Events and experiences that can compromise emotional safety and learning

The items on this list were compiled from a number of print resources as well as surveys and interviews conducted over a two-year period. (Many items suggested in the literature overlapped or were repeatedly expressed in interviews and surveys.) Feel free to add your own observations and experiences to this list. Any of these events or experiences can have a negative impact—not only on the student directly involved, but also students who witness the experience, and on the emotional climate of the learning environment, as well.

  • Being placed in educational material above actual ability level
  • Unclear directions; directions not repeated or available if you didn’t get them the first time
  • Not being given enough help or assistance
  • Not having resources, structure or guidelines, people, or information needed to complete an assignment (before having to respond or explain)
  • Not having enough time to complete work; unrealistic deadlines
  • Not having enough time to think about a question or process new information
  • Inability to speak the language
  • Teacher’s expression impatience, annoyance, or disgust
  • Overhearing teachers or other significant adults discussing you negatively within earshot (either deliberately or accidentally)
  • Having a seemingly uncaring, uninvolved, or weak principal
  • Rarely (or never) being given any choices or input in decisions that affect you
  • Not being taken seriously; being ignored or dismissed, laughed off
  • Rigid application of rules and negative consequences (punishments)
  • Spanking, paddling, or whipping used as punishment
  • Rough physical contact used deliberately or reactively to control or punish (pinching, grabbing, pushing, hitting)
  • Witnessing classmates being shamed, spanked, or punished
  • Being punished for moving, squirming, wanting to touch things, doodling, swinging your leg, or other forms of coping behavior (often identified as “hyperactivity”).
  • Routinely recognized or praised, threatened, or punished with conditional approval from teacher or other adults
  • Favoritism of some students over others
  • Prejudice or discrimination (by adults or peers) based on race, ethnicity, religion, or other cultural factors
  • Prejudice or discrimination by adults or peers, including judgments, ridicule, rejection, devaluing, shaming, insulting, demeaning, exclusion, or other negative reactions, whether verbal or nonverbal, based on clothing (style, cost, value, or where purchased), hairstyle, jewelry, body size, or other factors related to appearance
  • Prejudice or discrimination (by adults or peers) based on abilities and interests, or on a lack of abilities or interest in a particular area
  • Prejudice or discrimination (by adults or peers) based on sexual orientation, whether expressed or inferred
  • Being left-handed and being pressured or required to use right-hand
  • Being punished long after an incident occurred
  • Being wrongly accused or wrongly punished
  • Inability to read or otherwise perform on grade level
  • Unpredictable or inconsistent teacher behavior
  • Teacher’s reliance on someone else (principal, counselor, parents, for example) to handle or punish discipline problems
  • “Gotcha” tests, pop quizzes, useless tests or evaluations used mainly to “catch” or punish you
  • Unrealistic rules and expectations
  • Demands that do not respect your developmental or ability level
  • Ineffective professionals trying to help; adults who don’t know how to help even if they want to (or who inadvertently make things worse)
  • Not being positively recognized or acknowledged for positive behavior, achievement, effort, cooperation, etc.
  • Little variety in day-to-day curriculum
  • Little variety in day-to-day schedule
  • Feeling little love in school in general
  • Teachers’ inability or unwillingness to help the slow learners or kids who need extra help
  • A lack of understanding or difficulty communicating thoughts and feelings that is frequently interpreted as laziness
  • Feelings of helplessness and lack of power to change an uncomfortable situation; inability to see a possible solution to a problem
  • Teachers’ hollering, explosive behavior
  • Not being allowed to ask for help or express problems openly and verbally to a teacher
  • Not being allowed or able to express feelings without fear of negative reaction or consequence
  • Being called names that suggest stupidity or incompetence
  • Being told you’re not applying yourself
  • Being shamed or criticized for dropping something or knocking something over; being told you’re clumsy
  • Being shamed or criticized for not understanding something the first time it is explained
  • Feeling afraid to share, speak up, or say anything in class
  • Feeling sad and lonely and not being able to share these feelings with anyone
  • Feeling that no one really cares about you
  • Being picked last for a game in recess or gym class
  • Being bullied, harassed, or intimidated by other students (especially when this behavior is observed by adults who laugh or ignore the incident)
  • Going to a new school, having to make new friends
  • Not being supported or protected by teachers or other adults who witness other children hurting you (verbally or physically)
  • Being punished, shamed, or excluded from an activity because you did not respond quickly enough
  • Speaking, reading, or presenting in front of the class
  • Being in the lowest reading group; knowing that your classmates think you are slow (not as smart as they are)
  • Anticipating an activity or class you know you’re not good in
  • Having your grades read in class (low or high)
  • Having to wait to go to the bathroom until the scheduled time; being denied access to the bathroom when needed
  • Having to sit so long at your desk without a break that your mind and body become numb or restless
  • Being shamed, ridiculed, humiliated, or set up to fail in front of your peers
  • Being sensitive to or intolerant of the noise, visual stimulation, light (especially fluorescents, glare from outside), or movement in the classroom
  • Not having any privacy
  • Not being able to rest when you feel you need to
  • Poor match of learning style to teaching style; learning styles and preferences not accommodated

Excerpted and adapted from Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, by Dr. Jane Bluestein © 2001, Health Communications, Inc, Deerfield Beach, FL.

© 2001, 2013, 2022, Dr. Jane Bluestein

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Related handouts:

Survey: Is Your School (or Classroom) an Emotionally Safe Place?
Supporting Kids in Crisis: Non-supportive patterns to avoid!
Alternatives to Non-Supportive Responses
Industrial Age Classrooms vs. Information Age Classrooms
Examples of Some New Ways of Thinking
Bearing Witness: Support for Children in Crisis

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