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The Overlooked Element of a “Safe” Return to School (Virtual or Face-to-Face)

Ensuring students and staff are physically safe is a top concern these days. But we all understand that keeping staff and students physically safe is just the beginning.

There is another, often overlooked, component of safety that schools must plan for as well. Ignore this and students might be physically safe in school, but learn little. Focus in on this and students’ capacity to learn opens up. What’s the big “THIS”?

The Research

Creating a safe learning environment for all cultures, genders, and races is paramount for learning. There are three main categories of safety:

Physical safety includes safety from influences that can harm one’s body (corporal punishment, fights on the playground, and a novel strand of a virus) (Côté-Lussier & Fitzpatrick, 2016).

Emotional safety includes safety from influences that can trigger a fear, anxiety, or stress response (Ahmed, Minnaert, Werf, & Kuyper, 2008).

Social safety includes safety to connect with peers and ask for support without worry of being teased or socially rejected (Gianaros et al., 2007).

All three of these components are essential for the brain to feel safe enough to engage in a learning process.

This month’s newsletter narrows in on the science of emotional safety. Why is it so important for the brain? How does it impact learning? And, the surprise element of how YOUR emotional state impacts students’ feelings of emotional safety.

This is highly relevant for any school, whether you are doing in-person instruction or virtual learning.

How Student’s Emotions Impact the Brain and Learning

The brain is constantly gathering information from the environment to determine the level of safety at any given moment. When it perceives any level of uncertainty, it is registered by the amygdala and flagged as a potential threat. If the threat is deemed valid, the brain diverts resources to mitigate or eliminate the threat. Remember, one of the brain’s primary functions is survival (Adolphs, 2010).

The amygdala function has an inverse relationship with another critical brain region – the pre-frontal cortex. When amygdala activity is high, it can decrease the function in the pre-frontal cortex. Why does this matter? The pre-frontal cortex plays a significant role in attention, learning, and recall. In other words, when a student is emotionally dysregulated, their ability to pay attention, learn, or recall information can be drastically compromised (McGarry & Carter, 2016).

How does this relate to the current situation with the Covid-19 pandemic?

There are a lot of reasons why a student might bring feelings of fear, anxiety, or stress with them to your in-person or remote learning environment. New protocols of temperature checks, mask-wearing, excessive screen time, and internet issues can potentially trigger the amygdala into an uncertain response. Fear of getting or spreading the virus has the potential to cause a decrease in prefrontal activity and cognition.

In addition, students track YOUR emotional state, and it impacts your students’ perception of emotional safety.

How Teacher’s Emotions Impact Student’s Brain and Learning

Earlier we mentioned that the brain is constantly gathering data from the environment to determine the level of safety. In the context of a student in school, one significant source they collect data from is YOU.

Your students’ amygdala is scanning your cues to determine whether you’ll be a source of negative emotions (fear, anxiety, stress, anger, anxiety, hopelessness, etc.) or positive emotions (hope, calmness, enjoyment, excitement, etc.) (Lei, Cui, & Chiu, 2018).

Your psychological health (levels of stress, anxiety, fear, threat) can be sensed by your students. Powered by their mirror neurons, your students can “sync” up with your emotional state. This can be a powerful tool to help create calmness and excitement. It can also be worrisome if a teacher is sending signals connected to anxiety or stress (Kilner & Lemon, 2013). After all:

  • Teachers with higher stress levels tend to have classrooms with more behavior problems as well as worse academic outcomes (La Paro & Pianta, 2003).
  • Teachers with higher stress levels tend to have poorer achieving students (McLean & Connor, 2015).
  • Your higher stress levels are bad for BOTH you and your students (they take on your stressors). Chronic complaining can have an adverse impact on your brain, putting you at risk of a number of physical and mental issues. How? Repeated stressors is a major trigger for persistent inflammation in the body. The chronic inflammation can then lead to a range of health problems, including diabetes, cancer, and heart disease (Godoy, Rossignoli, Delfino-Pereira, Garcia-Cairasco, & de Lima Umeoka, 2018).

Practical Application

Pause for a minute before you start up school. Creating a safe space for students to learn requires focusing on: “what do our students need” and not “what does the staff want to do?”

Consider how you and your school will answer these questions rooted in creating an emotionally safe environment for students:

  • If you plan to start in-person: “How will I create a classroom climate of joy and excitement (rather than fear or anxiety)?”
  • If you plan to start virtually: “How will I frame this in a positive way instead of an inferior form of education?”
  • How will I manage my own anxieties around Covid-19 so it doesn’t rub off on students?

Here are three suggestions to help you create a learning environment where students feel emotionally safe so high-quality learning can occur.

  1. First Day Back Celebration

Have you envisioned the morning of your first day back with students? At one extreme, students are lined up 6ft apart, standing alone on red Xs, waiting for their dreadful turn to have their temperature checked or fill out a questionnaire. Staff is lined up enforcing all the new rules and quickly reprimanding any student who moves an inch off their X or isn’t wearing their mask properly. This will likely raise levels of anxiety and stress for students. Instead, design your return to school to be a celebration beyond anything they’ve ever seen.

  • Have positive messages plastered everywhere in happy, bright colors.
  • Use music to boost levels of positivity. Encourage staff to move to the music, and model new ways of greeting each other.
  • Provide students with their own “dance circle” 6ft apart for them to move to the music as they wait their turn.

Students can detect the emotional climate of a teacher within seconds. Seize the moment to make a positive, calming statement about being back in school (Babad, Avni-Babad, & Rosenthal, 2003).

The same applies to a virtual start to school. Carefully plan your first virtual session, especially those first few minutes.

“Hey everyone. I’m your teacher. I know it totally sucks that we are still doing school on Zoom, but [insert political rant]. Let me take roll.” Not your best option! Instead:

  • Turn up the tunes as students are arriving.
  • Have a funny meme showing on the screen.
  • Start with an energetic, “Hi there, friends. I am so excited to get to know you all this year. We are going to have a ton of fun and learn a lot. This whole virtual thing opens up so many new doors for us and our learning. I can’t wait to share them with you.”
  1. Manage Your Own Anxieties

There are plenty of valid reasons you might feel anxious about the plan your school has adopted. For your own well-being and that of your students, consider a few of these tools to manage your own anxieties:

  • Commit to ceasing complaints about anything in the first 3-4 weeks of school. You are a role model. The more you complain, the more that becomes the “norm” (both for you and the class climate). Complaining is both contagious and stressful. When you complain, your brain says, “Yikes… loss of control over one more thing. Ramp up the stress hormones.”
  • Adopt a daily mindfulness practice. A simple five-minute meditation or mindfulness exercise to start your day could be a game-changer.
  • Celebrate every COVID protocol, especially wearing a mask. Create a mantra that reminds you of your value of health, student safety, or citizenry – whatever works for you. Say it to yourself every time you put your mask or face shield on. My own mantra this summer has been “AMOR FATI” which is Latin for “the love of fate.” Play the hand you are given. Avoid being a “mask moper.”
  1. Create Fresh, Fun Traditions

With all the new regulations for in-person learning, it could be easy to slip into a policing mentality around distance, hand-washing, walking in the hall, etc. This will promote greater fear and anxiety. Anticipate those moments and create fun traditions that act as a reminder of the new ways of safely interacting.

  • A school-wide hand-washing song. Have the lyrics focus on the positive attributes of students at the school, including taking care of each other. And, of course, make sure it is 20 seconds long!
  • Students might feel more comfortable if there was an agreed-upon way to communicate someone is too close for their comfort level. Consider creating a class-wide or school-wide gesture for those situations. It could be as simple as a double thumbs up. Remember to keep it positive or even a bit silly.
  • If there are materials that need to be separated and cleaned daily, transform that task into a fun energizer. Pick an upbeat song to play as students deliver their supplies to the “sanitation drop-off zone”.

The same principles can be applied for distance learning. With a few months of experience under your belt, you likely know where things can go awry. Upgrade your approach to remote learning with new traditions that infuse excitement, positivity, and connection.

  • Start each session with something joyful! Share a great story of something you saw or heard on the news about helping another person. Make your question of the day uplifting (“Think of a favor you saw or did for another…how did you feel? How did the other person feel?”). Share a new uplifting song, world event or good thing happening at home.
  • Insert mini dance breaks to break up the monotony of screen-time.
  • Create traditions of “show-and-tell” from their home to help students get to know each other. For older students, you can call it “Random stuff with a story”. Facilitate friendships with new “in common shares” of 5 things you have in common with another.

We recognize the uncertainty inherent in the current situation. The goal is to create solutions to help you AND your students to feel emotionally safe. Pick one of the strategies above to jumpstart this unique school year with a burst of positivity so students feel more emotionally safe. We honor the work you are doing to educate your students in the best and safest way possible.


Adolphs, R. (2010). What does the amygdala contribute to social cognition? Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1191(1), 42-61.

Ahmed, W., Minnaert, A., Werf, G. V., & Kuyper, H. (2008). Perceived Social Support and Early Adolescents’ Achievement: The Mediational Roles of Motivational Beliefs and Emotions. Journal of Youth and Adolescence,39(1), 36-46.

Babad, E., Avni-Babad, D., & Rosenthal, R. (2003). Teachers brief nonverbal behaviors in defined instructional situations can predict students’ evaluations. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(3), 553-562.

Côté-Lussier, C., & Fitzpatrick, C. (2016). Feelings of safety at school, socioemotional functioning, and classroom engagement. Journal of Adolescent Health58(5), 543-550.

Gianaros, P. J., Horenstein, J. A., Cohen, S., Matthews, K. A., Brown, S. M., Flory, J. D., . . . Hariri, A. R. (2007). Perigenual anterior cingulate morphology covaries with perceived social standing. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2(3), 161-173.

Godoy, L. D., Rossignoli, M. T., Delfino-Pereira, P., Garcia-Cairasco, N., & de Lima Umeoka, E. H. (2018). A Comprehensive Overview on Stress Neurobiology: Basic Concepts and Clinical Implications. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience12, 127.

Kilner, J. M., & Lemon, R. N. (2013). What we know currently about mirror neurons. Current biology : CB23(23), R1057–R1062. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.10.051

La Paro, K. M., & Pianta, R. C. (2003). CLASS: Classroom Assessment Scoring System. Charlottesville: U of VA Press.

Lei, H., Cui, Y., & Chiu, M. M. (2018). The Relationship between Teacher Support and Students Academic Emotions: A Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 8.

McLean, L., & Connor, C. M. (2015). Depressive symptoms in third‐grade teachers: Relations to classroom quality and student achievement. Child development86(3), 945-954.

McGarry, L. M., & Carter, A. G. (2016). Inhibitory gating of basolateral amygdala inputs to the prefrontal cortex. Journal of Neuroscience36(36), 9391-9406.

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