Teachers strive to create a safe learning space where students feel comfortable learning and growing and where they feel a sense of belonging. This type of classroom environment can be achieved for all students regardless of their background and abilities. The two main factors to consider when setting up a safe classroom are what the physical environment will look like and what the interactions between teachers and students will look like. Keep in mind that both are critical while considering these three pillars of a safe classroom environment.

1. Building Trust Between Teachers and Students

One of the most important dynamics of any classroom is the trust that is built between teachers and students. This is doubly important in a classroom with students of varying abilities and backgrounds.

Assess Strengths and Weaknesses

Getting to know your students and understanding their strengths and weaknesses is one of the building blocks of a good relationship. Accurately assessing a student’s abilities requires engagement to make sure the student is focused and trying their best. Once you find their strengths, capitalize on them and show students just how successful they can be in your classroom.

Also, let students know you understand that everyone has weaknesses, and tell them you have a plan to help them turn those weaknesses into strengths. Use a personal story of overcoming a weakness to show students that it is possible. Let them know you will develop a plan with them to address their struggles and that you will work together to conquer them. When students know you are there to support them, they’re better positioned to trust you and the learning process.

2. Supporting Students’ Needs Through Classroom Arrangement

A supportive classroom environment should be set up to meet the needs of all students. While not every student will need the same level of support in the classroom, providing differentiated supports can encourage students to be mindful of others’ needs and how those needs can be met in different ways.

Be Clear about Your Decisions

When you’re purposeful in how you set up your classroom and explain why you set it up in a particular way, students are likely to feel included and trusted. For example, since students with wheelchairs or walkers will need more space to get from one area of the classroom to the next, explain that you set up the space to make sure everyone can navigate between tables and desks.

Label Materials and Make Them Accessible

Create spaces where everyone has access to the tools they need, and make sure everything in the classroom is labeled with words and symbols so readers and nonreaders alike know where materials are located. Consider using n2y’s SymbolStix PRIME, a visual language of over 90,000 contemporary, multicultural, and dynamic symbols, in order to clearly communicate with all students.

Designate Spaces Based on Expectations

Many learners thrive on organization and clear distinctions about what is expected in different areas of the classroom. Help students understand expectations by designating one area in the classroom for leisure or play and clearly separating it from other areas. An area rug or even tape on the floor can make that separation clear. Using symbols and words from SymbolStix PRIME to label areas of the classroom can be helpful as well, along with natural barriers such as bookshelves, or dividers you make on your own to help students focus.

Make Space for Independent Work and Limit Distractions

Especially during independent learning, the need to limit distractions is critical for students to complete their work. Designate areas for independent work and build workstations that limit roaming or access to other materials.

Being mindful of how to support everyone in the classroom lets your students know that you’ve thought about their individual needs and set up the classroom accordingly.

3. Respecting Student Differences and Personal Boundaries

Finally, the classroom will be more comforting to students when their differences and their space are respected, and it’s important to model respectful language when speaking of and to students with different backgrounds and abilities. For example, using classroom materials such as SymbolStix PRIME, which includes symbols with five different skin tones and features students of all abilities, can help students feel welcome and represented in the classroom.

Create Privacy and Personalization

It’s crucial that all adults respect private student information and that discussions about students be held privately or only with the students being discussed. Another way to respect individuals is by allowing each student to have their own space, whether it be a cubby, desk, or drawer, which gives them the opportunity to keep their belongings safe and allows them to organize their things in their own way. Letting students decorate their space and put their picture or name on it provides a sense of ownership and gives them a place to go where they feel safe and accepted. Once these individual spaces have been created and customized, make it clear that both peers and adults should respect the private spaces of others.

Use Limitations and Mistakes as Opportunities

Since space may be limited and accidents may happen, use privacy challenges and conflicts as opportunities to teach students that it’s okay to make mistakes. Then, model how to resolve disputes respectfully. Toward this end, explain to students up front that for safety reasons, their space will not be completely private and there may be times that you will have to look through it. If this happens, explain to the student that you will be looking through their space and tell them why. If at all possible, have the student there with you during the process. Students often learn from the actions of those around them, so if you are consistent in showing respect to them, you can help teach them how to be respectful of others.

Building trust, support, and respect in the classroom takes time. Being open and purposeful with how you develop a safe classroom environment is the first step. Since the classroom is where learners spend the majority of their school day, it’s crucial that they have a space where they feel comfortable and supported. When teachers address both the physical and emotional needs of all students, the students will feel comfortable, have a sense of belonging, and be prepared to learn.
Webinar about classroom set up

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About the Author
Jack Hans has over 10 years of experience working with students of all ages and abilities as an ABA therapist, teacher and supervisor. He currently works as an intervention specialist, focusing on working with students who have intellectual and developmental disabilities, with an emphasis on including students with disabilities throughout the school environment. He earned a Master of Education degree from Cleveland State University.