How to Help Your Students Feel Safe in the Classroom
Today’s post is part of a series dedicated to techniques for boosting student confidence in the classroom. Our goal is to help our students develop a greater sense of self-esteem, but we don’t start by working directly on their inner beliefs and attitudes. Instead, we have to lay the foundation by examining the external factors that influence how comfortable and confident our students feel. We can’t control all of these, but there is one area that we do have the power to shape: the atmosphere in our classrooms.
But why is it so important for our students to feel comfortable in our classes, and how can a welcoming classroom environment boost student confidence?
In his classic hierarchy of needs, Abraham Maslow categorized safety just above our basic physiological needs, such as access to food and water. He theorized that humans will not pursue higher-level goals—including cognition, i.e., the very thing we are after in our classrooms—unless our lower-level needs are met. In other words, if our students don’t feel safe, they won’t learn.
Maslow’s hierarchy is no longer considered universally descriptive of human behavior, but his theory still contains important insights for our classrooms. (Lori Desautels has an excellent blog post on how to translate Maslow’s hierarchy of needs into classroom practice.) As educators, we’ve all seen the evidence that at the core of Maslow’s theory exists a nugget of truth. We’ve taught students who couldn’t pay attention because they hadn’t eaten.
But the reverse is also true: If we create a space where students feel safe and comfortable, our students will be able to dedicate themselves to pursuing higher goals, such as esteem (ie, confidence!), knowledge, understanding, and, eventually, self-actualization (becoming the best they can be!)
The STrategies: Six WAYS TO BUILD STUDENT CONFIDENCE BY CREATING A COMFORTABLE CLASSROOM ENVIRONMENT
Since creating a safe, welcoming classroom is one of the most important things we can do to help our students feel less anxious, I will dedicate the rest of this post to sharing some specific ideas for how we can make our classrooms the kinds of comfortable spaces where students feel safe and okay taking risks and being themselves.
Let’s start with a fun one!
1. Get SIlly!
Use humor to make your class a fun and inviting place! Studies have shown that laughter reduces cortisol, lowering our stress levels. Stress, confidence, and self-esteem are interrelated, so by using humor to help relieve your students’ stress, you’ll also chip away at a major obstacle to their self-confidence. The more comfortable they feel, the more confident they will be!
2. Let them listen
Class participation is important, and our goal is for all our students to feel comfortable chiming in, but forcing students to participate before they feel ready can have a detrimental effect on their confidence. (Remember what we said about stress in Tip #1?) Consider letting students listen for a while before asking them to participate, especially at the beginning of the year. There are other ways to measure their engagement with the course material, and you can revisit the idea of participation down the road, after trying a few other techniques for boosting student confidence.
3. Celebrate Questions
Students often feel tremendous pressure to come up with the right answers. But as we know, the ability to ask a good question is ultimately much more valuable than coming up with any particular answer. Encouraging students to ask questions is more than just a great way to help them engage more deeply with the material; it can also have a tremendous positive impact on their confidence. When they do have a question about something, which is bound to happen sooner or later, they’ll know that it’s not a sign of weakness.
Here are some techniques to help cultivate the mindset that questions are awesome:
- Come up with a special signal that you use whenever a student asks a particularly excellent question. For example, you could have a “Question Kazoo” that you play in celebration of great questions, or you could invent a special call and response for the purpose, maybe something like “We desire…” “…to inquire!”
- Periodically have students write down 1-3 questions about the topic as either a bell ringer or an exit ticket. This helps reinforce the idea that you aren’t only looking for answers from them.
- Create a collaborative class question book where you keep track of the interesting questions that come up. You might even assign students to the role of class investigator on a rotating basis, having them research the answers to your class questions and add their findings to the document.
4. Normalize Failure
Many of our students are intensely afraid of failing. (And I suspect many of us educators are, too, if we’re honest.) But failure doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Mistakes are an essential part of the learning process.
If we help our students see failure as an opportunity for growth, they will become more confident taking risks. It’s not easy to change a mindset as deeply ingrained as the fear of failure, so this is a message you’ll have to return to repeatedly throughout the school year. Consider incorporating activities that explicitly ask students to fail at something in order to normalize the experience. For example, you could give them a worksheet and ask them to answer every question incorrectly!
Still not convinced of the importance of failure? Here is a bit of inspiration from the real world. Sara Blakely, the CEO of Spanx, tells a story about a ritual that she had with her father when she was a girl. He would sit down with her every week and ask her the same question: “What did you fail at this week?” She would report her failures, and he would give her a high five. She calls the ritual a “gift.” Whereas other entrepreneurs might become paralyzed by a fear of failure, she is willing to let go and take risks. And because of that, she has enjoyed incredible success, becoming the youngest self-made female billionaire in the world.
“It’s important to be willing to make mistakes. The worst thing that can happen is you become memorable.”
5. Model Imperfection
This one goes hand in hand with normalizing failure. We can say it’s okay to mess up until we’re blue in the face, but if we aren’t willing to make mistakes ourselves, our students will see right through us. How can we expect them to be okay with failure if we make it clear that we’re not okay with it ourselves?
If your students ask you a question in class that you don’t know the answer to, don’t be afraid to say “Great question! I don’t know, but I’ll look into that and get back to you.”
If you make a mistake, don’t correct it silently, but rather take advantage of the opportunity to model constructive imperfection. If your students point out your error, try responding with something like “Thank you! That was a great catch!” And if you catch your own mistake, call attention to it. You can either show them your error explicitly or, for a bit of fun, tell your students that you made a mistake and challenge them to find it!
You can even have a running competition in your class, where your students earn a point every time they are the first to recognize a mistake you’ve made, and you earn the point if you find your own mistake. Let them work towards a class prize!
6. Use Group Work Strategically
Timid students are often more willing to speak up when working in small groups, even if they’re nervous participating in whole class activities. By circulating while students are working in small groups, you can build up their confidence a bit at a time, using the following process:
1. At first, look for answers they have correct and affirm their work, without asking for any further participation from them. This will give them confidence that they are understanding the course material.
2. The next step is to let students know they’ve answered a question correctly while you’re circulating among the groups, and then call on them to answer that same question when you are going over the activity as a whole class. Your students are likely to feel more comfortable speaking up if they already know they have the right answer.
3. From there, you can ask a question during the whole-class review that you know they have the right answer to based on your observations of their group work, but that you didn’t specifically tell them was correct. Make eye contact and give a friendly smile and nod to encourage them to volunteer to answer the question. This way, you set up a situation where they feel like they are taking a risk, but you already know that they will be rewarded. If their first few experiences speaking up in class go well, that will boost their confidence and make them more likely to volunteer in the future.
But what if you’re circulating and you see your students making errors that need to be corrected? It is possible to address mistakes while continuing to build your students’ confidence, using the following strategies.
Strategies for Addressing Student Errors:
Option 1: Quietly correct the mistake while the students are still working in groups. Because you’ve created a classroom environment where questions are encouraged and mistakes are no big deal (see tips #3 & #4), your students will know that you aren’t judging them, and since you’re giving them feedback while they are still working with only a few other students, you’ll save them the embarrassment of getting something wrong in front of all of their peers. (Because no matter how hard we try to normalize mistakes, it’s still never fun to mess up, especially when a lot of people are watching!)
Option 2: Address the mistake in front of the whole class, but generalize it by saying something like, “Here’s a common mistake to watch out for” or “I want to address an error I saw on several papers.” That way, not only are you able to fix the problem, but you also counteract that awful little voice we all have inside that tries to convince us we’re the only one who doesn’t get it. It doesn’t feel as bad to get something wrong when we know lots of other people make the same mistake.
Option 3: Correct the mistake privately, either by having a quick conference with your student after class, by sending them a short email that night, or, if you’ve collected their work, by jotting a note on their paper for them to read when you pass their work back the next day. Keep in mind that feedback is most effective when it is immediate, so I would recommend going with one of the first two options whenever possible, but your students will still appreciate your help, even if it comes the next day.
So there you have it: 6 concrete strategies you can use to create a safe and welcoming classroom and environment!
Have any great ideas to add? Let me know in the comments!
Next up: How to develop relationships with your students. I’ll share five great strategies for showing your students how much you care!
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Miss the first part of the series? Go back to read my overview on boosting student confidence, including the self-reflection we should all start with.