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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

How a Sense of Safety Shapes Student Learning and Behavior

The perception of threat interferes with learning
By Dustin Bindreiff — May 21, 2023 5 min read
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Feeling alone, judged, and rejected underlies the pervasive anxiety and sadness many kids feel today. The ugliness of social media can become an endless feed of judgment and criticism for many kids. School has become a highly competitive battlefield of constant judgment and comparison.

Many kids feel there is no one in their home and community they can talk to. This loneliness leaves kids feeling vulnerable and can be why some become overwhelmed by a bad grade, a mean comment, or how many “likes” a picture gets. Feeling unsafe puts kids in an anxious and hypervigilant state that has important implications for learning and behavior.

Neuroception is a psychology term used to describe how the brain is constantly scanning the environment for cues as to whether the people and places around us are safe. In many ways, the term “neuroception” describes the threat-detection function of the amygdala. According to Stephen Porges, who coined the term, until this area of our brain is satisfied that we are safe, we will not engage in social behaviors. Instead, we will focus on self-protection and try not to get noticed. Additionally, when our neuroception tells us that we are not safe, we will engage in the defensive behaviors based in our fight or flight response.

“Do I Belong?”

Using our neuroception, the more primitive parts of our brain are constantly scanning our environment and asking basic questions related to safety. Such as:

  • Do I belong here?
  • Is that person a threat or an ally?
  • Is she like me or different?
  • Should I welcome or exclude this person?

As Figure 1 describes, with each new stimuli, the amygdala uses neuroception to detect for threats. When we feel safe, our amygdala relaxes, and we can better access executive functioning. This can be thought of as our creative brain. This executive functioning is largely responsible for thinking deeply, solving problems, and sustained attention; it is higher-order thinking. For the most part, the purpose of school is to develop this area of the brain. This part of the brain manages self-control and enables us to discipline our bodies to sit still, listen, and manage our behavior.

Additionally, to learn, one needs to sustain their attention, which our neocortex manages. Then, as we encode the learned material through practice, discussion, thought, and mistakes, we are relying primarily on executive functioning. Finally, when we apply learned academic skills to solve problems or be creative, we are utilizing executive functioning. In contrast, if students do not feel safe, their survival brain will remain in control. This area of the brain tends to focus on self-preservation, is highly impulsive, and driven by emotion.

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Permission Required

In terms of brain wiring, survival is a far greater priority than creativity. So before we can help a child develop their executive-functioning skills, we have to get permission from their survival brain. How do we get permission from a child’s survival brain to access their powerful creative brain? To receive permission, we have to persuade a child’s brain that they are safe.

As I detail in my book, Belonging: How Social Connection Can Heal, Empower and Educate Kids, the most reliable way to help kids feel safe is by providing a sense of belonging. For centuries, our brain and body have been wired to equate isolation with death. Additionally, the brain processes psychological pain through the same pathways as physical pain, which makes feeling rejected and judged an open wound on many kids’ psyche.

Mistakes Drive Learning

For many kids, this deep fear of rejection and judgment drives them to great lengths in order to avoid making a mistake in the classroom. Few things in life are more threatening to our survival brain than public rejection; this is why more people fear public speaking than death.

Unfortunately, many students perceive a classroom as similarly threatening. For six hours a day, students are asked to perform challenging and often boring tasks in front of 30 or more peers and an evaluator providing highly public feedback. As a result, many kids focus more on managing the impressions of others by doing as little as possible.

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Making a mistake in public leaves a child vulnerable to criticism from the teacher, parents, peers, and may become a joke on social media for the world to laugh at. Adversity reveals how trusted adults and peers respond to a child’s mistakes quickly becomes internalized. Often, small and unintentional comments or gestures made by parents, teachers, or peers at these vulnerable moments reveal to a child how others perceive them.

The fear of making mistakes is one of the central hurdles teachers learn to overcome. In spite of this drive to avoid mistakes, learning is usually a failure-driven process. In order to learn, making mistakes is usually required, yet making mistakes in public can cause tremendous psychological pain.

Psychological safety isn’t about praising, protecting, or sheltering students. Rather, the key element of psychological safety is the sense that you won’t be rejected, laughed at, or bullied for making mistakes. The sense of safety Harvard Business school professor Amy Edmondson’s popular research describes is based in the confidence that it is OK to try and fail. Students feel this way when they trust their community will pick them up when they fall and protect them when needed. Rather than minimizing, comforting, or avoiding a child when mistakes are made, the wise teachers embrace mistakes and teach a process for learning from and addressing errors. Wise teachers have been known to turn mistakes into something to be celebrated, laughed at, or even a competition.

Vulnerability

Brene Brown describes the willingness to be vulnerable as the birthplace for connection and belonging. When the teacher leader is willing and able to show imperfections, insecurities, and mistakes, they send signals to their students that it is OK for them to do the same. Being vulnerable to a class full of judgmental teens can feel like an unnecessary risk, and it’s definitely not in the job description. Yet, doing so can send a powerful message to students.

In the Culture Code, Daniel Coyle describes vulnerability as the foundation for cooperation and trust. If we want to create exciting transformative learning environments with highly engaged kids sharing ideas, taking chances, and making mistakes, no message is more powerful than the adult in charge modeling those behaviors. In Coyle’s observations of high-performing teams, he came to conclude, “When it comes to creating cooperation, vulnerability is not a risk but a psychological requirement.”

As teachers, how we treat mistakes, both our own and our students’, plays a critical role in creating a sense of safety. As leaders, your willingness to make mistakes and how we respond communicates to students that in your classroom, it is safe to be yourself. When students know they will not be punished, laughed at, or judged for making mistakes, they will feel a greater sense of safety. This sense of community will allow students to engage their creative brain and maximize their potential.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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