How to Create Safe Learning Environments

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A few weeks ago, a high school sophomore in South Carolina received national attention after being caught using her phone during math class. Social media was abuzz with outraged comments as the world witnessed on video a white male police officer flip the black female student in her desk and drag her to the front of the room.

People were talking about how the student is yet another black victim of police brutality. People were talking about how she is a teenage girl who was assaulted by an adult male. People were talking about how this is yet another example of the mounting racial tensions in schools across the nation.

We'd like to draw your attention to the classroom teacher.

What we see in this video is a failure on the part of the education system to support the student's safety and security. As educators, we are charged with the responsibility of maintaining a safe classroom environment that allows students to be "available to learn."

—Jonathan Bouw for Education Week

Over the past four years, our group, the Recognizing Excellence in Learning and Teaching Project, known as RELATE and funded by the William T. Grant Foundation, has taken an in-depth look at the most volatile of classrooms—those primarily serving students with emotional and behavioral disorders. These are the students least likely to graduate and most likely to enter the juvenile-justice system. Their teachers, we found, are also more likely to intervene on behalf of their students.

And then, there's the school police officer.

The cycle-of-violence hypothesis holds that children learn self-regulation through the role models around them—their parents and other relatives, friends, teachers, and respected authority figures. Students who are spanked as children, for example, are more likely to be disruptive in school classrooms and more likely to spank their own children later on in adulthood.

The threat of physical punishment, or actual physical punishment, is never the answer. Longitudinal evidence consistently shows that children who have been raised and socialized to use their hands instead of their words will continue to do so long after their inappropriate role models have moved on.

Children are most likely to model the behaviors of those they hold in high regard and see as having social prestige, a perception they may form in part because the model wears a uniform. By this logic, children should be learning to emulate the officer in their school. They should want to be him—not fear him.

We know better. When the behavior displayed by an adult role model is reactive and not well-considered in light of his or her role to teach and care for students, the result is worse than ineffective; it is counterproductive. Physical punishment is a low-cost, no-win Band-Aid for a preventable situation. Reactionary practices are not best practices in education. Prevention is.

To help schools learn more about evidence-based practices in classroom behavioral intervention, we have developed a classroom-observation model called the RELATE Tool, which provides a checklist of prevention indicators. When employed by classroom educators, this system can help promote student safety and security and maximize student learning and outcomes.

The key elements of prevention are: monitoring, de-escalation of unsafe behavior, and intervention.

"Longitudinal evidence consistently shows that children who have been raised and socialized to use their hands instead of their words will continue to do so long after their inappropriate role models have moved on."

Examples of monitoring include educators' employment of a classroom merit system; communication about student behavior with appropriate classroom staff (for example, the paraeducator) and the individual student; reflection on student academic and behavioral progress by using predetermined academic and behavioral tracking systems; positive reminders of student goals and potential rewards; and engagement with students in unprompted self-evaluation of achievement or behavior.

De-escalation of unsafe behaviors requires educators to examine the degree to which they have enacted strategies that minimize behavior-related issues by demonstrating vigilance, neutrality, and positive directives; maintaining appropriate distance; and adjusting elements of the classroom.

We define intervention as the degree to which educators take effective action to promote a safe learning environment; for example, by addressing problem areas, using standard crisis-intervention strategies, removing students from unsafe situations, and re-establishing communication with students post-intervention.

But that's not all. Context also matters.

In the case of the South Carolina video, for example, social-media news groups have begun to report claims that the student's behavior precipitated the physical assault by the officer. We will never get clarity on this issue: The "he said, she said" debate will probably remain long after the story fades from the headlines.

We, too, have learned through our work that it is very easy to lose sight of the larger context of interactions in a classroom when viewing a video clip. Often, additional information is needed to understand what is happening in classroom videos that may be undetectable to the outside observer.

The benefit of context is that it allows us to understand whether a teacher's failure to act is justified. For example, in many of the classrooms we have observed, a teacher's ignoring student misbehavior (like jumping out of his or her seat) is intentional. It's called "extinguishing the behavior." Psychology teaches us that human beings can, and often do, respond positively to negative reinforcement. At times, the best way to remove a poor behavior from a student's repertoire is not to acknowledge it; often the behavior is merely intended to get a reaction.

Imagine a 5th grade classroom where a student we'll call Matt is continually getting into trouble. The teacher puts his name on the board to signify a warning. Matt then acts out again, and the teacher puts a check mark next to his name, signifying a loss of recess time. For Matt, the reinforcement of getting his name on the board is a reward. He is not motivated to change his behavior, even by losing minutes of recess with each check, because this is about getting his name on the board and keeping the attention of the teacher and his peers at whatever cost.

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But teachers can't always ignore the behavior. So what do we do to keep students safe? We create a structure in the school environment that limits the likelihood of the behavior occurring in the first place. In the context of the South Carolina videotape, it may mean this: Require students to leave their phones at the door before entering the math class.

Perhaps the most confusing part of the South Carolina incident is the fact that the student being penalized for using her phone was being videotaped herself on her classmates' phones. The reality is that, with or without video, the action and inaction in this case, as well as in other similar encounters, demonstrate a failure to support our students' best interests.

So, do we accept the narrative that cops are scary, teachers are weak, and student behaviors are inconsistently managed?

Our students deserve better. As a field, as a professional community, as their parents and teachers, we know better.

Vol. 35, Issue 14, Pages 22, 28

Published in Print: December 9, 2015, as Class, Interrupted
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