Create safe spaces for students in the classroom. (2023)

Providing students with a safe space to grow and learn, where they feel their voice is heard, has a major impact on their learning and well-being. This guide contains tips for creating this room.

Create safe spaces for students in the classroom. (1)

27. April 2020

Holley and Steiner (2005) propose that a safe space is:

The metaphor of the classroom as a 'safe space' originated as a description of a classroom climate that allows students to feel safe enough to take risks, honestly express their views, and share and explore their knowledge, attitudes, and behavior .

Security in this sense does not refer to physical security. Rather, safe space in the classroom is about protection from psychological or emotional harm...

Being safe is not the same as being comfortable. In order to grow and learn, students must confront problems that make them uncomfortable and force them to struggle with who they are and what they believe in.” (p. 50)

What are microaggressions?

Sue et al. (2007) define microaggressions as:

"Are brief, usual, everyday verbal, behavioral, or environmental insults, intentional or unintentional, that convey hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slurs and insults toward people of color." (p. 271)

Some examples of microaggressions are:

  • inappropriate jokes
  • Stereotype
  • Being deleted from groups and/or fired or ignored
  • not learn names
  • denial of racial reality

While micro-aggression is often subtle and interpersonal, macro-aggression is often overt and occurs on a systemic level.

Understanding race and racism in higher education

Warmington (2018) states:

“The greatest obstacle to the treatment of racial equality in higher education is the refusal of academics to consider race as a legitimate object of scrutiny, whether in science or in politics. Consequently, the role that universities play in the (re)production of racial injustice is rarely recognized.

It is important to recognize and address the ways in which we, both as individuals and as an institution, “contribute to the racialized culture and practice of science” (Warmington, 2018).

This is explored extensively in the work of Arday and Mirza (2018),Dismantling careers in higher education. The book contains a collection of essays examining the ideology of whiteness and the roots of structural racism in science.

Understanding the decolonization movement

There are increasing calls for decolonization of the university and curriculum across the sector.

(Video) How to Create a Safe Space in Your Classroom

While the evidence for inclusive practice is clear, for example the diversification of reading lists, decolonization goes beyond these isolated practices.

Although there is no consensus on a definition of decolonization in the educational context, Begum and Saini (2019) suggest:

"Decolonization is crucial because, unlike diversification, it explicitly recognizes and seeks to destabilize the power relations inherent in the production and dissemination of knowledge" (p.198).

  • For more examples of decolonization, seeUCL on unleashing the curriculum.

Why is it important to create a safe learning environment?

Racist microaggressions have a negative impact on students' self-esteem and well-being.

Nadal et al. (2014) found that racist microaggression negatively affects students' mental health.

Their results showed that microaggressions that occur in educational and work settings are particularly damaging to victims' self-esteem.

our legal obligation

The Equality Act (2010) prohibits direct and indirect discrimination based on protected characteristics. As such, we are legally required to provide education in a non-discriminatory manner.

Creating a safe space is important to students and their perception of how much they are learning

Holly and Steiner (2005) examined students' perspectives on safe learning environments.

They found that "the vast majority of students find creating a safe space to be very or extremely important and that most students feel they learn more in a classroom like this" (p. 61).

It affects students' sense of belonging, which is associated with academic success and motivation.

Research suggests that racial micro-aggression can make students feel unwanted and unwanted and reduce a sense of belonging (Hurtado & Carter, 1997; Smith et al., 2007).

It is important to foster a strong sense of belonging as it is positively associated with academic success and motivation (Freeman, Anderman, & Jensen, 2017).

  • Check out the teaching toolkit:Create a sense of belonging for your students

Tips for creating safe spaces

A selection of practical advice is provided to help you create safe and inclusive learning environments.

For instructions, tips, and additional resources, visitcomplete instructions as pdf.

These include:

  1. Learn the students' names and pronounce them correctly
  2. Address the challenging behavior head on and use it as teaching moments.
  3. Use microinstructions
  4. Establish ground rules for interacting with your students at the beginning of the course.
  5. Write a diversity and inclusion statement for your resume

1. Learn the students' names and pronounce them correctly

Ambrose et al. (2010) state that “creating an effective learning climate often involves making students feel recognized as individuals by both teachers and peers” (p. 182).

This can be accomplished by learning students' names and providing opportunities for students to learn each other's names.

(Video) Safe Space Classrooms

Although learning names can reduce anonymity, it's also important to pronounce them correctly.

Research by Kohli and Solorzano (2011) shows that mispronouncing names can have a negative impact on students' worldview and emotional well-being.

To help you learn names, consider asking students to say their names before they start speaking, e.g. when responding to a question or comment, or using name tents (a folded card with a student's name on it). .

If you're not sure how to pronounce a student's name, ask them directly, and don't be afraid to ask more than once.

Taking the time to learn and pronounce a student's name not only makes the student feel valued, but also provides an opportunity to model inclusive behaviors for all students and create a positive classroom climate (O'Brien et al. , 2014). .

2. Address the challenging behavior head on and use it as teaching moments.

Address any challenging behavior head-on, such as:

  • The microaggression
  • alienating contracts or
  • settings etc

Research shows that students follow teacher's cues on how to respond during stressful times, so ignoring challenging behaviors can further marginalize students and miss opportunities to foster mutual understanding and dispel stereotypes (Sue et al., 2009; Bergom et al., 2011). .

Failure to manage challenging behaviors such as microaggression can have adverse consequences for the responsible person, including reduced empathy and delusional maintenance (Spanierman et al. 2006).

So try to turn those difficult moments into learning moments and learning opportunities.

Ambrose et al. (2010) suggest that when tension is high, “steer those emotions into useful dialogue,” such as encouraging students to adopt a different perspective through role-play, or allowing students time to write down their reactions, thoughts, and feelings (p. 184). .

3. Use microinstructions

Rowe (2008) defines microstatements as “small acts of opening doors to opportunity, gestures of inclusion and caring, and benevolent acts of listening” (p. 46).

The research by Estrada et al. (2019) found that students' microstatement experiences can positively contribute to their integration into disciplinary communities” (p. 13).

Additionally, studies have shown that “students with high levels of identity assertion are more likely to have:

  • greater self-esteem, self-concept, academic performance;
  • less psychological problems; It is
  • confront and respond positively to everyday discrimination (Ghavami et al., 2011; Umaña-Taylor et al., 2008, cited in Ellis et al. 2019, p.2).

Powell et al. (2013) condense microstatements into actions that you can use in your daily interactions with students.

These include:

Active listening

Focus on hearing clearly what students are saying and reinforce that understanding by using eye contact, nodding, open body language, summaries of statements, and questions to confirm understanding.

(Video) Morning Meetings: Creating a Safe Space for Learning

Validate students' emotions

When a student reveals an experience (positive or negative) to you, verbally acknowledge and affirm the students' feelings about that experience. Make statements with genuine emotion and appropriate body language.

Statements can be as simple as "I appreciate that this is frustrating...", "I can see that you are very excited about this opportunity..."

If the experience is challenging, validate students' feelings by guiding them to develop a productive perspective on their experience.

Where appropriate, refer students to services and identify relevant resources and options available to them.

Recognize and validate student experiences.

This does not mean that you have to agree with the student's interpretation of the experience.

Instead, focus on making it clear to the student that you understand the challenge of their experience and are willing to help them find productive ways to deal with it.

You can do this by using verbal, written, and body language cues that show you care about what the student is saying and interested in helping them.

4. Establish ground rules for interacting with your students at the beginning of the course

Research suggests that in order to think critically and become culturally competent, students need to face their biases and be aware of their values ​​and beliefs (Diller, 2004; Van Soest & Garcia, 2003).

This can be facilitated in a number of ways, including classroom discussions.

However, Holly and Steiner (2005) suggest that when students risk revealing themselves in a discussion (i.e. expressing viewpoints that others may not readily accept), the rewards (i.e. personal growth) outweigh the perceived consequences need (i.e. possible embarrassment or ridicule). One way to facilitate and encourage open and honest discussion is to establish ground rules with your class.

Ambrose et al. (2010) state that “ground rules can help ensure that peers are inclusive and respectful to create an effective learning climate and promote student development” (p. 183).

Garibay (2015) suggests that, if possible, trainers should spend part of the first session developing ground rules with students; however, if this is not possible due to time constraints, ground rules should be included in the programme.

Example of ground rules

Garibay (2015, p.9) gives the following suggestions for ground rules:

  • Respect the opinions of others in class discussions.
  • If you disagree, be sure to use arguments to criticize the idea, not the person.
  • When giving an opinion or answering a question, support your claim with arguments and evidence, not generalizations.
  • Avoid dominating class discussions.
  • Be open to the ideas and experiences of others in the class.
  • If you are nervous about speaking up in class, remember that your perspective is valid and the class deserves to hear it.
  • Pay attention to the body language. Non-verbal responses can also indicate disrespect.

5. Write a diversity and inclusion statement for your resume

The Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning (HWSCTL) at Brown suggests that “Incorporating a diversity statement into your curriculum can set the tone for your teaching environment. It shows students that you value and respect differences in intellectual exchange and that you are aware of campus conversations about diversity.”

For tips on writing a diversity statement and more examples, seeYale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning.

Examples of diversity declarations

From the University of Iowa School of Education
“Respect for Diversity: I want this course to serve students well from diverse backgrounds and perspectives, that the learning needs of students are addressed both inside and outside the classroom, and that the diversity that students bring to this course is . as a resource, strength and benefit.

(Video) Meet the High School Dean Creating a Safe Space for Queer Students

It is my intention to present materials and activities that respect diversity: gender, sexuality, disability, age, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, race and culture.

Your suggestions are encouraged and appreciated. Let me know how you can improve the effectiveness of the course for you personally or for other students or groups of students.
If any of our class reunions conflict with your religious gatherings, please let me know so we can make arrangements for you."

By Monica Linden, Neuroscience, Brown University
“In an ideal world, science would be objective. However, much of the science is subjectively and historically grounded in a small subset of privileged voices.

I acknowledge that the readings in this course, including the course reader and the BCP, were written by white men.

In addition, the course generally focuses on historically important neuroscience experiments conducted primarily by white males.

Recently edited readers of the course were made by myself and some students who do not identify as white males.

However, I recognize that even if the material is primarily scientific in nature, the material may contain obvious and hidden biases due to the lens through which it was written.
Integrating a variety of experiences is important for a more complete understanding of science. Please contact me (in person or electronically) or send anonymous feedback if you have any suggestions for improving the quality of the course materials...".

The student's perspective

UCL student ratings

"Racial discrimination is subtle in the sense that it is not overt, but the way teachers and students express things can be offensive to someone from a minority group." UCL Charter of Racial Equality (REC) Student Research

“Discrimination is often very subtle… people who do it may not even realize it. For example, the way teachers sometimes refer to “the Chinese” or “the Indians” and so on. at a conference just because of his physical appearance.” REC Student Survey

"Teachers make fun of international students because they know they won't get the joke." Counseling challenge. sample

“From blatant comments to lots of micro-aggression and subtle racism from peers. None are spoken to, because most of the professors and seminar leaders are white. So either unable to see it or not having the will to. REC student survey

"While I think that race and ethnicity are discussed in academic discussions, I think that this is only briefly glossed over or not mentioned explicitly enough... It often seems that issues of race and ethnicity are outside the norm, that they queue up the periphery of what is important versus what is central to many people's life experience, along with the number of issues being navigated in our world." REC student survey

Opinions of other industrial students

“Teachers should adopt nicknames for minority students for whom their names are considered too difficult. This is often the case initially when a teacher is taken for a ride for seeing an "ethnic" name on the file. Tackling Racial Harassment: Challenged Universities, Equality and Human Rights Commission

"One teacher who was commenting on people who spoke with a 'difficult' accent made me feel insecure about the way I was speaking. I feel like when I started college I wasn't very sensitive to microaggression and often blamed myself, which made me feel less capable than my white peers.” Insider-Outsider, The Role of Race in Shaping Black and Minority Ethnic Student Experiences at Goldsmiths

“My teacher ignored me and walked around the room asking everyone questions, when she came to me she walked past me and asked the person next to me (I was the only BME person in the class). He also didn't know my name and just said "you" or pointed at me while knowing everyone else's name.” Degrees of Freedom, SOAS

"Most of the time it's the way teachers talk to you, their body language, their behavior. They will use certain expressions that they would not use with their Caucasian peers. There is a change in attitude when they approach you. And you can feel that. Tackling Racial Harassment: Challenged Universities, Equality and Human Rights Commission

(Video) Peace Corner: Creating Safe Space for Reflection


For a full list of resources, seecomplete instructions as pdf.

Resources to close the markup gapThe project website also offers many other resources and further reading.

This guide was created byBAME award-winning gap projectFor theUCL Arena Center for Inquiry Based EducationToolkits You can use this guide if you come from another training center but you need to accredit the project.


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