All teachers strive to create a classroom that feels like home for their students. They want a place where students feel comfortable to learn and grow and where they feel a sense of belonging. This type of classroom environment can be achieved for all types of students no matter their background and ability level. The two main factors to consider when setting up a classroom are what the physical environment will look like and what the interactions between teachers and students will look like. Keeping in mind that both aspects are critical to success in the classroom, here are three pillars of a safe classroom environment.

1. Build 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. Getting to know your students and understanding their strengths and weaknesses is one of the building blocks of developing a good relationship. Once you find their strengths, capitalize on them and show the students just how successful they can be in your classroom. On the other hand, do not just ignore weaknesses. Let the students know that you understand everyone has weaknesses and that you have a plan to help them turn those weaknesses into strengths. Use your personal story of overcoming a weakness to help show them that it is possible. Let them know that you will develop a plan with them to address their struggles and that you will work together to conquer them. When the students know that you are there to support them, it opens them up to trust you in return.

2. Support 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 we meet other people’s needs in different ways. Be purposeful in how you set up the classroom and explain to everyone why you set up the classroom in that way. Ensure there is enough space for everyone to navigate between tables and desks. Keep in mind that students using wheelchairs or walkers will need more space between desks and tables to get from one area of the classroom to the next. Create spaces where everyone has access to the tools they need. Make sure everything in the classroom is labeled with words and symbols so readers and nonreaders alike know where materials are located. n2y’s SymbolStix PRIME makes an excellent resource for learners with speech, language and other learning or communication challenges.

Many learners thrive on organization and clear distinctions of 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 making it a clear separation from other work areas. An area rug or even tape on the floor can make that separation more clear. Use natural barriers or make your own to help students focus. Especially during independent learning, the need to limit distractions is critical in order for students to complete their work. Designate an area 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 the needs of all the students in the room.

3. Respect Students’ Differences and Personal Boundaries

Finally, the classroom will be comforting to students when their differences and their space are respected. It is important to model respectful language when talking about students with different backgrounds and abilities. It is crucial that all adults respect the privacy of the students’ information and that discussions about students should be held privately or with that particular student. Allow each student to have their own space and let them use this space as they see fit. Whether it be a cubby, a desk or a cabinet with drawers, this gives them a space to keep their belongings safe and one where they can organize their things in the way they like. Let the student decorate the space and put their picture or name on it. The sense of ownership they feel over their space gives them a place to go where they feel safe and accepted. Make it clear that each student has their own space and encourage other students or adults to respect one another’s space. While space is limited and accidents happen, use this as an opportunity to teach students that it’s okay to make mistakes and model how to resolve disputes respectfully. For safety reasons, their space is not completely private; there may be times that you have to enter and look through it. Make sure this is done with the student’s knowledge of why it is happening and do your best to have the student present when it happens. Students often learn from the actions of those around them. If you are consistent in how you show respect to them it 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. The classroom environment is where learners will spend the majority of their school day; in order for them to learn, it is crucial that they have a space where they feel comfortable and supported. When teachers address both the physical and emotional needs of students, the students will feel comfortable, have a sense of belonging and be prepared to learn.

SymbolStix PRIME brochure for speech and language.

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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.