Discover more from Jade’s Newsletter
A Recipe for Thriving: Setting 2e Students Up for Success, Part I of 3
Creating a safe space
There’s a growing body of evidence detailing best practices for serving twice-exceptional children in the classroom. Dr. Susan Baum, luminary and pioneer in the field of gifted and twice-exceptional research, and her colleagues have identified five interconnected characteristics of effectively designed learning environments for twice-exceptional children. In Baum’s book To Be Gifted And Learning Disabled, they’re outlined as:
1. A psychologically safe environment
2. Tolerance for asynchrony
4. The opportunity to forge positive relationships
5. A strength-based, talent-focused environment (Baum, et. al. 2017)
Throughout this month, I’ll dive into how each of these characteristics was considered in the micro-schools I’ve designed for students like Joey. (As a quick recap: Joey, ten years old and advanced in math and language arts but struggling socially, is an amalgamation of all the magic and challenges of the 2e students I’ve had the honor of working with over the years. I introduced her and her story in greater detail back in May and June.
Today I want to unpack with you the very first best practice: creating a psychologically safe environment for your students.
A psychologically safe environment
A psychologically safe environment is one where, more often than not, a child feels safe to demonstrate their skills, ability, likes, and dislikes without fear of indifference or shame. When Joey left her previous (conventional) classroom, she didn’t have any friends and was often reprimanded for aspects of herself that she could not control. Socially and academically, she stood out from her classmates—and not in a good way. She was not known for her amazing math talents or creative way of seeing the world. She was instead held back from her talents and strengths and reprimanded for acting out in class. Her teacher described her as “defiant” without elaborating on the ways in which Joey was good and doing her best.
Despite the attempts made by the well-meaning adults at Joey’s school, her classroom was not psychologically safe for her. I don’t mean to speak harshly about the professionals working with Joey, though. Teachers rarely receive training on the ideas I explore in this newsletter. Even if they do, the constraints of the education philosophy they work within would make enacting them nearly impossible.
I advocate for a “connection first” strategy in the classroom, which is another way to say that I prioritize relationships first with my students. This doesn’t mean that I’m everyone’s friend, but it does mean that everyone knows, in explicit terms, that I take their well-being seriously: I will do anything in my power to ensure their safety, psychologically and otherwise.
Prioritizing connection first is a skill I learned to develop through my training in Nonviolent Communication (NVC). As humans, we tend to jump toward solving problems prematurely, before we’ve taken the time to listen and learn about the issue another is having. NVC trains us to empathize with each other first. All behavior is information; all actions are an attempt to meet a need. When we observe the student through this lens, we’re able to empathize with where they’re coming from and then work with them to develop a solution or strategy that will meet their need or solve their problem.
Your subscription helps keep my newsletter thriving. If the issues of neurodiversity and learning are as near to your heart as they are to mine, consider subscribing! The cost is about the same as a cup of coffee, but my gratitude is endless. 🌻
In practice, this looks like me asking a question or reflecting back to a student what I’m observing is important to them. At the same time, I’m co-regulating with my student: I’m managing my emotional state through noticing my breath, my posture, and the modulation of my voice so I may stay present with them as they sort through their feelings. This is one way I let them know, however subtly, that I’m a safe person. Moreover, it’s modeling to my students how one might stay calm when intense feelings arise or difficult circumstances occur.
For example, let’s say it’s presentation day, and a student is very anxious to give their presentation to the class, so much so that they begin to tear up. I might say, “I can tell you’re feeling upset, I’m going to sit with you here for a little while.” When I feel the energy lighten a bit, I might say, “Some of the other kids are feeling quite nervous about presenting today. How about you?” This opens up an opportunity for the student to communicate how they’re feeling, which is often calming in and of itself. Once my student knows that I understand and care about how they’re feeling, we can turn our attention to brainstorming strategies for them to stay calm and give a presentation they feel proud of. Validation of feelings is often enough for the student to gain some perspective on their issue, but if they want a partner to develop solutions with, I’m there for that as well.
Up until now, I’ve focused on a psychologically safe connection between each child and the adults in the room; it’s a little trickier to create a psychologically safe connection between the students. As an adult, I’ve had years and years of time to develop self-awareness and empathy for others. Not to mention plenty of therapy, in which I unpacked my unconscious biases and healed my family-of-origin story, and workshops where I professionalized all of these skills so I might be a strong leader and masterful educator. Obviously, children haven’t yet had that privilege!
I’ve always held the perspective that the more rules a classroom has, the more rules I have to spend my time enforcing. Enforcing rules about how and where children sit, when and where they can eat, and how many times they can use the bathroom seems like the worst job ever and no fun for anyone. So much of what people call “rules” is really just policing the natural urges of young people. I prefer boundaries over rules because they mimic best how the world outside the classroom operates and they make space for natural human error. For years, my classroom boundaries have been:
Take only what you need and treat it well
Ask before touching another person’s body or belongings
Respond immediately when a person says “No” or “Stop”
Through these simple boundaries, we’re teaching stewardship for the environment, respect for the supplies we all share so we may learn and create, and consent about each other's bodies and personal space. These boundaries make sense, which cuts down on dreaded power struggles. That said, I don’t mean to imply that it’s easy to keep these boundaries in place. Instead, I’ve found that structuring the classroom culture in this manner helps me feel like I’m actually teaching life skills—skills that I know will serve my students onward and contribute to their long-term happiness.
Most of the time, a direct, explicit reminder works well when these boundaries are crossed. When a reminder doesn’t work, or the transgression results in someone’s hurt feelings—even when the intent to break the boundary was calculated and intentional—I prefer restorative practices over punishment. When boundaries are crossed to this degree, it helps to have a planned response in place. There’s plenty written about restorative practices and how to implement them. The most important thing to know about this strategy for justice is that it takes intention and requires practice.
The most effective restorative practice I’ve encountered is something called “The Conversation.” Let’s say one student has taken another child’s ball by ripping it away from their hands. Maybe this physically hurt the child who originally had the ball, and the child who took it did not take a moment to say “Sorry” or concern themselves with the other child’s feelings.
When the child who had the ball taken comes to me upset, I’ll first empathize with their feelings. I’ll say something like, “Oh dear, I can see you’re very upset! Do you want to tell me what happened?” They may need me to stand by them or need to be held for a moment before they tell me the story of what took place.
After they’ve calmed down and are ready to relay the facts to me, I’ll ask, “Do you want to have a conversation with them (the one who took the ball)?” If the child says, “Yes,” I will take the upset child over to the child who took the ball and let them know that it’s time to have a conversation with their friend about what just happened.
I will then ask each child to tell their version of the story without interrupting each other. When one child finishes telling their story, the other is instructed not to contradict or refute the story but instead reflect back what they think is important to the other child at that moment. The children know this process already; it’s been heavily modeled and role-played prior to this event. They know the process and the expectations—I’m only reminding them.
Due to the empathetic and justice-oriented nature of this interaction, both children are seen and heard for what’s important to them. The result is a dissipation of intensity about the story, which frees us to focus on making a request for the future like, “Will you please ask me before taking my things?” or “Next time please get your own ball from the bin or wait until I’m done.”
Will this transgression take place again, either like this or in some other form? Probably. Am I creating the conditions for growth, reflection, and developing self-awareness? Definitely. There’s something about humans that causes us to make the same mistakes multiple times before we learn. It takes time to cement our behavioral, neural pathways before they become a given. When we use restorative practices like the one I outlined above, we’re preserving dignity and honoring our humanity: two vital aspects to feeling safe in any environment, including the classroom.
Through this process, we move from empathy to solution rather than punishment to shame. This fairly straightforward process not only contributes to psychological safety in the learning environment but also acts as social and emotional learning.
Jade’s Newsletter is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I’m curious: what kinds of practices have you used in your classroom to create a safe space for your students?
Also, don’t miss Part 2 of this series coming next [insert date].
See you soon,
Baum, S. M., Schader, R. M., & Owen, S., V. (2021). To be gifted and learning disabled: Strength-based strategies for helping twice-exceptional students with LD, ADHD, ASD, and more (3rd ed.). Routledge.