Safe and Welcoming Schools
Safe and welcoming schools and childcare centers include strong elements of physical safety, emotional safety, and a welcoming climate. A safe and welcoming learning environment is rooted in a foundation of strong relationships between children and adults within the community. Having open and transparent communication will build trust among students, parents, and community members.
Families, learners, and staff need to feel seen and safe at school and in the community, and feel that their unique needs and experiences are recognized and validated. Having a welcoming school environment makes children and parents more prone to report concerning behaviors when they arise.
- All school and childcare personnel are important to creating and maintaining a positive school culture.
- Schools can use data to identify areas to focus efforts to improve culture and climate (e.g. disproportionality in suspension data).
- Schools and childcare providers should use public transparency in their efforts to make their learning environment safe and welcoming. Community partners should be engaged in creating a site-specific policy for safe and welcoming environments.
- Locations should consistently implement proactive bullying prevention policies and procedures to support a safe environment.
- Learners must perceive their environment as just, fair, and safe. Research indicates that if children don’t feel safe they won’t learn. Families feel the same and can be reluctant to send their students to school.
According to the National School Climate Center (NSCC), “school climate refers to the quality and character of school life. School climate is based on patterns of learner, parent, and school personnel experiences of school life and reflects norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning practices, and organizational structures.”
School climate is composed of multiple systems (i.e., individual relationships, classroom climate, family, community climate, safety protocols, and partnerships with state and local agencies) each contributing to the overall school environment. To create a welcoming climate, it is critical to include school-hosted events outside of the school day such as, before-school and afterschool programs, extracurricular activities, conferences, etc.
- National flags or welcome signs in a variety of languages that represent the culture or home country of students who attend that school help recognize and celebrate the uniqueness of their local community.
- Make sure all learners have the tools to appropriately express themselves and build positive and supportive relationships through Social Emotional Learning (SEL).
Creating safe and welcoming learning environments is the responsibility of everyone involved. There are many practices and exemplars that positively support a safe and welcoming school or childcare provider.
Practice: Ensure physical and mental safety from potential threats, hazards, or incidents by developing an Emergency Operations Plan (EOP). Having these in place and shared with stakeholders help students and families feel more confidence in their school knowing that they are safe.
Exemplar: Follow government requirements, such as the Nebraska Annual Safety Requirements for Schools, and Accreditation, Rule 10 while developing an EOP. Also, Nebraska Statute 79-2, 144 details the responsibilities of a School Safety Director. Threat Assessment Teams, although not required, have been shown to be one of the first lines of defense for a behavior threat or concerning behavior.
Practice: Foster emotional safety by focusing on connectedness and relationship building. Students who feel connected to school are more likely to attend school regularly, stay in school longer, and have higher grades and test scores. They are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, become involved in violence, or suffer emotional problems.
Exemplar: Some factors that can help strengthen school connectedness for students are: adult support, belonging to a positive peer group, commitment to education, and a positive school environment.
Exemplar: National flags or welcome signs in a variety of languages that represent the culture or home country of students who attend that school help recognize and celebrate the uniqueness of their local community. A cultural audit walk can help identify areas to improve.
Practice: Invite families and community partners to provide input when reflecting on school practices and developing an action plan utilizing the Nebraska Department of Education’s (NDE) Equity Scorecard and Dashboard. This could be achieved by using NDE’s Revised Perceptual Surveys, which elicit input from staff, students, families, and community members.
Exemplar: A review committee could include: students, family members, teachers, support staff, administrators, and non-profit school partners.
Practice: Provide continuous professional development opportunities on topics that relate to safe and welcoming schools.
Exemplar: Topics could include: Bullying Prevention, Social Emotional Learning, Trauma Informed Care, Mental Health, & Culturally Responsive Teaching.
Practice: Connect families with community partners in order to support the emotional wellbeing of the family and child.
Exemplar: Family Support Advocates identify systems of community supports and connect individual families with those systems. Supports could include: counseling resources, housing and employment connections, career education and training, etc.
When families send their children to school they expect the school to keep their children safe from harm, both physical and emotional. SchoolSafety.gov provides tools and resources to help schools create safer school environments. This short document with 1-pagers on 8 different categories is a good place to start. Topics include bullying, emergency planning, cybersecurity, and more.
The School Culture & Climate Brief from the University of Nebraska Lincoln details how ensuring physical safety at schools improves both the emotional safety of learners as well as academic achievement. They state that, “safety goes beyond physical security; safety is important because it creates a sense of security in school that fosters student learning and support.” Additionally, the National School Climate Center (NSCC) provides research that shows how improving school climate reduces instances of bullying.
All efforts to improve safety or create a welcoming environment will be more effective when attempted in partnership with families and community members. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) indicates that one of the key Indicators of Sitewide SEL is that “families and staff have regular and meaningful opportunities to build relationships and collaborate to support youth social, emotional, and academic development.” Effectively implemented social emotional learning leads to increased safety and improved academic achievement for all learners. CASEL also suggests that schools need to work with community partners to align efforts with the community-at-large.
Learning Environment Climate Checklist and Briefs
- CDC Safe & Supportive Environments – this discusses protective factors that can help create safe and supportive schools, reduce negative outcomes for learners and strategies to increase protective factors.
- National School Climate Center – NSCC’s Practice Briefs summarize effective practices that support implementation and sustainability efforts.
- School Culture and Climate Brief – UNL – This 2016 strategy brief focuses on the difference between school climate and school culture and discusses ways to improve them.
- Professional Development Service for Teachers web site provides resources for educators about creating a positive school culture.
Tips & Guidance
- Model School Code on Education and Dignity – presents a set of recommended policies to schools, districts and legislators to protect the human rights to education, dignity, participation and freedom from discrimination.
- Indicators of Sitewide SEL – CASEL – Sitewide SEL is a systemic approach to integrating academic, social, and emotional learning across all learning.
- Professional Development Services for Teachers – a site that offers professional learning opportunities to teachers and school leaders in a range of pedagogical, curricular and educational areas.
Evidenced-Based Programs and Practices
- Review of programs conducted by NDE School Safety – a document reviewing a variety of school safety programs.
- Blueprints Clearinghouse – provides a comprehensive registry of interventions that prevent or reduce the likelihood of antisocial behavior and promote a healthy course of youth development.
- Resource Center – SAMHSA – information and tools to incorporate evidence-based practices
- WWC – Find What Works (ed.gov) – A curated site of researched educational resources and articles
- Social Think – Social Interventions – social emotional learning resources and research