Psychological safety in your classroom. What it is… Why it matters. What might be compromised in the context of this latest transition? What you can do about it.
Over the past couple of weeks I have been doing some really interesting work with schools and teachers to help with thinking about the transition back to school. Looking at peer relationships and meaningful relationships – how to make them, how to sustain them, how to repair them, how to work through damage…and also looking at mindset – how to make 2021 our year – to find ways of setting the right goals and achieving them.
This post is garnering many striking insights I have taken away from that work with young people – both wellbeing webinars and one to one coaching sessions. I hope it will be of help for you to see some of the challenges these young people spoke of – so that you can approach the journey ahead with some inside knowledge.
What is psychological safety? And why is it important? Psychological safety is foundational to the capacity to learn and grow. In early years it is a consistently internalised feeling of safety – that your caregivers are reliable and have ‘got’ you. John Bowlby talked of it as the ‘secure base’ from which the infant is able to leave close contact and go our – albeit in a limited way – and explore the world. As children develop, the sense of that secure base is still incredibly important. Reaching the threshold of puberty, and going into adolescence, that secure base is still very much influenced by the quality of connection with care-givers and close family – however in the developmental trajectory towards independence, there is a growing imperative to find secure attachment with peers. Peer validation, belonging with peers, a feeling that you are safe, that you are see, you matter, you are of value, that you can be soothed or supported by your friends is increasingly important in the construction of that secure base. Friendships and meaningful bonds are not just ‘nice-to-have’s’. They are fundamental to our wellbeing, and being able to access our brains in an integrated way. So we want these children in front of us – who we are so desperate to reconnect with and surge on with ‘normality’ and their education – to feel belonging, meaningful connection, and psychological safety. Fundamental psychological needs: Safety – if we are in survival mode – our focus will not be on adverbial phrases. Satisfaction – in order to be engaged, motivated, we need to feel capable, that the tasks ahead of us are manageable. This is where connection with the teacher who is able to differentiate appropriately and remove some of the unnecessary clutter around tasks to ease the load on working memory and maximise focus is helpful… Connection – we have the same wiring from the earliest days of primitive man when we lived in small cohesive groups of about 100. Connection and community = survival. Connection is truly VITAL. The perception and actuality of social support is a buffer against stress and a core component of resilience. Just looking at a mountain with another person (even one we don’t know) standing in close proximity, makes our perception of the gradient of the climb easier. The feeling of belonging improves our mood, and even our immunity and our longevity.
Compromises to psychological safety on our return…
- Virtual classrooms have been an amazing tool for sustaining interaction. But it makes it harder to ‘read the room’. Watching Question Time last night reminded me palpably of what is lost by being able to have the audience in the room, the sense of approval, disapproval, humour, affirmation.
- Transition from routines – our brains don’t like change and transitions can mean our brain functioning is capable of settled, focused concentration. There will be so many ‘new’ elements to attend to – locations, travel times, COVID protocols, one way systems…Making the transition from schooling at home to school ‘live and on location’ is going to take a good degree of working memory.
- Having tests – dealing with the physically intrusive elements of this new ritual. If you are registering and teaching a class in the morning immediately after the testing – you may want to check in with them and give them the chance to clear ‘vent’ – have a short period to acknowledge, absorb, and address how they feel about that experience – and what they need to do to be properly in the moment with the lesson. (See my previous post on ‘Clearing’)
- Wearing masks in class and throughout the day for secondary school children – and some upper KS2 children…This is quite a big adjustment – adolescents are not that great at reading faces in any case. But masks can be used for good and for bad. What’s happening in the mask – muffled, less clear communication that is benign – or malign? Not being able to see the teacher’s face fully…
- Phone cold turkey…Throughout the lockdown many kids who have had smart phones (so this is potentially FROM YEAR 4 UPWARDS). Despite the use of breakout rooms, many of them have been texting each other in their friendship groups to check in with each other and reassure each other throughout your lessons. It’s been a way of clinging on to the peer to peer support they’ve totally been missing. They know they won’t be able to do this in school – but it won’t stop them trying!
- Fear of payback time – they know that school is on more of a go-slow in lockdown. There’s been no homework…they are worried that they’ll come back and the pace will be intense, that more homework will be set than ever – that the focus will be on stuffing them full of learning to make up for the gaps…Even Year 7 pupils are feeling a sense of real sadness that they have lost their carefree initiation into secondary school, the fun, the bonding…and some are bracing themselves for the return. Older pupils are worried about the value of the efforts they have – or haven’t put in…and are anxious that they will discover that they are not good enough, that it will be too late, or too hard, or too painful to catch up…
What we can do:
- Mark the transition – acknowledge the moment. Whether you are a form teacher or a teacher of a subject, set up a quick ‘check-in’ survey that shows you are genuinely interested in how they feel the home learning went, what went well for them, what was not so good, what concerns they have, what they feel their priorities are, what their needs are, if there’s anything that they need you to know. You can do this pastorally – it in terms of their English / Maths / Science etc home learning experience. When you do this you are showing yourself as a supportive and compassionate leader – and a resource who is deeply interested in meeting them where they are at and supporting their growth… You show you are aware that everyone has a different story. You are showing interest in them as a person and their sense of belonging in your class and their relationship with your subject. And you are offering connection with them, that will enable you to hold their needs in mind.
- Bring in a little of your own self-awareness – how you are feeling about being back, your own uncertainties – label them, get them out there, your own sense of appreciation – label the points of gratitude and make them present to…and encourage them to do the same. Get a shared sense of purpose – how we all want to be and feel moving forward together… create a sense of affiliation, connection, meaning.
- Help them construct a sense of meaning, a sense of purpose about the lockdown experience, how that might be useful, how they might learn from it. Clear that space for them to experience that ‘ending’ and find what is there for them from that experience in order to return. Build up a sense of purpose about moving forward.
- Engage in dialogue about protocols and behaviours so that masked communication can be as open and constructive as possible. How can we show we are listening to other people – in class, out of class. How can we give the gift of our focus to each other to enhance respect, safety, appreciation, trust? We call it ‘paying attention’ for a very good reason….How can we use our eyes expressively and signal interest? How can we think more about the quality of listening and the quality of how conversations build…recognising that we are out of practice with this…Questions to explore as you co-create protocols…what are the challenges around having a mask on? What would be good ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’? What should we do when there are breaches of these principles?
- Be aware of the fact that loneliness and isolation – which MANY have felt during this time apart mean that interactions are internally judged more critically. When we are isolated and feel on the outside, we tend to be more hypervigilant, uncertain, and questioning of ourselves – overthinking the ‘misses’ of our interactions and underplaying the ‘hits’
- Give space. Resist the urge to put the foot on the accelerator and surge forward with demanding content and pace…Go for reassurance and re-build that secure base in terms of their relationship and connections with you, their teacher, your subject, their relationship and confidence with themselves as a learner.
- GO slower on the Q and A front. Give time for quiet thought before answering questions so that pupils who are anxious about verbal contributions, and reticent, get the chance to build their confidence. Allow the class to have silent thinking time, bridging the gap between the teacher challenge, and their response, and scaffolding the safety for them to contribute – eg small group discussion prior to whole class discussion. Don’t front-load presentation work without lower-stakes interaction first…help them warm up to that more public exposure.
- Address the fact that all of us have been shaped by our experiences when apart – so there is a lot of change. People’s friendships are likely to have shifted and changed. This might be as a result of serious life changes happening in lockdown – bereavement, serious illness, divorce, separation. It might be as a result of the legacy of good, bad, and ugly online interactions.
I want to share with you some thoughts that came together on the Chat of a PSHE webinar I did earlier this week with Year 7s on what belonging and meaningful connection is, why it’s important, how to get it… This one pupil sums up perfectly what it’s like to feel you don’t belong. It’s a potent reminder that psychological safety is a real issue. It will help us to be more fully alive to and compassionate of what it actually means to not have that sense of belonging and connection – how it can fundamentally affect your mood, your sense of wellbeing, your sense of capability, and self-worth. What follows is staggeringly self-aware, insightful, and powerful. Remembering that it is written by a 12 year old makes it all the more so.
You can tell that a friendship is unhealthy when you take blows for others. When you give them kindness and they do not return it. When you feel heavy. When you aren’t excited to get up and go out and meet them. When you feel threatened to stay their friend. When they do not care for you. When they choose over you and you never choose over them. When they make fun of you. When they talk behind your back. When they don’t tell you anything nice when they only talk about you. When you feel like you are drowing and when it makes your studies go down. When they drag you down with them. They leave you behind and never wait for you. When you get up and dread the day ahead. When you feel like they are controlling you and when you feel like they are the boss. When you are scared of them and want them to like you but they don’t and its clear all on their face. When they say sarcastic comments and laugh at you all day. They tell you reasons why you are a loser and never why you are a good friend. You feel like you are carrying the burden of a hundred people and you feel like screaming but have no idea how to fix the problem. You cry thinking about it and you have no one to turn to. They cut you off from everyone to make you all alone. When you don’t know why you are sad. When you make it seem like it is your fault by saying, I’m too ugly for them, I’m too small for them, I’m too tall for them. No. What if they are too bad for you?
We need to take the health of group-life, healthy friendships, and belonging seriously. On so many levels, it is vital to the engagement with and access to learning. Wishing you all the best in the supremely important and challenging tasks of reconnecting and rebuilding that lie ahead at all levels, and in all schools. You are pivotal influences here as Haim Ginnot writes: “I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.” With love and gratitude to you for all your care, and all you will do for our children.Emma.