Emotional Safety

Happy teenager in a group discussion setting

An experience in which one feels safe to express emotions, security, and confidence to take risks and feel challenged and excited to try something new.

Emotionally safe learning environments can be achieved by making social and emotional learning (SEL) an essential part of education. SEL is the process through which children and adults acquire the knowledge, attitudes, and skills they need to recognize and manage their emotions, feel and show empathy to others, establish positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.  Competence in the use of SEL skills is promoted in the context of safe and supportive school, family, and community learning environments in which children feel valued, respected, and connected to and engaged in learning.

Emotions are important in the classroom.

Emotions are important in the classroom in two major ways. First, emotions have an impact on learning. They influence our ability to process information and to accurately understand what we encounter. For these reasons it is important for teachers to create positive, emotionally safe classroom environment to provide for the optimal learning of students. Second, learning how to manage feelings and relationships constitutes a kind of “emotional intelligence” that enables people to be successful.

SEL is fundamental to learning.

SEL is fundamental not only to children’s social and emotional development but also to their health, ethical development, citizenship, motivation to achieve, and academic learning as well.  

Socially and emotionally competent children and youth are skilled in five core areas.

  1. They are self-aware. They are able to recognize their emotions, describe their interests and values, and accurately assess their strengths. They have a well-grounded sense of self-confidence and hope for the future.
  2. They are able to regulate their emotions. They are able to manage stress, control impulses, and persevere in overcoming obstacles. They can set and monitor progress toward the achievement of personal and academic goals and express their emotions appropriately in a wide range of situations.
  3. They are socially aware. They are able to take the perspective of and empathize with others and recognize and appreciate individual and group similarities and differences. They are able to seek out and appropriately use family, school, and community resources.
  4. They have good relationship skills. They can establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships based on cooperation. They resist inappropriate social pressure; constructively prevent, manage, and resolve interpersonal conflict; and seek and provide help when needed.
  5. They demonstrate responsible decision-making at school, at home, and in the community. In making decisions, they consider ethical standards, safety concerns, appropriate social norms, respect for others, and the likely consequences of various courses of action. They apply these decision-making skills in academic and social situations and are motivated to contribute to the well-being of their schools and communities.

Effective instructional methods for teaching SEL skills are active, participatory, and engaging.

Here are some examples.

  • Young children can to be taught through modeling and coaching to recognize how they feel or how someone else might be feeling.
  • Prompting the use of a conflict-resolution skill and using dialoguing to guide students through the steps can be an effective approach to helping them apply a skill in a new situation.
  • In class meetings, students can practice group decision-making and setting classroom rules.
  • Students can learn cooperation and teamwork through participation in team sports and games.
  • Students deepen their understanding of a current or historical event by applying it to a set of questions based on a problem-solving model.
  • Cross-age mentoring, in which a younger student is paired with an older one, can be effective in building self-confidence, a sense of belonging, and enhancing academic skills.
  • Having one member of a pair describe a situation to his partner and having the partner repeat what he or she heard is an effective tool in teaching reflective listening. 


CASEL Website: www.casel.org

Annenberg Learner. (2013). The Learning Classroom: Theory Into Practice: Session 5 Overview.  Retrieved from http://www.learner.org/courses/learningclassroom/session_overviews/emotion_home5.html.

Elias, M., Zins, J. E., Weissberg, R. P., Frey, K. S., Greenberg, M. T., Haynes, N. M., et al. 1997, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Zins, J. E., Bloodworth, M., Weissberg, R. P., & Walberg, H. J. 2004, Teachers College Press.


Featured Resources

Parents and stuents comforting one another

Focuses on changing norms, environments, and behaviors in ways that can prevent ACEs from happening in the first place as well as to lessen their harms when they do occur.

Front page of The Invisible Faces of Runaway and Homeless Youth resource

Highlights efforts by the Office of Juvenile and Delinquency Prevention and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to respond to and provide services for runaway youth.

SAMHSA Warning Signs and Risk Factors for Emotional Distress front page

Outlines the common warning signs and risk factors for emotional distress that children, adults, and first responders often experience. Also, highlights a disaster distress helpline for further contact.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
First page of the A Review of the Literature on Social and Emotional Learning for Students Ages 3–8: Characteristics of Effective Social and Emotional Learning Programs guide

Summarizes, in a four-part review series, the benefits of social and emotional learning (SEL) in early childhood, and identifies the characteristics of SEL interventions that are effective in school contexts. The review identified effective SEL programs, strategies, and implementation practices. These effective components include aspects of program design, teacher training and technical assistance, and integration of SEL with existing structures. 

Rosemarie O’Conner, Jessica De Feyter, Alyssa Carr, Jia Lisa Luo, Helen Romm
CDC cover page on LGBT Youth

Provides research-based steps parents can take to support the health and well-being of LGBTQ youth. Also, outlines effects on education and mental health regarding this population and what can schools can do to foster a nurturing environment.  

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Teachers having a conversation with students

Provides best practices and includes resources school leaders and teachers can utilize as they work to achieve a positive school climate, lower disciplinary issues and enhance school safety.

U.S. Department of Education
Cover page of the A review of instruments for measuring social and emotional learning skills among secondary school students resource

Identifies reliable and valid instruments that measure collaboration, perseverance, and self-regulated learning among secondary school students (e.g. to support state and local education agencies).

Video still.

 Introduces videos on ways in which teachers can create an emotionally safe classroom to foster learning, and ways in which they can deal with emotions and conflicts that can be an obstacle to learning. 

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