Right now, teachers are focused on ensuring student success over the next year. But how can educators truly inspire safety, belonging and learning in a setting that has been disrupted since 2020? The COVID-19 pandemic has left students unsure of in-person learning and, in some cases, with no desire to attend school.
In our recent webinar, Newsela founder and chief academic officer Dan Cogan-Drew and Dr. Pamela Cantor, founder of Turnaround for Children, invited Dr. Melissa Kim and Dr. Jawana Johnson to discuss the importance of student well-being as well as practical and creative tactics to create a healthy classroom for students. In this article, we’ll examine how safety and belonging are linked to learning, the impact instructional materials have on student success, and effective ways to boost safety and belonging in schools.
Dr. Jawana Johnson, New York City Department of Education Chief of School Culture, Climate and Well-Being
Dr. Melissa Kim, Deputy Chancellor of Washington DC Public Schools
Linking safety and belonging to learning
Today, providing safety to children in school is at the top of everyone’s minds. There’s a reason that a child clings to their parent or guardian when first being dropped off for preschool or kindergarten — they feel protected and cared for. For some, school becomes less scary as they learn more and make connections with classmates. For others, school remains a seemingly unwelcome place. Their response has to do with biology.
Dr. Cantor explained how every person has about 20,000 genes, but will only express 10% of those genes. Ultimately, those expressed genes are determined by context, the types of hormones that will be sent to the limbic system. A person’s limbic system is where all learning occurs and is made up of three different parts: the prefrontal cortex for focus and attention, the hippocampus for memory and the amygdala for emotion.
Negative context makes the cortisol hormone flood the brain and produces feelings of flight, fright or freeze. Cortisol is helpful in small amounts but it can become detrimental if not checked with contrasting feelings of safety. Positive context produces oxytocin hormones that create feelings of love and safety as well as produce resilience against future stress.
The biggest component of positive context is personal relationships — not just being kind to students, but being a consistent presence that allows them to trust and believe in their teacher and, in return, themselves. To boost student learning, it’s not just about the content they are learning, but about the consistency of their educator.
“A healthy context for learning requires attention to young people’s safety and health,” said Cantor. “The connection between experiences and the feeling of safety and belonging ensures success.”
Using instructional materials that create belonging
Instructional content sends messages to the students and influences their experience. For example, a student is pulled out of the regular class for reading intervention. When the student returns, they can feel left out — as if someone has told the punchline to a joke they missed. This sends a message to the student that, when it comes to reading, they do not belong in the classroom. Students can feel out of place if they can’t keep up with the material or continue getting taken out of the classroom.
To avoid students feeling overlooked, teachers need dynamic, culturally responsive, rigorous and accessible content that brings students closer to the authentic learning experiences that they deserve. Making the content relatable and interesting will create a welcoming classroom environment where every single child belongs.
How to create a healthy learning environment
Teachers have a lot of power to change the chance of success for students, according to Dr. Kim. Before an educator can find content to engage students, it’s important to better understand who those students are, what’s important to them, where they came from and who their community is. These aspects can be considered protective layers that each student has, and it’s important for those layers to come into the classroom with them.
By engaging with parents and guardians, teachers can be partners in that student’s success and ensure each young person has what they need emotionally as well as physically. Ultimately, when students have strong relationships, they feel better protected and able to learn.
Dr. Johnson gave helpful culture, climate and well-being priorities for educators to focus on for this school year, and items that she practices around connecting, affirming, responding to and empowering her community.
“Make sure students know they are known, heard and understood,” said Dr. Johnson. “When we look at safety and belonging for students, it’s important to not only ensure physical safety but emotional safety as well. We need to make sure that they see themselves in the places they live and know that they belong.”
By giving young people skills and knowledge to better take care of themselves, they will be more successful in their ability to learn and grow as a student. They will also build a positive context of safety and belonging around learning and flourish in their schooling.
Ready to learn more about safety, belonging and learning? Watch the full recorded webinar here.