3 minutes reading time (682 words)

Towards a Softer School Culture - How to Build a Safer and More Trusting Classroom Environment


Healthy school culture is vital for school safety and effective social and emotional development. You know when the school climate is functioning well, with energized staff and enthusiastic students. Correspondingly, teachers gradually lose their drive when the school community isn't doing well. Students resort more easily to harmful coping techniques such as lashing out, closing in, or zoning out. We know these behaviors are normal occasionally, but if they become long-term habits, they might be telling a message of problems in the community.

Over time, things that initially didn't seem concerning might become more severe and impactful. Harmful behavior is best minimized and fought against by early intervention and extra focus on strengthening social and emotional skills amongst students.

Trust is critical in building a safer and softer classroom environment. If students don't trust each other, the higher the likelihood of misinterpretations and conflicts. This weakens the ability to read social cues and general confidence in self and others. Being comfortable in the world is one of the main factors contributing to more robust mental health and wellbeing.

The more the students' energy is channeled into being alert or defending themselves, the less they have the learning capacity – and having fun while doing it. Students learn better when they are engaged. If they are constantly in survival mode, their ability to digest new information slows down, and the fun and committed part decreased to minimal.

One of the biggest enemies of trust and safety is bullying. Here, we mean it in its very broadest. Calling names and leaving outside are old (and hurtful) modes of bullying, but other, often more subtle ways are essential to acknowledge. Microaggressions and not respecting others' boundaries or wishes are easy to miss, except for the one experiencing them. Bullying always affects the wellbeing of the individual and those nearby.

Students need to learn and understand that there's help at hand if they encounter hurtful behavior and become active in identifying and working against it. The ethos should be seizing bullying altogether. This might sound like a utopia, but we cannot aim for anything less as educators and trusted adults. No one should suffer from distressing or oppressive behavior, so let's act accordingly.

Most students acknowledge the importance of safety and inclusion in school, but as with math and reading, they are just learning how to navigate social situations. Even if they recognize an unjust situation, they might act differently than they know is right. Being soft towards others asks for courage. The temptation to belong and fear of exclusion make children and adults alter their behavior to more challenging and less thoughtful trials. This easily creates an unhealthy atmosphere that can quickly bring forth complex social tensions and spread unkindness in and out of class.

Distrust, prejudice, and misunderstanding build up a damaging atmosphere. So, to prevent and dismantle those harmful traits in the community, the first step is creating a discussion space. We need to truly hear and see each other, not just expect or, worse still, ignore. Building a supportive school culture takes time, and it won't always be easy. It means paying attention to unpleasant and difficult things but also celebrating the richness of the individuality and intelligence of each student.

School staff are the people students spend their days with. Leading by example – showing affection, considerateness, and vulnerability – is one of the most potent ways to teach children and adolescents a respectful and openhearted outlook on life. To see that they don't always have to be strong and, most importantly, that they can be themselves is the most crucial thing to learn. When students are free from pretending to be something they are not, they can carry on making the most of their academic path.

An inspiring, accepting school spirit helps establish core values, such as kindness, open-mindedness, and trust in the community. When students learn early on to respect others and leave no one behind, they will continue to do so later in life, too. This all contributes directly to safer societies embracing diversity rather than closing inwards.

Henriikka Heinonen

Guest Writer
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