How to Build Relational Safety at School – And why it’s so important.

teacher and student building safe relationships

Imagine the adults we could grow if the metrics for the success of a school were based on how safe, welcome, cared for, and valued children feel, rather than how smart they are. Many schools are already working towards this, but we still have a way to go.

The research is so clear – and there’s plenty of it. Students who genuinely feel cared for by their teachers do better at school. When children feel safe, cared for, and valued, the learning part of the brain opens wide up. Learning and engagement increase, anxiety is reduced, and critical incidents of big behaviour decrease. On the other hand, without felt relational safety, the brain will focus on getting ‘safe’ rather than learning.

Why relationship matters.

The part of the brain that is in charge of learning, self-regulation, making deliberate (good) decisions, thinking through consequences, and connecting can only open up when physical safety and relational safety are fully felt. This isn’t about what is actually safe or not safe, but about what the brain perceives. It’s about felt safety.

How children do, will always come from how they feel. Children and teens are no different to adults in that way. The reason we want to be with certain people, or be in certain places, often isn’t as much about the intrinsic nature of those people or places, but about how we feel when we are with those people or in those places.

But what about academics?

Of course academics matter, but relational safety has to come first. It’s a condition for doing well academically. Children don’t feel good at school because they do well. They do well because they feel good. Rather than prioritising the outcome – grades – we have to prioritise building the strong foundations all kides need to be the best they can be.

When we prioritise academics over relationship, it’s like building the walls before fortifying the foundations.

This is why too many kids are falling down at school – not because they aren’t capable, but because the necessary foundations for them to do well haven’t yet been laid.

Rather than focusing on what kids are doing,

‘How do we get better results?’

‘How do we make them behave better?’

‘How do we make them engage more?’,

we need to shift the focus to how they are feeling,

Exactly what can we do to make sure each child feels welcome, cared for, wanting, important?’

How to build relationship. What teachers can do.

Here are some small things that can make a big difference.

  • Exactly what happens to make students feel welcome when they walk into school/ the classroom? Of course all students are welcome, but exactly what little things are done to let them know that?
  • What is their role in the classroom? Research shows that, according to students, one of the things that helps them feel cared for is when teachers give them jobs to do.
  • Are they invited to share their opinions?
  • Are they given opportunities to make decisions that affect them?
  • Do they feel like the adult in the room believes in them and wants them to be there?
  • Name similarities, ‘We both have a dog. Can I see pictures of your dog?’ ‘We both wear glasses.’ ‘Yeah. I feel anxious sometimes too, especially when I’m doing something new. It’s okay to feel anxious.’
  • Ask them, ‘What are the things that adults do that help you feel cared for?’
  • Let them know, ‘It’s my job to help you do well this year. What does ‘doing well’ look like for you? What might make that easier? What might get in the way?’
  • Ask them to finish this sentence, ‘I want my teacher to know …’
  • Let the parent know you like their child, or let them know anything positive that happens involving their child. Parents will pass this message on to their children. It’s always lovely to hear that someone has said something nice about us to the people we care about. Sometimes it can land harder than telling a child directly. 

So much of my work is about supporting schools to implement practices and procedures that build felt relational safety in students, increase engagement and learning, and reduce critical incidents of behaviour. I see the difference this makes.

What parents can do.

What a parent decides a child will follow. One of the best things parents can do is to let kids know they (the parent) trusts the teacher to care for the child and like the child. It’s okay not to feel this straight away – trust takes time – but until you feel it, your child won’t either. 

If you trust your child’s teacher, let your child know: ‘I really like Ms Smith. You’ve got a goodie there. I’ve heard such great things about her. I know she’s going to love you,’ or, ‘I’m excited to get to know Mr Jones. I’ve heard good things about him.’

When your child’s teacher says anything positive about your child, let your child know. If you haven’t heard anything positive, ask the teacher to let you know something your child has been doing well or is improving on. If the teacher can’t name anything, your child might not feel as ‘seen’ as they need to. That’s okay – teachers are managing so many things and they don’t want your child to feel unnoticed either. A gentle conversation can just help channel attention towards helping your child feel more seen and cared for. 

If you aren’t sure about the teacher yet, that’s okay, but if you aren’t sure, what has to happen to help you feel more certain that your child is in strong, loving hands? Do you need a conversation with the teacher? An email occasionally? Anything you can do to support your child’s teacher is going to add to building a strong, beautiful foundation for your child.

And when the resources already feel stretched too far …

We are asking way too much of our teachers and our schools at the moment. We have been for too long. The truth of it though, is that for learning to happen and for engagement to increase, we have to focus on relationship first. It can’t be any other way.

Schools and teachers are spending the time and resources anyway, on managing behaviour and trying to increase learning and engagement. If we can channel those resources towards building relational safety, so young people feel more seen, valued, and cared for, rather than less capable or less clever, there will be less need to spend those precious resources managing big behaviour, disengagement, and reduced capacity to learn.

First though, we need to value the relationships and the way kids feel at school, even more than how they do at school. All kids are capable of their own versions of greatness, but unless they feel safe and cared for at school, we just won’t see what they are capable of, and neither will they.

I’ve seen the difference this makes. Teachers are superheroes. The ones who value the need for relational safety, and who do what they can to build in practices or micromoments to build relationship change lives. They really do.

Our teachers need relational safety too.

Of course, this isn’t just about students. When adults don’t feel safe, valued, or cared for, those adults will also be more likely to act from a survival state. This isn’t about personality or character. It’s about being human. No human can be the best version of themselves, and no human can keep giving when they are feeling depleted, unsupported, or as though what they are doing doesn’t matter.

The time teachers put into building relationship matters. It matters so much. It matters more than academics or grades because they are building the strong, beautiful foundations needed for those academics and grades.

The effects of relationship building won’t always be visible straight away, but it will always make a critical difference. It’s like drops in a bucket. Sometimes we don’t see the drops until the bucket is overflowing. Some children have bigger buckets than others. Some have smaller buckets but those buckets are running dry. This might be because of their particular needs (and we all have things we need, but we don’t always need the same things in the same way), their history, their circumstances today, this week, this year. This means it might take longer to see that bucket fill – but know that however slow that bucket is filling, those drops matter – every single one.

We need to make sure our teachers feel seen, safe, cared for, valued. Our kids can’t be the best they can be without them.

6 Comments

Lucy C

Such a valuable reminder at the start of the school year. Our morning meet and greet drop off routine takes quite a while each day. As a small foundation phase school we take a great of time and care to ensure that each parent and child feels ‘seen’ as they arrive. Our school feels homely and the children are settled. Reading your article has helped me to reflect on the value of our morning routine and how it contributes to the positive and caring emotional tone of the school, not to mention the general excitement about learning. Thank you for your wise words.

Reply
Sally S

Thanks Karen This is so helpful.
I am neither a teacher nor a parent but I am a Brownie Guide Leader and District Commissioner so meet with girls and leaders every week. This is good advice for all of those people that I meet.

Reply
Karen Young (BSc)(Psych)(Hons)MastGestTher

Thanks Sally. I’m so pleased it’s helpful. As an adult who shows up for them every week, you are one of the important people in their lives who can make a difference, whether it’s by supporting the girls directly, or by supporting their adults – it matters.

Reply
Sarah R

A fantastic piece, Karen. Congratulations! When we work on setting up brain-based understanding (and then strategy) for improving educational leading, teaching and learning, things can only get better!

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