How Education Leaders Can Foster a Safe Learning Environment
Originally published on September 7, 2023, and refreshed on May 17, 2023.
Students have more to worry about than ever before, and their education leaders are concerned about it. A recent study revealed that 90% of school district leaders have either “moderate” or “major” concerns about students’ mental health.
For example, generalized anxiety in students is on the rise in tandem with the stress of returning to the classroom post-lockdowns, the barrage of news related to mass school shootings and increased reports of cyberbullying. Researchers have found that while emotionally unsafe academic environments lead to stress, poor attendance and lower academic performance in students’ engagement, schools deemed to be emotionally safe are linked to good identity development, positive learning experiences and a greater sense of self-worth in students.
Professionals interested in pursuing education leadership career paths must ensure that fostering mental and emotional health matters just as greatly as fostering academic success. Completing an advanced education such as a Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) can prepare graduates with the skills to provide students with a positive learning experience.
How to Create a Safe Learning Environment: 6 Examples
Worrying about students’ well-being daily is a heavy burden for education leaders who want to see their students and schools thrive.
Just as leaders need to ensure physical safety in schools, they should also proactively work to foster an emotionally safe environment. Recent insights into the state of students’ sense of well-being in schools has revealed the following:
- Approximately 20% of high school students report being bullied
- 70% of public schools report an increase in the percentage of their students seeking mental health services at school since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic
- 76% of public schools cite an increase in staff voicing concerns about their students exhibiting symptoms such as depression, anxiety and trauma
It is paramount that education leaders step up to create plans to help both their students and teachers thrive. Below are just a few of the ways for leadership to create a safe school environment.
1. Address Mental Health Stigmas
While the past several years have brought mental health conversations to the forefront of American culture, there is still a significant stigma around issues like anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. The stigma has detrimental effects, including relationship conflicts, bullying and reluctance to seek support or treatment. In fact, only one in five children with diagnosable mental health issues receive support, and 67% of people aged 18–24 who suffer from anxiety or depression don't seek treatment.
By talking about mental health in informative, inclusive ways, education leaders can reduce stigma and encourage students to pursue support. School leaders can address mental health stigma by:
- Expanding schools’ mental health services, such as mental health and behavioral health counseling programs, which are also likely to improve student GPA, math scores and reading scores
- Hosting community experts to speak at student assemblies and parent nights
- Implementing a curriculum on mental illness stigma that includes opportunities for student discussion
Education leaders can’t take on the full burden of addressing mental health issues on their campus by themselves, but by working with key professionals like counselors, social workers and other experts, they can make a significant difference in the mental well-being of the students they serve.
2. Train Teachers and Support Staff
While principals and other high-level education leaders have some direct connection with students, they do not spend as much time in contact with students as teachers and other support staff. Therefore, one of the best ways for principals, deans and other school leaders to foster a safe school environment is by ensuring that teachers and support staff are receiving training, resources and support in key areas of emotional student well-being. In addition to benefiting teachers, staff and students, these offerings also help education leaders themselves as they can rely on the expertise of their teachers and staff to a greater degree.
By implementing opportunities for teacher and support staff professional growth, education leaders can ensure that school staff know they are valued and that their leaders want them to grow. Professional development opportunities for teachers that can empower them to create a safe learning environment for students may include:
- Inviting an expert in social-emotional skills to speak at a teacher training
- Offering a book club to teachers and support staff in which they read and discuss a book about a specific student population, learning difference or educational style
- Polling teachers about their unique skill areas, then hosting a rotating workshop night in which teachers train each other
When training and professional development are delivered in a one-size-fits-all manner, it can feel like just one more thing teachers and support staff have to get done. But by delivering opportunities that are uniquely suited to the needs of a certain campus, education leaders can better train their educators and let those educators know that their leaders are intentionally addressing their specific needs.
3. Support Specific Student Populations
To create a safe school environment for all students, education leaders need to consider the specific student populations they are responsible for educating. For example, an elementary school in a rural Midwestern community will not have the same needs as a downtown Chicago high school, and the leaders of those schools must understand their students’ specific needs in order to implement emotional safety solutions that will work for them.
Additionally, within a school, there will be a range of learning styles, home lives and academic goals among students. Principals and higher education leaders can foster equity and inclusion for students by encouraging teachers to present content in multiple ways and ensuring that accommodations are offered, implemented and maintained for students who need them.
Supporting specific student populations in school may look like:
- Celebrating the cultural heritages represented in the student body
- Collaborating with caregivers on how to best support and educate students with disabilities
- Exposing students to nontraditional career options early in their education so they have a broad perspective of the professional paths available to them
By recognizing and uniquely supporting students from specific populations, school leaders can help prevent students who might otherwise be overlooked from falling through the cracks.With support, these students can succeed as valued members of the school community and beyond.
4. Create a School Safety Plan
The National Center on Safe Supporting Learning Environments reports that schools that have a school safety plan aimed at protecting students from bullying, exposure to weapons, the sale and use of drugs, harassment and violence have better student outcomes. While establishing emotional safety in schools may not be an education leader’s easiest task, it is achievable. By starting with examples from fellow leaders and academic institutions, education leaders can find the encouragement, ideas and support they need to foster a safe school environment.
For example, back in 2011, the Adams-Friendship Area Schools in Wisconsin recognized they needed to tackle system issues in their school environments. This rural community implemented a curriculum that gave teachers scripted lessons and supplementary kits on topics like drug education and anti-bullying. The program led to positive outcomes such as:
- Fewer suspensions and expulsions
- Increased time for academic instruction, as interruptions were reduced
- Greater student participation
5. Build a Sense of Community
When people have a sense of community, they are likely to be healthier than people who do not. Lacking a sense of belonging is associated with stress, illness, decreased well-being and depression. Education leaders can foster a safe learning environment for students by empowering teachers to build community within their classrooms and throughout the school as a whole.
Here are a few examples of how educators build community in their classrooms and schools:
- Facilitating a weekly time for students to write thank you letters, cultivating gratitude and creating a shared tradition for students
- Instituting a buddies program in which older students work alongside younger students in educational and recreational activities
- Hosting community-building events such as assembly programs and contests that celebrate school values and togetherness
Education leaders like principals can also build community in their schools by seeking advice from teachers, parents and students. In doing so, leaders can communicate that they value collaboration — a key component of a flourishing community.
6. Celebrate Student Achievements
When education leaders cultivate an environment of celebrating student achievements, they tend to see positive effects like increased student motivation, greater student self-esteem and more positive classroom environments. At the elementary, middle and high school levels, celebrating student achievements school-wide may look like posting student art or essays in the hallway. At the collegiate level, a celebration of student achievements could look like an email celebrating recently acquired internships or insightful student projects.
The celebration of student achievements also creates an opportunity for education leaders to communicate their holistic vision for student education. Rather than only celebrating academic successes, leaders can praise students for volunteerism, kindness to fellow students or achievements in the arts or athletics.
Additional examples of celebrating student achievements include:
- Sending a postcard home with a student to communicate recent successes to parents
- Facilitating principal visits to the classroom where students give the principal a tour and point out student projects and accomplishments
- Hosting an awards ceremony to recognize students’ achievements in academics, extracurricular activities and character
As education leaders build a safe learning environment by celebrating student achievements, they are also encouraging students to notice and encourage the successes of others.
Foster a Safe Learning Environment as a Leader in Education
From elementary schools to college campuses, today’s students need education leaders who are invested in their emotional safety. Through innovative approaches to issues like reducing mental health stigma and intentional efforts to build community and celebrate students, leaders in education can empower their students emotionally, mentally and academically. Something as simple as an encouraging email or as grand as a campus-wide event can speak volumes to students and build a safe learning environment that lasts.
Marymount’s part-time, fully online and accredited Ed.D. program offers a highly personalized and accelerated cohort model, one committed to building a sense of community, support and safety. Coursework in leadership, organizational change and social justice empowers Ed.D. students to be agents of transformation in their schools. For instance, take David Slater — a campus principal who recognizes that innovation is a primary component of successful educational leadership today.
“The organizational innovation component of this degree program was also a big factor for me,” Slater said. “So much of what education leaders are called on to do these days transcends the traditional administrative functions and asks us to reimagine, reframe and redesign what has been done before to generate improved student outcomes.”
An innovative approach to emotional safety in schools can make a positive change in the lives of students and whole communities. Prepare to lead that change by connecting with a Marymount admissions advisor and learning if the Marymount doctoral program in Education is right for you.