A System of Best Practices: Safe & Supportive Learning Environments

Your personal trainer has gone to great lengths to design a health and fitness plan that will bring you to a place of physical health that you have never experienced before. You have interesting and meaningful work ahead of you. You can see the relevance in each exercise you must do.

Now imagine you begin your first appointment at the gym and your trainer yells at you that “You’re not paying attention. You’re using the elliptical machine improperly. Let me show you,” before roughly moving you out of the way to demonstrate again. All around you other exercisers laugh, whisper, and point. Later, when you’re parched, you attempt to stop at the water fountain, and are scolded for taking another break or not asking for permission to get a drink. At the end of the session your trainer tells you that, because you did so poorly, next week you’d be reviewing the proper use of exercise equipment during your free time instead of getting to the routines that you had been looking forward to since you saw the fitness plan. In all likelihood, if this occurred for very long, you’d cease to show up for your scheduled appointments at the gym.

When students feel unsafe, they cease to “show up” in other ways. Their brain kicks into self-preservation mode, a mode which manifests differently depending on the student. Perhaps the student begins acting out, refusing to work, zoning out and not paying attention. Conversely, when students’ brains are not focused on self-preservation, they are able to function in learning mode.

Take a look at the picture of the table. There are several components of a safe and supportive learning environment. Think of these components as legs of a table, all necessary for holding up the table effectively. If one leg were missing, the table would have to be propped up on something less effective than the original leg. If two legs were missing, it would take quite a bit of effort and work to hold it up, and would likely be distracting in some way. Worse, if there were only one leg or no legs, it would be virtually impossible to hold up. All of the “legs” are necessary when creating the kind of learning environment in which students can thrive. Provided below is a brief description of the “legs” which hold safe and supportive learning environments up; these areas are explored in greater depth in the Safe and Supportive Learning Environment Checklists support tool, at the end of this post.


Creating a safe and supportive learning environment – which is crucial for student growth and success – depends on the following four “legs”:

  • Safety – The extent to which students’ need for acceptance, affiliation, confidence in risk-taking, contribution, respect, and support are addressed.
  • Growth Focused – The extent to which growth and effort (rather than performance) are emphasized.
  • Sense of Community – The extent to which teachers create “space” for intentional community building and promote the sense that “fair is everyone getting what they need” rather than “fair means everyone gets the same thing.”
  • Student-Centeredness – The extent to which use of space, routines, procedures, and the daily workings of a classroom promotes student independence and conveys the message that “this is our classroom, and we collaborate together and support one another to ensure that this is a space in which we can all thrive as scholars and members.”

Support Tools:


  • Dweck, C. (2007). New York: Ballentine Books.
  • Hattie, J.A.C., (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analysis relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.
  • Johnston, P.H., (2004). Choice words: How our language affects children’s learning. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
  • Sousa, D.A, & Tomlinson, C.A. (2011). Differentiation and the brain: How neuroscience supports the learner-friendly classroom. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

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