A Closer Look

Creating the Psychologically Safe Learning Environment

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"Stress can come from anywhere—from home, school, work—and it can make me very anxious and depressed, and take me to mental places where I don't like to be. Being in our school’s Mindfulness Club has helped me be aware of my feelings and think things out. It also provides techniques to calm me down from whatever is stressing me out or causing anxiety." — Connie, a senior, Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland

It’s hard to imagine Connie articulating her observation a decade ago, but many schools and districts are now making students’ mental health a big part of their focus—sometimes as big a focus as academics. As Mike Domagalski, Principal of St. Clair Middle School, St Clair, Michigan, noted, “Before you talk about academics, you have to make sure that students’ social, emotional, and mental well-being is in place.”

Social and emotional learning and trauma-informed classroom practices are becoming more commonplace. A few examples:

  • St. Clair Middle School dedicates two full-time faculty members to its Positivity Project.
  • The Merced Union High School District in Merced, California, integrates the Nurtured Heart Approach into its academic studies.
  • West Hartford Public Schools in Connecticut support a full-time staff devoted to ensuring equity advancement for all their students.

Integrating Mental Health and School Reform

Several factors have combined to drive social and emotional learning out of the shadows of one-and-done professional learning days and onto the school stage alongside academics. Credit greater awareness and acceptance of:

  • Adverse childhood experiences and trauma;
  • Defined trauma-informed classroom practices and the availability of practical guides that help teachers integrate trauma-informed practices into their content teaching;
  • Mindfulness practices, including meditation and yoga;
  • Assisting students to define their motivations, their sense of purpose, and their voices;
  • The need to prepare students differently for the demands of tomorrow’s team-driven, collaboration-dependent workplace;
  • Neuroscience and the implications for teaching and learning;
  • The isolation and loss of relationships imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • The toxic stress wrought by recent school shootings, weather disasters, and high-profile, racially driven events.

These factors, especially familiarity with the neuroscience of learning and the demands on students entering the world of work, point to an inherent dependency between mental health reform and school reform. It’s not enough to see them coexisting during the school day (that is, we work on social and emotional learning during periods 1 and 7 and academics the rest of the day).

Instead, we need to re-envision school as a triple helix, where social and emotional growth, content acquisition, and knowledge demonstration are intimately tied. School reformers Michael Fullan and Mark Edwards are driving toward this model in their recent book, Spirit Work and the Science of Collaboration. There, they profile eight districts and their work around eight themes:

  1. Well-being
  2. Parents and community
  3. Technology
  4. Innovation
  5. Leadership or lack of leadership
  6. Deadly inequality
  7. Students as agents of learning and change
  8. System transformation

Schools, they argue, must become incubators of collaborative problem solvers who can chip away at four challenges facing society: climate collapse, gross inequality, reeling social distrust, and deteriorating mental health. That role can only be fulfilled by students who are content smart and skill smart, socially and emotionally intelligent, and operating from a psychologically safe place.

The School Psychologist: Creating the Psychologically Safe Environment

Over the last 4 months, we have conducted interviews with educators, community members, and mental health practitioners to extend awareness of student trauma and influence how Federal ESSER funds could be spent to support student (and faculty!) mental health. Collectively, those interviews reside in our podcast, Cultivating Resilience.

One of our findings speaks to school psychologists’ critical role in creating a psychologically safe school environment. Many (most?) school psychologists have traditionally been positioned in a reactionary role: They are brought into discussions with educators and parents to deal with students who are identified as habitually disruptive, withdrawn, or requiring an ongoing Individualized Education Program.

One of our guests, Dr. Dana Milakovic, statewide K–12 advisor for trauma for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, argues that school psychologists can also play a proactive role. The demands of their current role notwithstanding, she urges school psychologists to:

  1. Be as visible as possible to build relationships with faculty and students.
  2. Lead staff to define the components of the psychologically safe school.
  3. Implement a wellness practice curriculum, such as the Compassion Resilience Toolkit for School Leaders and Staff or TeacherWISE.

Focusing on the front end of mental health and well-being in the school will likely require school psychologists to work with school/district leadership to reposition their already substantial role.

Easy? Not necessarily. So Dr. Milakovic urges mental health practitioners to take it one step at a time, knowing that a proactive role will help create a psychologically safe school environment and give a voice to other students like Connie.

About the Author

Dr. Christine Mason, Jesse Kohler, and Jeff Ikler
Christine Mason, PhD, is Executive Director of the Center for Educational Improvement and Assistant Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Yale University School of Medicine, Program for Recovery and Community Health. Dr. Mason is lead author of five recent books for educators on children’s trauma, mindfulness, mental health, and visioning for the future of education. Jeff Ikler has worked to serve the needs of students, teachers, and administrators for almost 50 years, first as a classroom teacher, then as an executive with a major school publishing house, as a coach to school leaders, as the co-host of the “Getting Unstuck – Educators Leading Change” podcast, and as the co-author of Shifting – How School Leaders Can Create a Culture of Change. Jesse Kohler is Executive Director of the Campaign for Trauma-Informed Policy & Practice (CTIPP). Jesse is a passionate advocate and leader in the trauma-informed space who works on systems change to provide comprehensive support for individuals, families, and communities so that, someday, all people have the opportunity and support necessary to reach their full potential.