Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Five Things You Can Do Now to Increase Emotional Safety

By Sam Piha 

Sam Piha
We have known for decades that promoting young people’s sense of physical and emotional safety is foundational for any expanded learning program. This has been reinforced by research on the brain, learning, and trauma-informed practice and is the number one quality standard created by state and national entities.

The knowledge about the importance of safety in expanded learning programs is so ubiquitous that we chose to not include it in our LIAS learning principles. However, recent events at the southern border has shined a light on the importance of promoting young people’s sense of safety.

Below, we share text from a chapter on promoting safety from the Community Network for Youth Development’s Youth Development Guide: Engaging young people in after-school programming.


1. Develop group agreements regarding safety and regular group meetings to ensure that everyone feels physically and emotionally safe.
Conduct a meeting with the program participants early on to express the commitment that in your program “every person has the right to feel safe, included, and accepted.” Ask participants to define what these terms mean to them, and what agreements and rules they want to make to ensure the right of safety. Decide together what happens when the safety agreements are broken. Train young people in a process to resolve differences and decide at what point an adult should be asked to intervene.

Photo Credit: Great Valley Writing Project
2. Institute a regular group or “community” check-in meeting.
If issues of safety and relationship building are important, set aside a regular time for the group to reflect on their experience in the program and to suggest ways in which the peer group can work together even better. Make room in the meeting for people to share appreciations for their peers who are contributing to making the program a positive, safe place. [See previous LIAS blog posts on this topic.] 

3. Include “no put-downs” in your group agreements.
When developing group agreements with young people, a request for a “no put- down” rule will usually surface early in the discussion. [Note: for those preferring an alternative agreement avoiding the negative "NO", try “respect yourself and others”. This is a broad agreement and needs to be “unpacked” with the participants.] 

It is important to discuss with the young people how everyone will support its enforcement. This takes real commitment, as many young people have learned to use “put-downs” as a defense against being hurt themselves. Adult staff members will have to follow through with great consistency, offering reminders that ask members to hold to this agreement, especially in the beginning. Take every slur you hear seriously, even if it is in a teasing tone or participants claim it is okay. It is not okay because slurs hurt. It is helpful to hold group discussions or activities around “put-downs”, why they hurt, and what we can do instead. As young people come to trust that you will enforce this policy, you will see a reduction in the number of “put-downs”, and the sense of safety in the program will grow. Learning the benefits of interacting without this kind of hurtful behavior at an early age teaches young people a profound lesson in the value of mutual respect. 

4. Assess the cultural, gender, ethnic, and family structure background of your group.
Without asking unnecessarily probing questions, do what you can to learn who is in your program. Do the staff members and volunteers reflect these backgrounds? Do images and books in the classroom? Program activities and celebrations? Are there differences in who comes to program, who participates in which activities, which parents feel welcome at events?

5. Expand the group’s knowledge of particular groups and cultures. 
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Start by educating yourself. Avoid tokenizing young people or others in your program or school by asking them to explain their culture. Instead, go to the library, look on the internet, attend local cultural events, and call or visit organizations promoting equity for the group you are researching. Learn what you can about the history, art, literature, music, food, celebrations, and struggles of a culture or group. Then help the young people in your program study different cultures and celebrate the contributions of different groups. You might learn about women, people of color, and gay people who have contributed to your neighborhood. Celebrate various holidays as they are celebrated in different countries. Celebrate Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Gay Pride Month, or Cesar Chavez’s Birthday. Young people can present what they’ve learned, and adults may be willing to share food, decorations, or music. Don’t make assumptions about what any particular person might share. Be sure that these celebrations are part of an ongoing process of inclusion and education, and that some groups aren’t just segregated to certain “diversity days.”

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