Students Can’t Learn If They Don’t Feel Safe

Think about a time you were somewhere and didn’t feel safe.  What was on your mind?  Did your feelings of uneasiness go away easily?  Were you quick to let your guard down and be vulnerable?

All right now imagine that at that very moment someone tried to get you to complete a task, learn a new thing, or test your memory or skills.  How well do you think you would do in those endeavors?

Dr. Antonio R. Damasio is the chair of the University of Iowa’s Neurology department and in partnership with his wife Hanna have been studying the role that emotions play in our decision-making process and in our self-image. Damasio differentiates between emotions and feelings, clarifying that in neuroscience emotions are “the complex reactions has to certain stimuli” while feelings happen when our brain is aware of the physical changes come about by emotions.

When we attempt to teach school in an environment in which we presume all of our students have their emotions and feelings in a good place for learning, we are naive to their reaction to the stimuli they are facing, both immediately in the classroom and in other parts of their lives.  When we say we want to “focus on instruction,” we would be well-served to first focus on the environment for instruction.  

This environment is critical for the well-being as well as learning potential for students.  The physical reactions when we feel unsafe lead to a cognitive processing that can imprint and be longer lasting.

Safety in the classroom isn’t only about the absence of a perceived or immediate physical threat.  It’s also about the way that people inside the classroom relate to each other– the teacher with the students, students with each other, adults with each other.  If a student can be confident that they will be valued and respected unconditionally, then they can feel safe enough to learn.  Learning requires a bit of vulnerability; vulnerability requires confidence in the surroundings.  Getting to there requires an intentional effort on the teacher’s part, and at a school level on the principal’s part.


Read more about Dr. Damasio here:

#Leadership365                    17/365


The focus of work in our Principal and Assistant Principal Academies during January 2017 has been on standard five of the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders, listed below. Today’s Leadership365 is dedicated to the topic to support that learning. standard-5

You can see the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders in entirety here:  (


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