Monday, September 6, 2010

Being Safe Part 3: Psychological Safety

In earlier posts I wrote about two facets of safety in kindergarten—physical safety and social safety. Today I want to write about a third facet of safety—psychological safety.

These facets interact with one another just as do facets on a jewel. But each of these faces, physical, social and psychological, offers its own window into the realm of a classroom. If we look at a classroom while thinking about it through each of these windows, we can see ways in which we might make it feel safer. You can grasp how this is so if you consider how a room could be physically safe, but socially toxic.

As an early childhood educator I believe that the psychological aspect of safety is vital to the educational well-being of my students.

By psychological safety, I mean the feelings inside the individual heart/mind of each person in the room. A student who feels safe would feel, “In kindergarten, I feel safe almost all the time with only some isolated moments of danger.”

Students can feel psychologically unsafe in response to many situations, for example, when I ask them to do something that is way too difficult for them. It’s the same unsafe feeling I would endure if I had to enroll in a differential calculus class that I couldn’t drop.

Most learning requires us to approach the edge of our competence. But to learn effectively we need to be able to step back inside our zone of competence so we can fit the newly learned material into what we learned previously. It’s exactly this moving back and forth from the familiar to the unfamiliar and back again, back and forth, again and again that learning requires us to do. We feel bored when we’re always on familiar ground and we feel scared and unsafe when we’re asked to stay too long in the unknown.

I employ well-proven strategies to create the conditions of psychological safety in my classroom. No fancy tricks, just a handful of 5 ideas that have served humankind for many generations.

The first strategy is repetition. I offer a lot of repetition in my classroom. I wasn’t always so wise. Early in my career I over-valued novelty and I avoided repetition with the result of making some students feel lost. Repetition is crucial in learning anything. Look around, you’ll see what I mean. A good home run hitter goes to batting practice to hone his skills. A good golfer visits the driving range to work on his swing. A good musician practices his instrument a lot. When I teach something new, I try to weave the new information into what has been taught and practiced before. We begin each journey into new material from familiar ground.

Baby Steps
I call the second strategy “baby steps.” Whole books have been written about this proven technique. Its effectiveness has been studied thoroughly, especially in Japan where it was used to improve their industry and economy during the postwar recovery The Japanese name for this strategy is Kaizen. As I plan my lessons, I usually look for ways to shorten the cognitive leaps I ask my students to make. The shorter, the better.

Role Playing
The third strategy is role playing. Just after my initial teaching of a concept (which should include a look back to what was taught before) and just before sending students off to practice the skill or do the activity, I often insert a student demonstration of the lesson. These demonstrations lessen the anxiety and increase the feelings of safety among the class as a whole. The students see that what I’m asking them to do is indeed do-able by someone just like them.

By preteaching I can accomplish two things at once. First I can do a reality check on my lessons, especially if they’re new to me. By doing a practice run, I can discover if the lesson I’m envisioning will turn out to be a dream lesson or a nightmare. My usual method is to find some students in the after school daycare program and ask them to do the activity with me. I almost always learn something (or many things) that will help the lesson go more smoothly when I teach it to the whole class the next day. Another second of this strategy is that it can provide extra practice for students who would otherwise struggle with the lesson. So if I can, I pick students who find kindergarten a challenge and preteach my lessons with them.

My final strategy for increasing the feelings of psychological safety in my room is to remember to engage students through movement, music and their head, hands, and hearts. I aspire to teach more effectively than way I was taught, which was mainly through lectures. We live in a much more visual world today. Lecturing leaves a great many students in the dark—a scary place for some.

For my earlier posts on safety, look click Physical Safety and Social Safety.

For more information about the Japanese take on Baby Steps see this article on Kaizen.

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