May All Learners Feel Safe (with May Henry)

“I learned as much from the children that I taught as they learned from me.  Our time spent together was one where I tried to provide a safe and caring environment so they felt free to take risks with their social and emotional development as well as reach their academic potential.  They were also taught to care about each other and support their peers by praising their accomplishments and supporting their struggles.” – May Henry

When we feel safe, our eyes, minds and hearts are open to learn and grow.

As adults (educators, parents and/or leaders) our role is not to prepare youth for the “harsh realities of adulthood” but to provide a safe and supportive space for them.

We know we can’t protect their innocence forever, but there are things we can do to make them feel accepted while teaching them to accept others in order to create communities that celebrate both similarities and differences.

What can we do to help learners feel safe and accepted? How can we support and embrace inclusion in classrooms? What can we do to nourish open-mindedness (and full-heartedness) in learners?

Here is one thoughtful teacher’s tried-and-tested techniques:

I think this is a motherhood issue.  Every child in my class deserves to be included as a valued class member of our classroom community.  Each child has their own ‘special traits’ that they bring and contribute to the classroom dynamics.  We celebrate their similarities and differences and do not judge but accept the uniqueness of each child.

In supporting this philosophy the children are encouraged to be aware of their own personal space, feelings and safety and also respect the personal space, feelings and safety of others. There is a lot of ‘class talk’ when setting up the rules for the school year. Each child is also encouraged to try their personal best by taking ownership of their learning and make efforts to climb their own personal learning staircase at their own learning rate.  Each child’s learning rate is accepted.  My role is to support the children with a safe and positive environment and give them the tools with which to express their needs and celebrate their successes.  I offer them safe forums with which to express their feelings and deal with conflicts within the classroom or playground.

‘The community circle’ is where the children all sign a contract in which they agree on the rules of the circle.  Off the top of my head the rules could be:  only the person holding the community puppy can speak (the puppy travels around the circle and each child has the opportunity to speak or pass the puppy), no ‘put downs, just put ups’, all feelings are accepted, etc.  This gives the children a safe forum to talk about their feeling, fears, emotions, etc.

I use books like “SHaPEsViLLe” by Andy Mills and Becky Osborn to introduce the children to a community where everyone is accepted.  As they meet each of the characters they chant, “In Shapesville, it doesn’t matter what size, shape or colour you are because everyone here is a star” (straight from the book).  We then talk about the uniqueness of each character and how they are like a character or a combination of characters. I also extend this story into the characteristics when choosing a good friend that is the same or different or has a combination personality.  I then extend the concepts in this book to cover other subject areas such as geometry, mapping, etc. Throughout the year MANY books are introduced that help me develop community inclusiveness and are integrated into the other subject areas.

Each child’s learning style is accepted and we talk about the different types of learning.  Some children learn visually and others learn auditorially. I encourage the children to verbalize when a concept is not understood and I can try to explain it another way or the children are encouraged to be sensitive to the learning styles of others and come up with another way themselves.  This ‘taking ownership’ of their own learning makes them aware and accepting of learning differences.  I encourage, “What tools or strategies can you use to solve the problem?”.  The children get excited when we celebrate their ‘thinking outside the box” risks.  I use graphic organizers when teaching a new concept and allow children the use them as scaffolds when others have moved on without them and no longer need them.  This is common when doing research projects and this helps the children sort their ideas into categories so that they can visualize the big ideas before attempting to start writing them down.  This can also be used for creative writing.

I am constantly adapting or modifying expectations to make each child as successful as possible.  I also use peer helpers and we talk about the difference between ‘helping a friend’ and ‘giving them the answer’.  I give as much 1-1 reteaching as time allows. I use my classroom helpers, SEAs and peer helpers whenever possible. I also use “think-pair-share” to take the pressure off of always putting their ideas into writing.  I also encourage sharing their written ideas with different classmates and encouraging giving a positive comment to the child that has shared.  As the children share with a few friends, it is often hard to stop them when the sharing time is up.

When I had an autistic child in my class, we would talk about different ways to represent your knowledge and different thinking styles.  I would then choose something that the autistic child is good at and then celebrate that with the class and everyone would ooh and aah at the child’s skill.  e.g. he loved dates and could do higher level math computations in his head.  When we were doing a pre-read of a book, he would always ask when the copyright was.  He could then tell me ‘how many years ago that was’ in an instant.  The children were in awe of this skill.  This would show his peers that he was really smart at computing and when he would have a ‘meltdown’, his classmates were also more accepting of this difference and would even help to talk him through this.  Although this took a lot of role modeling, it gave his classmates more empathy and acceptance of his autism.

With a physically disabled child, the children learn that we all need different tools.  Some need glasses to see better, graphic organizers to visualize thoughts, and crutches to help us walk.  This way the children accept each child ‘as a whole’ and don’t question the differences.  For example, someone just gets her crutches during a fire drill and hands them to her when we get out of the school, as the adult has supported her to move quicker on the exit.

Everyone learns at different rates and as a teacher it is my job to be a facilitator in supporting and celebrating the different learning styles of children by adapting or modifying expectations to make each child successful. By making the children empathic to individual differences and accepting their friends ‘just the way they are,’ the spirit of the classroom community is celebrated.

May Henry teaching more than Math
May Henry teaching more than Math

May Henry grew up in Vancouver, got her teacher training at UBC with postgraduate work at SFU, taught for 35 years in district 43 (Coquitlam) and now is retired and enjoying life, learning and adventures with her husband, Frank, kids and grandkids.

“I feel so lucky to have found a career where I felt I truly did all that I could to foster lifelong learning in my students for the short time that they were with me.  I get paid back in aces when my former students keep in touch and come back to visit me as adults and share their journey with me.  One of my more challenging students even came back and spoke at my retirement… he became a teacher as well.” – May Henry

4 thoughts on “May All Learners Feel Safe (with May Henry)

  1. Isn’t it funny how a simple ‘brainstorming’ type of writing can turn into an article? I wrote this when an SEA in Surrey, who had volunteered in my classroom, got this assignment question that she was supposed to give to a practising teacher to see what a teacher’s point of view of inclusion ‘looked like’ in a classroom setting. I just sat down, wrote my thoughts down very quickly and sent them to her. Again, isn’t it funny how practical strategies with a common sense base can be so effective? A child who feels safe, listened to and accepted will learn like a sponge………….common sense!

    Thank you for trying to make education a lifelong process………………which it is!!

  2. So much of teaching/learning is common sense, isn’t it? It is also amazing how much will naturally emerge from children when they feel safe, listened to and accepted. Thank you for being an exemplary lifelong learner!

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