of emotional safety: Creating classrooms
where “I can”
Beryl Lourens, an educational consultant
specialising in emotional literacy, describes her work with the Valley
Trust, a Primary Health Care NGO, on creating emotionally safe places
is a growing awareness all over the world of the need to provide
emotional support to, and to develop, the emotional intelligence of our
children. In South Africa, with the HIV/AIDS pandemic affecting the
lives of so many of our children, it is vital that we use every possible
opportunity to create safe places or havens where children can be
supported and strengthened. Although I will be referring mainly to
classrooms, as that is where the focus of my work is at the moment, the
same principles apply in many situations, such as our homes, crèches,
children's homes and shelters, or anywhere else where adults are working
with or ‘‘minding’’ children.
Nandi is a 12-year-old girl living in the Valley of a
Thousand Hills. She has two younger brothers; although poor,
they lived happily for many years with their mother and
their grandmother. Mother used to go to work in the city
during the week, leaving the children in the care of their
grandmother but she came home every weekend, bringing them
food and other things they needed. That is, until mother
became ill. Nandi will never forget the day that someone
phoned grandmother to say that mother was never coming home
from the city again because she had died in the hospital
there. Grandmother had told Nandi and it hurt her so much
inside and she felt so scared but she couldn't talk about it
because grandmother had told her not to talk about it in
front of her brothers, and at school they could never talk
about those kinds of things. Nandi no longer found it easy
to concentrate in school, and her teacher often called her
lazy and punished her. Grandmother had a small pension that
she went to fetch each month. The family needed that money
for food. They couldn't afford to stay in their house and
had to find one in another area. Then Nandi’s biggest fear
came true: grandmother told her that she was going to go to
the hospital as she needed to see a doctor. Every day Nandi
ran home hoping grandmother would be back but she never
returned. Nandi had to spend all her time looking after her
younger brothers and doing all the things grandmother used
to do. She tried to go to school but many days she couldn't
because, after she had sent her brothers off to school, she
would have to try to find some food. Sometimes the
neighbours would give her food if she did cleaning for them
and worked in their fields, but most of the time the
children were hungry because the neighbours didn't have much
Why do our children need emotionally safe places?
Research, as well as our work with teachers in rural schools, has taught
us that Nandi and her brothers, are one example of many children
throughout KwaZulu-Natal, and in the rest of South Africa, who are in
distress due to the following:
1. Many children are not experiencing
loving primary relationships, which are essential to a child’’s
development of self.
When children experience negative primary
relationships, it has an enormously detrimental effect on their
development. Clinical professor and child psychologist Stanley Greenspan
describes what he calls the real “ABCs”. This is the set of emotional
and social skills that newly born children need to learn during their
first few years of life and which they will need throughout their
These skills, which contribute to their developing
sense of self, include the ability to regulate attention and
self-comfort, to relate to others with warmth and trust, to communicate
and to gain an understanding of increasingly complex ideas and the
connections among them.
These skills are only learned, he writes, through
interactions with loving caregivers. A child who grows up with fear,
instability, shame, disapproval or a lack of acceptance by their
caregivers, suffers, according to Abraham Maslow, a “loss of self' and
gradually comes to agree with the adult‘s perception that he/she is
unacceptable. When this happens the child experiences acute pain and the
feeling that there is something wrong with him, that he is defective.
To develop a healthy sense of self, children need
those around them to be loving, nurturing and emotionally available. The
neurological foundations for skills we value most, such as the ability
to process and control our emotions, to delay gratification, to moderate
our own behaviour and to behave with empathy, all develop within a
relationship of trust and nurturing, where children feel safe and know
that their needs will be met.
2. Many children are experiencing stress
in dysfunctional families and neighbourhoods.
When families are unable to meet a child's basic
emotional and developmental needs, the resulting stress or trauma can
have a negative and long-lasting effect on the child's growth, ability
to learn and behaviour.
Stress, defined by Anthony and Thibodeau as
“anything that a child perceives as a threat...either to his survival or
his self-image.” can be caused by any of the following:
Poverty, inadequate housing and poor nutrition.
Excessive rules and punishment or excessive
Verbal, physical or emotional violence.
A relationship with an emotionally dependent
Abuse or trauma.
Extreme sibling rivalry.
Parents’ intense marital problems.
Parent's prolonged illness, unemployment or
A parent who is rejecting, uncaring or
Change in, or loss of, support.
Parents’ substance abuse, addiction or
When feelings are consistently dismissed or
ignored by people they value.
Infrequent or inconsistent expressions of love
Conditional love based on appearance,
achievement, social competence or how well child takes care of the
Disregard for personal boundaries.
Lack of positive recognition or acknowledgement.
Efforts to control through shame, guilt or
Perfectionist demands or expectations that are
developmentally unrealistic or inappropriate.
Messages about the child's inadequacy.
3. Many children are experiencing the
death of their parents and caregivers
British researcher R.D. Coddington, in his Life
Events Inventory, which rates stressful experiences in pre-scholars to
16-yearolds, rated the death of a parent as one of the four most
stressful events in the lives of children.
Many of our children are living with dying parents
or caregivers. In a study, carried out, last year, by Nirmala Gopal and
Dr Reshma Sookrajh of Durban- Westville University, a group of women
dying of AIDS in a Durban hospital spoke about their fears regarding
their children's future. They also told how their children were already
undergoing emotional pain and a sense of loss and bereavement.
4. Stress inhibits learning and
The work of people like researcher Dr Paul MacLean
has made us aware of the role of the brain’s emotional controller, in
learning. Stress and negative emotions, they say, inhibit learning and
higher order thinking while a happy, positive environment enhances
learning and higher-order thinking.
The teachers we are working with tell us that they
are finding that there is an increase in the number of children who have
behaviour problems and who are having difficulty with learning. Children
who were previously able to learn and behave well now behave badly and
can't do their schoolwork.
Classrooms as emotionally safe places With so many
of our children living in dysfunctional families or fending for
themselves, we need to ask:
Where are they going to encounter an appropriate
adult role model?
Where can they learn the values so necessary for
their good as individuals and for the good of society?
Where can they experience trusting relationships
and receive the love and compassion they need to support them in
Where will they find a happy, positive
environment in which they are affirmed and can learn well and
Who will teach them the emotional and social
competencies they will need in order for them to develop a positive
self-concept and form good relationships?
Let us return to the story of Nandi and her brothers
to illustrate the point……
One afternoon something wonderful happened in Nandi’s life.
Lungelo, her brother came running down the road and behind him
was his teacher, Mrs Ndlovu. Mrs Ndlovu had noticed, in the
short time that Lungelo had been in the school, that he was
lethargic and couldn't concentrate on his work. She had recently
been attending, together with the other teachers in her school,
our course on emotional literacy and had come to see the need
for creating a caring classroom environment. She had realised
that, when children exhibit poor behaviour or lethargy and
concentration problems, it is more likely due to one or more of
the stress factors discussed earlier, than because they are
rebellious or unintelligent. The Valley Trust social worker had
been helping the teachers to identify and work with children in
distress so Mrs Ndlovu had asked Lungelo to take her to his
home. When she arrived at the house she found out what the
situation was and, with the guidance of the social worker, was
able to intervene. Also important, was the fact that the
children's teachers were able to give them the support of a
classroom environment in which they felt accepted and valued.
Over the last few years, the Valley Trust has been
working with teachers on a programme that supports the development of
emotionally safe classrooms. This programme concentrates, firstly, on
nurturing the emotional literacy of the teachers themselves, through
personal development. It aims to encourage self-awareness and build
their sense of self-worth. It challenges their paradigms of themselves,
of their learners and of their role as educators. It then supports them
in their emotional support of children, working with them to develop
structures, procedures and strategies that can be implemented throughout
the school to build a caring school and classroom climate. It is not a
“quick-fix” programme but one that takes place over an extended period.
Research clearly indicates that programmes of this kind need to be
ongoing, throughout the child's school life, if they are to be really
Professor Perry London from Harvard University says,
“Schools today must lead the battle against the worst psychosocial
epidemics that have ever plagued the children of our society. Schools
need programs to protect children against the ravages of social
disorganization and family collapse.”
Our work is based on the belief that such programmes
need to be part of a caring, supportive ‘‘whole-school’’ culture or
climate for which every teacher, in every classroom, takes
responsibility. It is not enough, for instance, for the Lifeskills
teacher to nurture self-esteem and emotional competencies in Life
Orientation classes only, as good as these classes may be. Emotional
literacy is a lifelong process and therefore needs to be nurtured on a
daily basis, in every classroom and across the curriculum. If it is to
be sustainable and children are to really benefit every teacher in the
school needs to take responsibility. Parents and caregivers also need to
be involved and to make this possible, teachers need to be supported at
classroom level, not only through training workshops.
What is an emotionally safe classroom?
Although there are many factors that contribute to a safe classroom, for
the purposes of this paper I am going to briefly share with you our
definition and the model that we are using as a framework for our
We have defined an emotionally safe classroom as:
“A place where I can
a) be myself and express my feelings and share my circumstances
b) connect with a person (adult) and a group who value and respect
This is how some Grade 6 and 7 learners in a rural
school described their ideal classroom: “We need to be listened to with
understanding and humanity.”
“Sometimes we need people or educators that are not impatient with us
but who can understand that we are still children…… we will do [better]
with a bit of guidance.”
“We need them not to joke about our physical appearance because it is so
painful to be made a joke over something you cannot change.”
How does one create an emotionally safe classroom?
The framework for our emotionally safe classroom intervention, which is
presently taking place in 10 rural schools, has been drawn up from:
our experience and learnings in the field;
what the teachers we have worked with in the
past, and those we are presently working with, have requested help
what learners have asked for;
what international research has shown us.
I have called it the “I CAN” model –– a classroom
climate where children are valued, supported and affirmed.
“I CAN” –– Framework for an emotionally
safe classroom that builds Self Worth and Self Esteem
And now, a brief description of the model:
I am good: Starting with the hub of the wheel, the foundation for
creating an emotionally safe school and classroom is good values ––
structures, procedures and strategies that promote character-building
values are put in place throughout the school. The everyday behaviours
that express these values are explored, practised and discussed on a
daily basis. Children learn what is good and just, and all behaviour is
I am loved: Teachers model good values at all times, respecting
themselves and the children and, in turn, encouraging and expecting them
to do the same. In this way, they feel loved and accepted. Teachers
modelling these values are a crucial element in the creation of an
emotionally safe classroom and school.
I belong: The practice of good values such as respect and
compassion, together with the implementation of strategies, such as team
learning, that lead to sharing and cooperation as opposed to
competitiveness, contribute to the development of a strong classroom
community in which children feel valued and accepted.
I can make good decisions: the use of democratic procedures, such
as regular class meetings, gives children the opportunity to be involved
in decision-making regarding issues such as school and classroom
governance, curriculum etc. This gives them confidence in their ability
to make good decisions.
I can feel and understand: Teachers use strategies that enable
children to identify and talk about their feelings and emotions, and
develop empathy for the feelings of others.
I can think: Through the teaching and practice of creative and
critical thinking skills, children gain confidence in their ability to
solve everyday problems.
I can manage conflict: Children are taught conflict resolution
strategies that are practised in the daily life of the classroom and
school. I can be responsible for my own behaviour: The practising of
values and the use of positive methods of discipline, consequences and
affirmation, give children the opportunity to learn self-discipline by
having to think about and take responsibility for their own behaviour.
I can learn well: There is a belief that every child is
intelligent and can learn –– not only those who are good at maths and
language. Teachers recognise and use methodology that caters for
different learning styles and multiple intelligences.
Whole School: As discussed earlier, it is important that these
structures, strategies and procedures are implemented throughout the
entire school so that there is a caring atmosphere throughout the
Parents and Caregivers: While there is growing evidence that
schools can make a real difference in the lives of children, the
“family”, the parent or caregiver is the primary educator of the child.
This programme includes strategies and approaches that encourage schools
to reach out to parents and caregivers and, wherever possible, involve
them in choosing and supporting the school's values at home.
Teachers have our children in their care for 5 hours
a day, 196 days a year. Imagine the impact it could have if every
classroom throughout our country was an ‘‘I Can’’ classroom, an
emotionally safe place where children are respected and celebrated,
firstly as individuals and secondly as part of a caring school