Providing a safe classroom environment for students can seem overwhelming in what can sometimes feel like an out-of-control world. When expectations are clear, the community is educated and a secure and healthy physical environment is provided, it is achievable. Here are some tips from someone who has spent nearly twenty years teaching in an elementary school:
Have clear expectations for respect and order
Classroom teachers often set clear expectations with their students right at the beginning of the school year. Many start on the first day of school by establishing a list of rules for their classroom by explaining that it will help everyone get along. Ensuring that students know that they are expected to treat each other with respect and follow routines ensures a sense of order from early on. It establishes the sense of community, the message that bullying is not tolerated and that chaos is unsafe.
Various drills are also practised early in the school year. The fire drill is standard in all schools and is usually practised during the first week of school. Most schools now practice lockdown, in which case it is assumed that there is an intruder in the school and the interior doors are locked and staff and students sit where they are unseen from any doors or windows in silence. Different school boards and regions practice other drills as well. The important thing is that everyone in the class is prepared in two different ways.
The students must have a sense of respect for whoever is in charge at the time, be able to be quiet, follow directions and stay with the group. If expectations for respect and order have not yet been established, safety is compromised. Secondly, all members of the school community must understand the safety plans and procedures.
Educate the community about safety plans and procedures and make no exceptions
School communities are made of more than just students, teachers, those working in the office and custodians. There are many others who support learning who are often forgotten about. When making safety plans and practising and communicating procedures for even one classroom, it is important to ensure that these important people in the school community are considered.
Perhaps a music teacher comes in once a week, or a lunch monitor covers the class for forty minutes a day. Parent volunteers may read with children in the library in pairs. Do all of these people know where students sit during a lockdown, or which exit to use during if there was a real fire? Would the lunch supervisor have a list to account for all of the children once outside? What about a supply teacher? It is good practice to have an extra class list ready to grab by the classroom door.
Consider the day to day policies and procedures of the school and why they are in place.Students who have been marked absent are asked to sign in if they are late. If a student does not stop to sign in at the office, the office has no record of that child being at school. In the case of a fire, a teacher sends a runner to with names of anyone who has not been accounted for. A quick look at office attendance records for that day tells the office staff if a child originally marked ‘absent’ has, in fact, come to school. Students need to know that it is better to be marked late than not accounted for.
Schools that are declared peanut-free because of children with food allergies must also reinforce this in every classroom. Even if there is no child in a class with an allergy, a supply teacher could show up with one, or a residue could set off a reaction in an a child with anaphylaxis from another class at recess.
Internet safety is another area requiring education and procedures. Different schools handle this is different ways. Many schools have students and parents sign a contract outlining expectations, and also have systems with controlled access to the Internet. Supervision is usually required as well.
Provide a safe environment for all
Schools have regular health and safety inspections to ensure that the classrooms and common areas in and around the school is safe for students and staff. The inspectors check the cleaning supplies, the stability of the furniture, air quality, wiring, storage of overhead items, percentage of wall space covered in paper and so on. It is up to the staff of the school to ensure that the floor is free from tripping hazards and that exits are always accessible. Expecting students to take care of belongings is a big part of that and it can be worked into daily routines.
For some students, snack and lunch times are hazardous because of allergies. Providing a safe environment means extra diligence, particularly at the beginning of a school year when some parents may not know to pack nut-free snacks or at Halloween and holidays when students may slip treats in without their parents’ knowledge. It is also important to know how to use an Epipen, have anaphylactic students’ information posted and an Epipen handy in case of an emergency.
When the whole school community works together and communicates well, providing a safe classroom environment for students can be done, and done well. Check out this great resource by the government of British Columbia on Keeping Kids Safe.