Safe Spaces for Voice

Soroya Smith

Soroya Smith is a second grade classroom teacher and DEI leader at the Mason Early Childhood Center. She is passionate about creating and advocating for equitable and safe spaces of joy, authentic learning, and creativity for learners of all ages. Twitter: @SoroyaSmithMEd

Engaging with others remotely requires trust and vulnerability for our students and ourselves.

How do we establish and cultivate safe spaces for voice?

Before we focus on HOW we do this, let’s step back for a moment to examine practices that we may not have been conscious of in the classroom or school space. When thinking of practices that oppress or liberate students, I would say there is not a neutral. Think about the school culture, the policies in place, the interactions among children in adults.

Who benefits from things as they are? Who is at a disadvantage? What socialization (attitudes, language, behavior) is necessary for students to learn in order to be successful in this space? 

Through awareness, analysis, action, and accountability, educators can journey towards inclusive and liberating practices (Barbara Love’s work has been instrumental in my thinking.) Cultivating these safe spaces will create an environment conducive to this kind of collaborative work and engagement.

As with any communication designed to promote thinking interdependently inside and outside of the classroom, teachers will need to set up guidelines to ensure social and emotional safety.

We create safe climates by:

Explicitly teaching social emotional skills.

We want students to approach challenges with courage and confidence and to regard each other with empathy and concern.

  • In my classroom, we explicitly teach optimism, resilience, flexibility, persistence, and empathy.
  • When we are approaching learning challenges, or processing through problems day to day with our academics and relationships, it is helpful to have a common knowledge and language to reference and set goals around.

Building relationships between teacher and student as well as student to student.

The relationships we have with our students as teachers and the relationships students have with their classmates sets the tone of the environment and lays the foundation for any work we wish to accomplish. We build relationships with our students by positive interactions, genuine concern, and desire to know them as a human.

  • We learn to pronounce their names correctly, greet them upon arrival—let them know they were missed and we are glad they are here.
  • We find ways to connect with our students and care about what they care about.
  • We invite their passions and curiosities into the curriculum and co-design the learning environment to reflect our students.
  • The student to student relationship is also important to an environment of trust and safety where students can feel valued. We can support student to student relationships by giving students opportunities to get to know each other. Designing activities for learners to learn each other’s likes and dislikes is a great way for learners to see what they have in common as well as learn how to care for their new friend.
  • The explicit teaching of empathy is a great way to empower students to think about how to feel what someone else feels in their heart and be responsive with words and action to make a difference. Teachers are coaches in student to student interaction, offering feedback and strategies to support positive behavior and conflict resolution.

As we know our learners and they get to know each other, we can continue to build an environment where approaching challenges is safe, where contributions are valued, where strengths are known and appreciated, and weaknesses are seen as opportunities for growth.

Building community within the classroom.

We build a classroom community by teaching and modeling social emotional behaviors such as listening to others, conflict resolution, and what to do when they are upset.

  • As teachers we need to set clear expectations for our students and teach them through modeling and then providing students the opportunity to practice through role play. As we see the desired behavior in practice, we should call it out-positively reinforcing the desired behavior.
  • When their behavior is inappropriate we need to coach and co-create a plan for the future, holding students accountable with logical consequences.
  • In addition to teaching and modeling positive social behaviors, we also need to explicitly teach habits of mind to support the social emotional capacity of students to approach challenges, act empathetically with others, and see themselves as capable learners.
  • I teach students optimism, empathy, resilience, flexibility, and persistence.

Modeling ways for students to care for themselves and each other through conflict resolution, stepping up to bias, exclusion, and bullying.

  • When students are working and playing together, I gather anecdotal data on the conversations they are having with each other in order to assess what kind of social emotional and relational work we need to do as a classroom. For instance, if students are attempting a small group problem and can’t agree on a solution—we talk about what flexibility and empathy would look like in this instance. What will our behavior look like and sound like if we want to make sure everyone we are working with feels heard and valued?
  • We make a plan for ourselves to work flexibly and empathetically—setting personal goals about what we may need to adjust and adapt as individuals. When students have the opportunity to work together again, we always do a share at the end of work times. We would talk about our goals of working flexibly and empathetically together and how we felt when this was taking place.

Teachers can build positive relationships and create safe spaces through ongoing reflection, adjusting, and adapting of practices. When we model this type of analysis and action for our students we teach our students that they too can create safety for each other and be change makers.


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