Creating the conditions for a safe school

The idea of school safety conjures up images of single points of entry, signing in at the front of the school, showing identification to security personnel, and wearing a name badge.  These are all relatively new physical safety practices for schools and yet are necessary when it comes to protecting the children (and staff) in our schools.

The companion to physical safety practices is another form of safety known as emotional safety which is just as critical only more elusive.  Both forms of safety stem from by getting one’s physical and emotional needs met. Whether one references Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, or William Glasser’s articulation of the Quality School, all children have a set of both physical and emotional needs and their behaviors stem from the drive to get those needs met.  Schools meet the physical needs of their students by providing breakfast, lunch and a warm building (in the winter), thereby meeting the need for food and shelter.   The greater challenge for schools lies in meeting a child’s emotional needs because it requires a finely tuned set of emotional competencies to determine what emotional needs are unmet and what strategies of implementation are necessary to meet them.

According to the work of William Glasser, there are four emotional needs:

  1. Belonging/affiliation
  2. Power/competence
  3. Freedom/voice
  4. Fun/engagement

This list of needs is a blueprint for emotional safety. When they are met, the student’s motivation will be high, their behavior will be pro-social, and a high-level of trust between teacher and student and student and student, will be the norm.  If however, a need is unmet, the child’s behavior will reflect it as the environment will feel unsafe emotionally.

In the literature on emotional safety, of all the identified emotional needs, the primary emotional condition necessary for a sense of safety and trust is belonging.  This above everything else, points a school in the direction of emphasizing the impact of positive relationship building with youth as a primary practice toward emotional safety.

Definitions of Emotional Safety

When emotional safety is defined, the central themes are: belonging, affiliation and trust.

  • In psychology,emotional safety refers to an emotional state achieved in attachment relationships wherein each individual is open and vulnerable. (Catherall, 2007)
  • A feeling that your inner most thoughts, feelings and experience are, and will be, honored as one honors themselves. You need not prove, nor impress; you just simply are. (King, 2011)
  • Emotions and Safety are defined in Oxford dictionary as “a strong feeling deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others” and “the condition of being protected from or unlikely to cause danger, risk, or injury”.(
  • An emotionally safe environment is one which has clear expectations regarding the safety of all students. Bullying is not tolerated. Conflict resolution skills are taught and modeled by teachers. (R. A. Hirsh, 2004)

Critical Practices for Building Emotional Safety

As a  school seeks to comprehensively meet the emotional needs of its students, the following interrelated practices must be put into place:

  1. All school staff seeks to build trusting relationships with the students.
  2. A learning community of belonging is implemented and maintained school-wide.
  3. Relevant and authentic learning experiences are designed to engage all learners.
  4. A strong and collaborative support system is in place that focuses its efforts on meeting the social, emotional, and academic needs of all students.
  5. Student expectations are clearly stated and are consistently expected with predictable and logical consequences.

As each of these emotional safety building practices evolve into the cultural norms of a school, the conditions for each student to succeed academically, socially, and emotionally are created.


Published by


David A. Levine’s ( work on teaching empathy as a social culture building strategy has been featured in the New York Times, National Public Radio, and ABC News. After teaching elementary and middle school, David became the chief trainer for the U.S. Department of Education’s Northeast Regional Center for Safe and Drug-Free Schools. It was during that time that he created a framework for social culture building he calls "A School of Belonging." This systems change process, is highlighted in his books, "Teaching Empathy", "Building Classroom Communities", and "The School of Belonging Plan Book." He is the founding Director of the Teaching Empathy Institute, in Kingston, NY, a program of The Tides Center, and serves as an adviser to Ashoka’s Start Empathy Initiative.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s