Sunday, February 24, 2019

Safe and Caring Schools: How do we create an unconscious sense of safety?

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This past week I attended an in-service program connected to new leadership quality standards that will take effect in Alberta in September 2019. One of the topics explored in the training was that of creating "Safe and Caring Schools". There was a brief discussion and activity related to defining "safety" and looking at the components that make up holistic safety. The focus of the discussion and activity seemed to be to tied to understanding and reducing bullying in schools even though it was under the broader category of "Inclusive Learning Environments". 

It seems to me that there is a missed opportunity in all of this to understand Inclusive Learning Environments as ones that are more than just devoid of bullying. 


Stuart Shanker, withing the Self-Reg framework, speaks often often of the metaphor of the "Triune Brain" to aid in understanding the responsive "state" our brain and central nervous system are functioning in at any given time. Our brains are continually subconsciously filtering internal and external information and setting off physiological responses to that information. When threat is perceived, our systems will automatically and unconsciously go into a state of fight, flight or freeze. This is an evolutionary reaction designed to ensure our safety. The challenge in today's world is that these are unconscious reactions and end up being in response to both perceived and real threats.  

This connects to the "window of tolerance" idea that is often talked about in trauma-informed materials. There is a growing understanding that we each have a unique window of tolerance in which we are "regulated" and able to adapt and respond to the challenges that we encounter. We move out of the window of tolerance, into a state of hyper or hypo-arousal when we are no longer feeling "safe". 


If we have developed regulatory capacities, there are conscious things we can do to try to keep ourselves within our window of tolerance. More and more, we are seeing students who have not developed these regulatory capacities. We are coming to understand that we learn to regulate by being regulated; That it is a process that begins at birth and if we have experienced regulating relationships and environments, we move toward self-regulation and our window of tolerance is larger.  If we have not been regulated, our systems are often operating in a state of fear and our window of tolerance is very small. 

To expand a student's (or adult's) window of tolerance, they need safe and regulating relationships and environments. Most importantly though, is that the sense of safety they feel has to operate on an unconscious level as our brains continually evaluate safety on the unconscious level. This leads to what we were discussing this past week around thinking through what safety really is as it is through creating safety that we will expand the window of tolerance. 


To create safety, we need to understand what safety is. In SIVA (Supporting Individuals through Valued Attachments) we talk about holistic safety as encompassing four domains: Physical, Psychological, Social-Emotional, and Spiritual. This training presented four different domains: Physical, Psychological, Social and Academic. Combining the two lists, there seem to be five components we should be thinking about in creating safety: 
  • Physical Safety is about feeling safe in your body and safe in the world. We would need to consider biological functioning (basic biological needs met, regulation of sensory systems...etc.), a sense of safety in one's body (free from threat) and environmental safety (i.e. an environment that is free from threat).  
  • Psychological/Emotional Safety is about feeling safe with yourself and your emotions. This would include things like one's perception of self and others and one's sense of self-efficacy as well as one's comfort with a whole a range of emotions. 
  • Social Safety is about feeling safe with other people. This would include understanding of social norms in an environment, the predictability of the social environment, feeling socially connected, receptive and expressive communication abilities, skills in areas like conflict resolution, being able to read the social environment...etc. 
  • Moral/Spiritual Safety is about feeling safe with a guiding value system. This is where cultural, religious, gender and family diversity come into play. It's about feeling that others are responsive to your value system.  
  • Academic/Cognitive Safety is about feeling safe to participate in challenging learning experiences (i.e. feeling safe to take academic risks). This is about designing learning environments that include scaffolding, engaging learning activities, accounting for cognitive differences (organizing, sequencing, encoding, memory), and proper academic modifications and supports. 
The academic safety was particularly interesting to me at this point in my journey as I'm starting to carve out a focus for me Ed.D. that is connected to the need for multiple pathways to access learning. I am sure I will be coming back to this idea as it seems to bring some pieces together. If we want to support students in reaching their full potential, we need to consider how we make them available for learning, development, growth...etc. 

When I teach SIVA courses, we do an activity where we think about each of the domains of safety in reference to specific profiles of students. Within each domain we look at understanding that specific student (What do we know? What more do we need to know?), communicating acceptance relative to that person's ability and functioning level (including thinking about expectations to support forward development), and respectful supports that we can implement to ensure engagement and scaffold that person forward. It's important to think about this for individual students but this experience and discussion as me thinking about it on a universal level. What would that environment look like?  

Going back to bullying, I think so often we try to figure out what to do about bullying specifically but I liked where this activity and discussion seemed to be trying to go to in that it started by having us think about what holistically safe environments would look like. This speaks to universal design principles in that it's about creating the broader conditions to reduce bullying... but in so doing, there are also many other benefits to many other people.