Reframing School Safety

Safety in our schools requires more than external environmental changes. Safety is also generated internally and is a biological requirement for learning.
Safety in our schools requires more than external environmental changes. Safety is also generated internally and is a biological requirement for learning.

It’s August I am already feeling the pull of responsibilities that come at the beginning of every school year. Creating a safe space for students is always high on the priority list in every school I have worked with over the past 30 years.

I already received the email about my required “trainings” for:

  • Blood Born Pathogen Exposure Prevention
  • Bullying: Recognition and Response
  • Health Emergencies: Asthma Awareness

Have you received your list of trainings yet?

Maybe yours contain items such as:

  • Active- shooter protocols
  • Emergency safety procedures
  • Violent-emergency preparedness
  • Crisis prevention and intervention
  • How to recognize early warning signs of students likely to exhibit violent behavior

According to The National Institute of Justice, these are some of the top trainings schools require educators to complete in order to address school safety.

While these are all important, they are all focused on external environmental safety. And while these trainings may be titled, “prevention,” they are actually focused on what to do when…the sh$t hits the fan, opposed to, “How to create environments where there is little to no sh$t to come in contact with any fan.”

Safety is something felt and experienced within the human body.

Just as you can feel pain, love, regret or joy,

you can also feel safe (and unsafe).

Safety is a biological imperative.

When our need to feel safe is not met, no learning is able to happen.

I would like to propose a reframe or paradigm shift to how we have traditionally addressed school safety. Rather than only knowing what to do when tragedy strikes, how about we start diving into the real essence and meaning of safety for each and every human being in our schools and homes. By doing so, we will not only make our schools and communities safer, we will also be addressing a few other, “high on the priority list” challenges schools face, such as student attention, behavior, and academic success.

Are these items of concern in your school too?

Safety is not just something we create in our external environment. Locking doors, bullet proof glass, active shooter and fire drills, smoke detectors, sprinkler systems, and posting the fire escape route are a few examples of common external safety practices. Unfortunately, while many of these things are implemented with the intention to keep students and educators safe, they actually induce fear and anxiety.

Have you ever had to bring 15 kindergarteners into a single bathroom for an active shooter drill? Not pretty. The first time this happened to me, I got to see first hand the immediate distress it caused for so many of my students. 

Now, all of these external safety practices are very important. However, we must also acknowledge that safety is something felt and experienced within the human body first and foremost. Just as you can feel pain, love, regret or joy, you can also feel safe (and unsafe). 

The feelings and sensations of safety are quite different from those of fear and anxiety.

There is a constant ebb and flow of sensations which we experience throughout the day. Most of them are outside our window of awareness. Many of the practices we teach through Zensational Kids programs help cultivate this body awareness, bringing these sensations and feelings into our conscious awareness. Each sensation is a gift of wisdom provided to us through our body. Based on the sensations consciously and unconsciously experienced by our body, our brain is informed in milliseconds, letting us know what to do next. 

Broadly, when we feel safe, our brain and body are able to fully engage in life and learning. When we sense danger, the fight, flight, freeze mechanism of our nervous system kicks into gear. We can literally armor our way to safety, run for our lives, or freeze like a deer in headlights. These are innate survival reactions. Another way we can observe students in states of NOT feeling safe can be in their outward, non-compliant behavior. I don’t think I even need to describe what that looks like. You know.

Why should it be an essential practice within our schools to help our students (and educators) establish a felt sense of safety?

Our cognitive, emotional, psychological, social and physical health are all dependent upon our ability to be in states of safety. That is HUGE!!!!!!!

That means that our ability to: 

  • access executive functions for attention, decision-making, problem solving and memory
  • regulate our emotions
  • behave “appropriately” – I use caution here because I have a lot to say about our understanding and expectations of behavior.
  • maintain a positive mind-set
  • communicate effectively and get along with others
  • express and interact with kindness and compassion
  • create immune, digestive, neurological, physiological and hormonal health

are ALL determined by whether or not our body feels S A F E.

According to Dr. Stephen Porges (2022), feelings of safety emerge from internal states that are regulated by our nervous system (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnint.2022.871227/full)

So, let’s revisit what internal states arose for you when you recalled moments in your life when you felt safe. Here may be some words to describe your felt experience during that activity: Calm, relaxed, open, secure, free, happy, easeful, peaceful, excited, engaged 

When we intentionally help our students achieve these internal states, we are helping them feel safe. Internal safety supports students’ cognitive development, ability to appropriately connect to others, regulate emotions, behave in compassionate, respectful and engage ways.

If you are interested in ways you can help your students develop an inner sense of safety, our books and manuals provide you with easy to implement, short activities for all ages. We also have created a full video library that is designed for direct student instruction.

Check out this free poster from our resources page.

If your district is dedicated to creating SAFE schools, consider our professional development workshops to enrich the well being of every HUMAN being in your school community.