Focusing on students' emotional stress--particularly after the COVID pandemic--will be paramount to establishing safe learning environments this fall

Are schools really safe?


Focusing on students' emotional stress--particularly after the COVID pandemic--will be paramount to establishing safe learning environments this fall

When we think about school safety our first instinct is physical safety. Sadly, it’s a real concern with the all-too-regular gun shootings and bullying that occurs. However, there’s a far more common and pervasive issue occurring: emotional safety.

Since the industrial revolution, school has been primarily taught in an authoritarian style where kids are judged constantly and relentlessly from academics to behaviors. In addition, teachers and peers use shame and degradation to show their “higher” value or status, which causes additional emotional trauma.

We might think it’ll “toughen kids up,” but given the levels of [emotional] stress kids experience every day, it’s doing far more harm than good. Not to mention, emotional stress changes brain chemistry–especially when you experience this type of regular cortisol release. Kids aren’t spontaneously “going crazy” and “mentally ill” with depression and anxiety; they’re simply trying to survive in their environment.

A child (or adult for that matter) in emotional distress (i.e., not feeling loved, connected, or a sense of belonging) will struggle to learn because most of their brain function is focused on their safety, governed by the amygdala, a core fear system in the human body, rather than in their prefrontal cortex where learning and critical thinking occurs. This is known as an “Amygdala Hijack” and it’s not a flaw, but rather a survival mechanism.

“If we’re feeling judged then we’re not feeling loved.”

Most schools are poorly set up to nurture kids (or staff) emotionally. Compounding the Amygdala Hijack is the fact that too many children begin their school day in emotional distress due to their home environment. It’s great to have tools such as Emotional Intelligence practices and Mindfulness techniques, but more often these are implemented AFTER a child has already been emotionally triggered. What if we could prevent the triggers from happening in the first place? When emotional traumas occur less frequently, the above techniques may be more likely implemented and effective. What if school was an emotionally safe-haven kids were excited to attend rather than fear and resist?

Before learning can occur, we must provide an emotionally safe environment for kids. Students need an environment where they have a real relationship with their teachers and peers, rather than relationships rooted in fear of judgment or shame and emotional distress. Relationships grow primarily through the giving and receiving of information, i.e., communicating and connecting through conversation.

The more real conversations we have, the more we get to know and understand each other and ourselves. Not only does it feel great, it directly supports our emotional health. The beauty of conversations is they 1) don’t have to be in real-time and 2) don’t have to be verbal or face-to-face. In fact, 2,500 years of data support two people having deep, emotional connections simply from writing letters.

Suppose schools do not create a robust, emotionally safe environment where every child (and staff member) feels loved and a sense of belonging. In that case, no amount of instruction, workshops, tech gadget, or length of school day or year will make a difference. People need daily opportunities to connect and nurture relationships, and when they do, they’ll truly thrive!

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