Physical safety requires emotional safety

Woman with a study groupEnsuring students’ physical safety requires that adults make schools feel safe emotionally for students, reports Karen Osterman, Hofstra University. Osterman asserts that although the quality of students’ relationships with teachers has a significant effect on students’ involvement in learning, peer relationships have the most impact on students’ emotional health. Research suggests that rejection by peers is devastating, especially for boys. Observational studies by Osterman reveal that many children in elementary and secondary school have no friends and are not part of any group. Outright rejection is more threatening to emotional well-being than not being part of a group, particularly in secondary school, she reports.

Being part of a single classroom with one teacher provides some support for isolated students in elementary school, but the departmentalization of high schools breeds isolation. Osterman writes that students who are rejected by their peers tend to be rejected by their teachers and other adults in the school as well. Most rejected students are seen as different in some way. They may not dress well or are physically or socially unattractive. They often have behavior problems or are withdrawn. Students who are rejected by teachers and peers become more and more isolated. Schools where students are unconnected can breed violence.

Importantly, research reveals that if people are given a chance to interact they will get to know one another, and even if they don’t become friends they will be more tolerant of one another. Osterman suggests the following strategies for reducing isolation of students and improving the atmosphere in schools to reduce potential abuse and violence:

  1. Establish the ground rules: Harassment and abuse in school are not acceptable. Teachers often ignore such abuse or blame the child who is being harassed. Rules need to be clear and to be enforced.
  2. Promote a culture of tolerance and acceptance. Schools must encourage caring and respect for all. Adults must express the value, “Treat others as you wish to be treated.”
  3. Reach out to students who are a little different. Students need adult support at all ages. Their body language and words may suggest that they want to be left alone, but they don’t mean it. Educators need to be interested in the whole child, and not just to focus on academic learning. This is particularly true for victimized students. Adults need to talk to them about their classwork and about their lives. Getting to know these students leads to an appreciation of their talents. Children blossom under such attention, becoming more engaged in school and beginning to interact with others more effectively. Teachers are critically important in shaping these students’ experience in school. Students will follow the teacher’s lead.
  4. Provide opportunities for students to get to know one another. Many students are isolated and have little opportunity to become acquainted in their classes. Educators who work with adults regularly use activities to develop a sense of community among the group. We need to do the same with school-age students.

“Preventing School Violence,” Phi Delta Kappan, Volume 84, Number 8, April 2003, pp. 622-627.

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