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Emotional Safety: Why kids need a safe space to feel, learn, and grow

Updated: Mar 31, 2022

by Hannah Beach (April 29th, 2021)

Emotional safety is foundational to learning and growth. It is the container that holds the space that allows children to feel, to be curious, to care, and to emerge as their unique selves. It can be hard to grasp what this looks and feels like in practical terms. It can be challenging to remember the link between this sense of safety and the behaviors we see in our classrooms.

The pandemic has magnified our understanding of the vital importance this sense of safety has on our student’s ability to learn and grow.

It has caused many of us to pause and ask ourselves – How is it that we learn? How do we grow as humans? And what does feeling safe have to do with this process?

It might help for a moment to visit the common example of a plant. Plants thrive when their right conditions are met. If they are wilting, it is intuitive to try to alter something in the conditions. We ask ourselves what they might need in order to thrive. Do they need more water? Sun? We go right to the conditions as we know that plants do not need to be taught to grow. Growth will happen naturally in the right conditions.

This is the same thing for us. Like plants, we thrive when the conditions are conducive. Yet humans are much more complicated. The growth of humans is messy. By gaining an understanding into the role of emotion and feeling and its invaluable purpose in our lives, we can get a glimpse into what it is that helps us, as humans, to learn and grow.

Understanding the difference between emotion and feeling is key to helping us create the conditions for growth.

Emotions – happiness, sadness, fear, love, anger, etc. – are physiological, instinctive and involuntary processes that happen inside us. We all have them. Our emotions play a pivotal role in how we respond, behave, and interact with our world – whether we are aware of them or not.

Our feelings make us aware of the emotions we are experiencing. Our feelings are the conscious messages that we receive from our emotions that let us know what we are experiencing.

Why do we need to feel our emotions? What is the point? Why is it so key that we are able to feel what is going on inside of us?

1. It is important to have access to our feelings so that we are able to feel the empathy and caring that we have for others, and not simply act out on impulse.

Our capacity to not act out when an emotion is stirred within us requires us to have access to our other feelings as well.

Before we look at how this might work for a child, let’s take a look at how this can work within ourselves as adults. Imagine you are in a rush, leaving work late, and you have to make it to your daughter’s school play. You’re tired, you’re hungry and on top of it, now you are stuck in a traffic jam. You look at the clock, and you realize that the play starts in ten minutes—and you are at least thirty minutes away. You’re frustrated and angry. And more than anything, you just want to pound your fists on the steering wheel and blast the horn to let it all out. But you don’t. You know that if you did, you would startle the drivers around you, the cyclist at the traffic lights ahead, and the pedestrians waiting to cross the street. Not only would it be annoying to everyone around you, but you could cause an accident! So, even though you’re mad and frustrated, you hold yourself back.

In this scenario, you experience the emotion of being frustrated BUT ALSO the feelings of caring and consideration for those around you.

When we are young, generally under the age of 5, we simply act out what is in us. The emotion that stirs within us gets expressed and often in big ways! This typically shifts somewhere between the ages of 5 and 7 when we start to be able to experience more than one feeling at a time. We bring together seemingly conflicting feelings, which means we are able to hold opposite feelings at the same time:

I am really mad at my friend. But I also remember I care about my friend and don’t want to hurt them.

Having access to our feelings is a key component to developing impulse control and being in relationship with others.

2. It is important to have access to our feelings so that we are able to handle challenges and adapt to change.

We need our feelings in order to become adaptive and resilient. We need to be able to move through challenging experiences for our brain to realize that we can survive adversity.

For example, in school when a child doesn’t get the mark they wished for or isn’t chosen for something they really want, if rather than a guard going up around their feelings (Whatever. Doesn’t matter. Who cares?) they are instead able to feel their disappointment, their brain can then say – We survived this and now we know we can do it again!

It is through the process of the feeling sinking in that the brain is cued to know it can survive adversity. Without access to vulnerable feelings, this does not happen and resilience is not born.

3. It is important to have access to our feelings so that we are able to be curious, open to learning, and can discover one’s unique self.

Being curious and excited about discovering one’s unique place in our world is key to a child being receptive to learning. This growth process can be summed up with the word ‘emergent’. I love this word as it connotes a sense of movement, something that comes from the inside out. When a child is emergent, there is an energy towards the discovery of self. Who am I? What do I enjoy? What am I curious about? What makes me excited to learn?

When we have a child with this sense of curiousity and who is OK with being their own person, learning happens very naturally. When we are not shut-off from our feelings, we can feel this emergent energy within us. It’s a messy process, but this is where we get our uniqueness from! We need our feelings in order to be curious and in order to grow.

But this process can get stuck.

For some, it can feel too vulnerable to be curious. It might feel too risky to make a mistake or get something ‘wrong.’ In these cases, a child may shut-down and lose access to their feelings. This will deeply affect their curiousity, their learning, and their discovery of self.

I can imagine you might now be thinking – OK, I get it. Having access to feelings matters A LOT.

But what does this have to do with emotional safety? Well, everything really.

Emotional safety is what creates the conditions for the feelings to be safe enough to emerge. Emotional safety is what allows feelings to surface and this is important because maturation and growth are not processes that can be taught. We cannot teach someone to be resilient.

We cannot teach someone to be curious. We cannot teach someone to have caring feelings. We can model this and we can help to script what this might look like, but we cannot TEACH someone to feel. We can simply create a safe environment for the process to unfold.

There are many different ways to create a sense of emotional safety in our learning communities, from the ways that we welcome mistakes (not just forgive them), plan lessons, enter into process-based explorations, and work alongside one another. Each of us as educators will find the path that works best for us and the children in our care. But the foundation of emotional safety lies in the relationships we create with our students. Our presence, whether virtual or in person, can create an incredible sense of safety. How we make our students feel in our presence has a far greater impact than exactly what it is we do.

If you wish to explore this material further, my co-author Tamara and I enjoyed more fully fleshing out the topic of emotional safety in our online video series in the session Creating an environment of emotional safety.

Below are a few key relational components that are foundational to creating emotional safety:

Inviting relationship: Does a child feel like we care about them? Do they feel special, like they matter? Do they feel connected to us? Have we emotionally collected them? This relationship between the student and the teacher provides the foundation for growth and learning. We are hardwired for connection, and relationship creates a sense of safety. And when we feel safe, we can be who we are. Our shyness disappears. Our voice comes back. We are free to take in the world and learn. Relationship and connection are the foundation of emotional safety.

Providing warmth: Children pick up on our caring in part thanks to their ability to feel our warmth. Warmth is worn differently by different teachers. Some of us may display our warmth in traditional ways that we might recognize easily (like smiling faces and grandmother-like coziness), while others might simply have a twinkle in their eye. Some of us might seem somewhat gruff but have an incredible kindness and warmth inside that shines through. Most children have a great warmth radar and can feel this invitation from us. Children do not need warmth to be offered in one particular style; they just need to feel its existence.

Helping students feel at home: ‘Home’ is not necessarily where one lives. The word home can mean where your heart feels the safest. When we feel connected, we feel at home. We feel at home when we can be ourselves. We feel safe when we are with our people—those whom we feel understood by, whom we feel comfortable with. And it is when we feel at home that our armour can come down and our hearts can be soft.

Providing an invitation for them to be who they truly are: Children can sense this invitation from us. Are they invited to exist as they are? Is our warmth only there for them when they are ‘good’? Do they sense our welcome of them regardless if they have done something right or wrong? This does not mean that we never say no, or discipline our students, but what this does mean is that we bridge any discipline so our students do not feel that the relationship is conditional.

This invitation does not usually come out directly through the words we say to our students, but we can communicate this message clearly though our body language and our warmth – you are invited and welcomed in my presence, just as you are.

Safety changes us as humans – so, thank YOU.

It’s been a challenging year, to say the least. We are emotionally stirred up. We are exhausted. We are worried. We are worn out. The last thing we feel like doing is more.

Rest assured that there is nothing here to memorize. This is not about doing more. This is actually about recognizing the incredible importance of us, and our relationship with our students. The pandemic has shone a light on many things this year, including the extraordinary power of relationship to help children and youth to learn and grow.

And educators all around the world have stepped up phenomenally. Unbelievably. They have dug deep and worked hard to create these safe spaces for children, whether that be online or in person.

The effects of this are long lasting as safety changes us as humans.

So, thank you. Thank you for all the emotional safety you have created this year. Thank you for creating safe spaces to feel. Thank you for softening hearts and changing lives. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Hannah Beach


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