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Creating a safe and engaging learning environment – Part 1

A response to fear of any kind is deeply ingrained in the human brain. When we feel under threat, for example; hunger, thirst, pain, shame, confusion, or ‘too much’, ‘too new’ or ‘too fast’, we respond in ways to keep us safe. Our minds focus only on information which at that moment is important for survival.

A foreign language class can be a threating or challenging situation for many, so the classroom has to be a safe environment which allows students to discover, practise and be curious. Even seemingly minor incidents in a lesson can have a negative influence on the students’ perception of safety.

You might now be wondering how a class can feel threatening for my students, consider these examples:

  • In an activity which involves throwing a ball from student to student, one of the students throws the ball quite roughly at another student. Some of the other students laugh.
  • One student starts acting up during a group speaking activity.
  • A student seems very uncomfortable in an activity which requires all students to come to the board individually and perform something in front of the class as part of playing Charades.

What might be a fun activity or situation for some, can be overwhelming, challenging or even frightening for others.


Here are some ways which can help promote a safe and engaging environment:

Draw the line early for the benefit of all

In the example of the ball game above, stop the activity immediately and in the first instance if you perceive the ball catcher or any student feel uncomfortable. Make it clear that this behaviour is unacceptable and will lead to fun activities being stopped. In many cases, this will encourage positive peer pressure when you try another game-like activity in one of the next lessons. Other students in the class will not feel safe if the rough behaviour is ignored because they could be the next target.

Establish some set routines and procedures

We often use an element of surprise in lessons to invoke a sense of curiosity in students. If everything changes all the time and students are left wondering what will happen next too often, it can make students feel insecure. Try to strike a balance between predictable and surprise elements in your lessons.

  • Take the register at the beginning of class. Ask every student to reply when you read out their name. Welcome and acknowledge latecomers. Don’t ignore them.
  • Insist on only one student speaking while the others listen.
  • Only let one student at a time go out to use the toilet.
  • At the end of the lesson, finish by asking the students to spend 30 seconds in silence to think about what they learned in the lesson. Then ask them to write it down in their exercise book and ask some students for examples.
  • Don’t just allow a few students to get up and pack their bags when they think the class has finished. Ask them to sit down again and finish the lesson officially by allowing all students to go.

Keep the classroom tidy and organized

The way the classroom looks when the students enter for their lesson sets the tone. If chairs and desks aren’t neatly arranged, the students may feel that it doesn’t matter which way they sit during the lesson.
If papers are left lying on the floor, it’s likely that more papers and rubbish will soon join them. If the board isn’t completely cleaned, and notes are just being added in random places, it can affect how students copy and arrange them in their exercise books.

Part 2 of this series will be published next week. Don’t miss it!

Creating a safe and engaging learning environment – Part 2

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Creating a safe and engaging learning environment – Part 3

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