How to Help Your Students Feel Safe in their Learning.
I have long said that there can be no separation between emotions and learning. The way we feel significantly impacts the way that we interact with the material in front of us and our motivation to participate in lessons. When I was learning to drive a manual car and stalled on a hill outside a mechanic’s workshop (you might well imagine how mortifying that was), I threw my keys on the kitchen bench after I arrived home and demanded my husband buy me a new car because there was no way I was driving ‘that thing’ ever again. I imagined that every person on the street had stopped to watch me struggle, sniggering to each other about how bad I was at it. The very thought of trying to drive the manual car made my heart race. In the end I found a driving instructor who made it much easier for me to understand where I was going wrong and point me in the right direction for success. Now imagine that you are a child struggling with reading and writing. Every time you are asked to do a reading or writing task you probably feel just like I did, stuck on that hill, imagining that everyone was looking at you, thinking about how dumb you are. And then every time you knew you were going to be asked to read and write again, that same sense of dread washed over you. Ever had a child throw things or start an argument right before a writing lesson? There’s a good chance that this is how they were feeling. That old flight, fight, freeze response is very much alive in our classrooms.
So how do we structure things in our classroom to make it a safe space for our students to take a risk and engage? Here are my top tips.
Recognise that all teaching is about relationship
I don’t mean that you are a student’s best friend, but that they know that you have their back. Your role is to challenge, guide and be insistent that all children will learn in your classroom, but it is also to support, connect and lead. YOU are your students’ GPS. You (metaphorically) take them by the hand and say, “It’s ok. I’m here. I’ve got you.” In the end, we all learn from people we like who we feel are on our side. Our students are no different.
Stop asking students to do things they don't know how to do
This might sound like the most obvious thing in the universe, but if we are honest with ourselves, there's a good chance that we do this more than we might think. How many times have you found yourself instructing a student to 'just have a try' when they are having trouble writing or 'sound it out' when they don't have the phonics knowledge to do so? We need to always reflect and ask ourselves, "Does this students actually have the prerequisite skills and knowledge to complete this task?"
Model and openly support an environment where errors are valued
It’s not just about saying, “Oh, everyone makes mistakes”, but about embracing them. Having students repeat mantras such as “Fixing is learning” and “Learning from mistakes is my superpower” can help all students understand that there is no shame in errors. Of course, when you make your own errors, show students that you are ok with not being perfect too.
Create lots of opportunity for success.
Our job as teachers is to set students up for success. They shouldn’t have to participate in a game of ‘Guess what’s in my head’ or need to earn the opportunity to get things right. All lessons need to
1) Teach in a way that all students can connect with first so that students have the foundation of the lesson.
2) Present a task that requires students to think and stretch, but within the bounds of their current skills and understanding.
3)Provide feedback so that students know what they got right.
4) Allow them to fix any errors.
Lessons should be pitched at that sweet-spot for each student so that they have suitable stretch, but don’t snap. Sometimes, students’ confidence is so low that you have to engineer the content so that the student is 100% guaranteed to experience success. This isn’t a long term strategy, but can help build trust between teacher and student.
Engage in regular, low stakes review and formative assessment
Students get performance anxiety because they feel like the sky will fall in if they don’t know something. When you ask lots of questions about things students have learned and engage them in formative assessment using mini-whiteboards and other means, they become more familiar with assessment. Avoid asking students to put their hand up if they answered all questions correctly or (even worse) if they only got one answer correct. That just reinforces how ‘dumb’ students may feel. But do ask students to ‘chin’ their boards and show you the answers to their questions. I’m a huge fan of ‘tick it or fix it’ in the classroom. When students spell the words in phonics lesson, show them the word after they write it and allow them to ‘tick it or fix it’. There are no crosses or red marks. Just learning.
Communicate that meeting student need is your responsibility
If students don’t get the right answer in your lesson say something like, “Mmm. I can see that this one was a bit tricky. I think I need to find a different way of explaining this to you. Leave it with me everyone and I’ll change things up.” Or “I can see we need to practice this one a bit more. Don’t worry everyone. We are going to do this lots of times and I’m here with you to help.” If you say these things, it’s important to follow up. It’s not up to students to twist themselves in knots to be able to participate. It is up to us to teach in a way that they can engage with.
Allow a sneak peek
When conducting your sentence level lessons, allow students to 'sneak a peak' if they can't remember spelling. See the video clip below.
Engaging in practices like those described in this post shows students that you aren’t just talking the talk but also walking the walk. Teaching explicitly, systematically and in a way that meets your students’ needs says, “I’m with you. You aren’t alone in your learning. You are safe.”