The National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments (NCSSLE, 2020) defines emotional safety as experiences in which one feels safe to express emotions, confidence to take risks, and feels challenged and excited to try something new. They conclude emotionally safe learning environments can be achieved by making social and emotional learning (SEL) an essential part of education. Emotional and physical safety allows the brain to be in a prepared state to learn (Heramis, 2020).
Now more than ever, schools have an indispensable obligation to seize the opportunity, evaluate past practices, and adopt new methods to bridge the gap between physical safety and emotional wellness. Creating supportive networks including culturally responsive connections between families and schools through family friendly and compassionate program implementation can offer a way to afford safe learning environments.
With the arrival of the pandemic education has recently experienced unprecedented challenges. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic school safety concerns focused on prevention policies and practices to curb school violence. As a result of intense public pressure, past efforts hyper-focused on physical surveillance, presence of resource officers, weapons detection equipment, violent offender profiling, and development of zero tolerance policies (Juvonen, 2001).
Although well-intended, costly and intrusive practices such as these left many considering proactive efforts in social-emotional learning as more appropriate and effective. Recent research by Madfis (2020) examined common school policies and practices and found many termed as prevention may increase the likelihood of a school violent offense.
For example, zero tolerance policies originally intended to increase safety in schools disproportionately increased suspensions, expulsions, the school to prison pipeline, youth victimization, and suicide risk (Thompson, 2016). As a result, trauma-informed practices would emerge as a new way to address underlying trauma potentially causing negative student behaviors for which zero tolerance policies were applied (Heramis, 2020). Even with long-standing attempts to create safe environments, a 2019 Gallup poll indicated parents remained fearful about their children’s school safety (Brenan, 2019).
An unprecedented end to the 2019-20 school year would shift parent fears and public pressure. While the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was impossible to prepare for, the world will remember 2020 as a year of fear, pain and loss for everyone, including the children old enough to recall their experience long after this trying time is behind us (Annie E. Casey Foundation [AECF], 2020). According to AECF (2020), an organization that yearly publishes comprehensive assessments on the well-being of children, the crisis overwhelmed states and communities and has decimated the health and economic stability of many families. Consequently, schools play a significant role in providing stability and support to communities as a whole, but even more so to individual students and families that depend on them (NCSSLE, 2020).
In midst of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2020) provided recommendations and resources to support back to school learning options. School safety practices currently focus on temperature checks, appropriate mask wearing, social distancing, and recommendations for a mix of remote and in-person learning (CDC, 2020). While K-12 schools nationally navigate recommended precautions, 45% of U.S. parents report being very worried their kids will get COVID-19 at school (Marken & Harlen, 2020). In addition, results of a national survey conducted in June 2020 revealed approximately 1 in 10 parents report worsening mental health in themselves and behavioral health needs in their children (Patrick et al., 2020).
While school physical safety precautions have changed in comparison to just a year ago the importance of supporting emotional health and wellness in the school environment can no longer be ignored. Currently, much focus has been placed on following recommendations to support a safe environment, offer a sense of normalcy, and address valid parent concerns during the shift. Meanwhile, the bigger question to be asked in support of emotional health and safety should be, “but how are the children emotionally”?
Naming Problems and Finding Solutions
The pandemic shined illuminated gaping and persistent inequalities in education across the U. S. when schools closed and switched to distance learning (Strauss, 2020). Compounding already strained educational systems the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the number of unemployed persons across the nation rose by 15.9 million to 23.1 million in April 2020 alone; resulting in the largest over-the-month increase to unemployment dating back to 1948. According to the NCCP (2018), the national definition of low income alone means not being able to afford basic necessities. The lack of basic necessities associated with poverty impacting brain development may be part of the reason for poor academic achievement outcomes (Hair et al., 2015).
Prior to the pandemic, the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) at Columbia University reported 26.1 million children were living in some level of poverty in 2018 (NCCP, 2018). Consequently, many families are now experiencing situational poverty for the first time and need schools with a greater understanding of socioeconomic culture (U. S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, 2020; Payne, 2020).
Socioeconomic culture impacts the relationship between family and school. When unintentionally overlooked relational connectivity is severed or possibly never established. When considering socioeconomic culture, it is imperative to understand that the majority of schools traditionally operate within middle-class norms, and most teachers grew up learning the hidden rules of middle-class families (Payne et al., 2014). According to Payne et al., (2014) individuals of poverty often struggle in understanding environments outside of their own socioeconomic norm resulting in lack of school connection.
Connection and Culture
Students, families, and stakeholders feel a sense of belonging and connection when a school develops a welcoming environment. Establishing a positive school climate and culture of connection does not solely rest upon teachers and administrators, it begins with front-line office staff (Payne et al., 2014). People in these settings greet the public, gather data, orient others, schedule appointments, and collect fees. They have brief but, perhaps frequent encounters. They set the tone and climate for the organization’s environment. Satisfaction studies show individuals make up their mind about an establishment very quickly upon first contact and the opinion formed influences perception of future events (Ambady & Skowronski, 2008).
For individuals from poverty and those suffering emotionally, the primary motivation for success will result from relationship and connection (Payne et al., 2014). A sense of belonging has been shown to motivate more active involvement in a child’s education, which in turn has shown to positively impact student achievement (Henderson et al., 2007). Kindness, courtesy, and the understanding of different social class rules can create connections and healthy relationships. Does your school staff have these skills?
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