Educators preparing for the 2021/2022 school year should consider embracing “felt safety” as their mantra.

The pandemic has left in its wake feelings of chronic unpredictability and isolation. The ongoing, amplified marginalization experienced by so many communities will linger within the nervous systems of children and youth. And parents and educators as well as students will present escalated behaviors as they navigate their fair share of challenging transitions.

Our stress response systems soared into patterns of persistent high alert over these past 18+ months. It equates to toxic levels of stress that compromise the brain and body development of our children and youth.

Schools across the world will need to be intentional in cultivating environments of connection and felt safety as our nervous systems seek out nonverbal signals that say, “you belong.” We construct knowledge in the spaces of our relationships, and perceptions of felt safety override environmental safety. Accumulating adversities and trauma change the fundamental organization of the way we manage perceptions of people, environments, and experiences. Unsafe environments change how we think and our capacity to think.

The impact of unsafe environments on felt safety.

Sensing and living inside unsafe environments and experiences cultivates felt fear instead of felt safety. Fear is the engine rumbling beneath many of the dysregulated behaviors we observe in our classrooms, schools, and districts.

When we feel threatened, or experience prolonged chronic unpredictability, we often sense a loss of control and power. The body remembers past fears through unconscious and implicit memories as we sometimes fight like hell to survive those feelings of helplessness. Safety and connection are nervous system conditions our brains and bodies require to teach well, learn well, parent well, and live well. If we do not experience a sense of felt safety within our relationships and environments, our nervous systems initiate a survival response which is intended to protect us. But in that moment, it also shuts down access to the cortical functions of the brain. These are the functions that enable us to think clearly, emotionally regulate, pay attention, and hold a steady working memory, while simultaneously activating curiosity and creativity. 

Felt safety starts with you.

Cultivating “felt safety” in our homes, schools, and communities begins with the adult brain and body state. It takes a calm, regulated adult to calm a child, and our schools benefit greatly when we prioritize and act upon the plasticity of the adult nervous system. A grounded, peaceful adult should share their emotionally available presence with a child or youth. This is an adult mind shift that we will need to accept and uphold to cultivate discipline practices that are preventative, brain aligned, and relational.  

School leaders can develop predictable and safe environments by initiating and promoting mental and emotional well-being of the adult educators/staff in schools. How? Along with curriculum and content plans, we may want to ask for well-being plans from our staff, prioritizing what the nervous system needs for leadership, learning, and modeling healthy relationships.

Felt safety resources for staff and students.

Below are some examples of regulatory and connection practice survey questions that you can share with staff and students as the school year begins, and throughout the year as needs and preferences change.

  1. Who are two people I trust?
  2. Are the adults I trust at school?
  3. When I am upset, worried, or anxious, who should I share these feelings with?
  4. If I could connect or serve one of my colleagues/classmates, who would that be and how would I serve them?
  5. If I could connect with someone who I want to learn from, who would that be?
  6. If I could start or join a club/organization with someone, what could that be?
  7. Are there animals that I connect with?
  8. If I could imagine a favorite place, imaginary or real, what would that be like? What would it look like, sound like, smell like, and who would I prefer to be with, or would I be alone?
  9. What interests do I have?
  10. If I created a list of people, places, or activities that create felt safety and excite me, what would those be?

Source: Revelations In Education

Are we able to create ways to hold each other accountable for regulatory practices and share these practices with our students? Emotions are contagious, and our dysregulated nervous system can unintentionally trigger a child or youth’s nervous system with little to no effort.

Sharing the science behind felt safety.

When we begin to learn about our neuroanatomy, we begin to feel empowered and often, relieved. Our brains and bodies are always working for us and trying to protect us while finding a fluid balance. We share this science with our students as they too learn about their stress response systems, neuroplasticity (the brain and body’s ability to change structurally and functionally with every experience), and how sensory and regulatory practices of breath, movement, rhythm, art, and connection with others decreases heart rate, blood pressure and respiration helping us find a state of felt safety.

When we share our learning with students at school, this can create a culture of belonging and connection, which are powerful embodied experiences. Below are resources we share with our schools so we can all learn together (click on the images to view).

Source: Revelations In Education

For an in-the-moment practice, you may say that it’s grabbing a cold bottle of water, chewing gum, popping a mint, giving yourself a quick hand or neck massage, or moving or stretching your body for a minute or two.

Additionally, for a practice you can commit to at home, it could be taking a 10-minute walk, writing or reading in a journal, going for a bike ride, driving the car, texting or calling a friend, making a smoothie, setting aside three minutes of deep breaths, taking a hot shower, and so on.

From a personal standpoint, I’ve found that students are much more willing to disclose their experiences when I am authentic and share mine. In other words, I will explain my anxiousness during the day or class period while modeling a quick, in-the-moment practice for my students. I also explain that my brain cannot think clearly right now or make important decisions, and so I am going to take three deep breaths and sip water or chew on a mint.

Every student enters the classroom with a catalog of lived experiences. Some of these may involve pain, loss, and mistrust. These pain-filled experiences become our lived stories and our lived stories develop into our identities.  

Connections with others build healthy nervous systems and felt safety—our brains are social organs, and we cannot survive without one another. When we are aware of the paraverbal and nonverbal communication expressed through our tone, gestures, facial expressions, and posture, our safe presence can calm the activated stress response systems of our students. If we choose to follow a student’s agenda with curiosity and wonder, we begin to realize that so many of their lived stories would break our hearts and not anger us if we were truly aware of a student’s lived experiences.

All behaviors are signals or indicators of the state of our nervous systems. When we look beneath behaviors, we meet our students in brain and body development. That is the place where we can begin to develop felt safety, and create sustainable social, emotional, and physiological well-being in our students.

Dr. Lori Desautels is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. Lori was also an assistant professor at Marian University in Indianapolis, where she founded the Educational Neuroscience Symposium, now sponsored by Butler University. Lori has created webinars for educators, clinicians, and administrators illustrating how educators and students alike must understand their neuroanatomy to regulate behavior and calm the brain. You can learn more about her work at Revelations In Education.