Needs according to Maslow
Maslows Hierarchy of Needs

Physical Safety

Start with the obvious - physical safety. When not being used in the lesson, scissors, sharp objects, and any other potentially harmful substances, like chemicals for an experiment, should be inaccessible. Make sure any electrical cords are not tripping hazards and that there is a clear path to the door. Before having any plants or animals in the classroom, check for possible student allergies. Likewise, before serving any snacks, survey students or parents for food allergies and make sure any goodies are allergen-free.

Consider the furniture. Jagged wooden surfaces can cause splinters, and missing bolts on chairs or desks can cause falls or injuries. Overstuffed furniture can hold dust mites or mold. Make sure not to use any hazardous furnishings. When creating a seating chart, consider the placement of students. If you know that friction exists between two students, seat them apart.

Decorate responsibly. Display posters, quotes, or décor that express the ideals of respect and tolerance. Younger students can collectively create a set of classroom rules that can be clearly hung on the wall. They can draw pictures of sharing and helping one another that can also be hung up. For teens, it can be as simple as posting a rainbow flag sticker that symbolizes acceptance of any sexual orientation or a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote about equality. The point is to reinforce that all students are in an atmosphere of acceptance.


Emotional Safety

Going back to Maslow, children have a strong need to feel love and belonging. Teachers can help their students form friendships with and relate to their peers. Make sure that students know one another's names and a little about each classmate. When kids can identify with a fellow student, they're less likely to bully him or her. They may, in fact, even create bonds, which leads to a more harmonious classroom environment.

To initiate the positive atmosphere, establish a Put-Down Free Zone. In the classroom, students cannot make statements such as 'You're so stupid,' or call someone a 'loser.' Some teachers even institute the rule that for every 'put-down' given, the student who said it must give the recipient two 'put-ups', or compliments such as 'You're a good basketball player' or 'You gave a good presentation yesterday'.

Helping students develop positive self-images will diminish bullying as well. When kids feel good about themselves, they don't need to lower others to raise themselves. To boost students' self-esteem, you can alter teaching strategies and employ community-building activities. Capitalize on students' talents. If you know that a kid with low self-esteem is creative, include an artistic component in a group assignment. Assignments can focus on collaboration rather than competition. Teachers can also help students set manageable goals, which will bring them success so that they can continue to improve and achieve.

Bully Free Zone sign

Intellectual Safety

Once students feel good about themselves, educators need to make students feel comfortable enough in the classroom to offer answers and to ask questions. After asking the class a question, be sure to institute 'think time' or 'wait time' between the question and when you take responses, such as waiting at least 3 full seconds. This time allows for needed processing and provides more students an opportunity to respond.

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