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Cultivating a culture of psychological safety in schools

by Kritika M Narula

In light of recent events, attention has come to incidents of sexual abuse in schools. After scores of allegations received by Everyone’s Invited, pupils have shared with Ofsted Inspectors that such incidents of harassment and abuse are very common. Children have shared that they still feel unsafe in schools and that there’s a 'toxic rape culture' prevailing.

An alarming finding from the report concludes that such incidents have been normalised as a part of growing up, as pointed out by Amanda Spielman, Chief Inspector of Schools in England. The report itself mentions, “It is concerning that for some children, incidents are so commonplace that they see no point in reporting them.” Such gross normalisation of such incidents has prevented children, particularly girls, from reporting these incidents. Other reasons they may not report this could be shame, denial, minimisation, fear of consequences, low self-esteem, and more. Sometimes they feel unsafe reporting to the school, at other times, it’s been pointed out that action in the aftermath of reporting hasn't always been robust.

At the same time, the allegations have prompted a serious dialogue about creating a culture of psychological safety in schools. This means creating and cultivating an environment of safety where children feel empowered to report any incidents that jeopardise their wellbeing or safety.

This article will consider the idea of psychological safety in schools and how it can help create a conducive environment for victims of harassment and abuse. We also talk to child and educational psychologists whose inputs enrich the discussion on understanding children better & providing them with a safe space to grow, which is what schools are intended for.

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What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety exists when children can express themselves — all their ideas, questions, concerns and mistakes — without the fear of judgement, humiliation or punishment. In the school setting, this includes being able to ask any questions pertaining to studies but extends well beyond the academic. Research has demonstrated the importance of creating a psychologically safe environment in ensuring student well-being.

If we are to ensure a robust mechanism for concern reporting, it must go beyond structural provisions: we also need to create the right, psychologically safe environment where children can harmoniously develop as individuals, where they know they'll be understood, and not judged if they come forward with their experience(s). 

Understanding in the aftermath of an incident

In order to ensure psychologically safe environments, it's imperative to understand the emotions children go through when they experience abuse or bullying or any negative encounter for that matter. 

Angela Karanja, an adolescent psychologist and parenting teenagers expert whose work revolves around helping parents raise highly effective teenagers, shares how children process such incidents in the immediate aftermath,

"Even if children don't understand what’s happening, they will still have a negative feeling towards such incidents, and in particular their bodies will. When something’s not aligned, our bodies know. But then the children might construe this as follows: this bad thing happened to them because they’re unworthy or wrong. They will tell themselves this narrative that something bad happened to them — and because the understanding is that bad things happen to bad people — so they must have done something to deserve this. These feelings of discomfort then morph into feelings of low self-esteem.”  

So while children might understand that something adverse has happened, they might blame themselves or feel like either something is wrong with them or that they did something to deserve this. Dr Oliver Sindall, Clinical Psychologist specialising in child and adolescent mental health, shares similar concerns regarding the negative emotional impact of bullying and similar incidents on young people,

“The extent of that impact will often depend on the child’s development and whether they have experienced other forms of rejection from families and friends in the past, or other situations that have impacted their confidence and self-esteem. This means the impact can range from frustration and sadness to suffering severe social anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression. All of this can have a significant effect on a child’s academic achievement, which further increases feelings of inadequacy and low mood.”

It’s no surprise then that children are often reluctant to report incidents. The emotional impact of such can sometimes leave the children too shaken or traumatised and that can result in a freeze response. As corroborated by the Ofsted report, victims often feel that their experience will be trivialised and/or not taken seriously. Sindall shares,

“Not reporting incidents is usually based on the belief that nothing will change or that the bullying will get worse. For many children I have worked with, there is also the fear that they will not be believed or that their experience will be minimised by teaching staff. That fear of further rejection and being invalidated is often a real block to reporting incidents of bullying.”

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How can we develop psychological safety for our children to thrive?

To properly safeguard pupils, it’s important to cultivate psychological safety in school spaces, whether virtual or physical. The question is: how?

First and foremost, the establishment of a psychologically safe environment in schools involves giving children a safe space for expression. Going back to the definition of psychological safety, children should feel comfortable expressing, sharing, and asking. Teachers and school authorities need to encourage self-expression as well as asking for help. Karanja shares instances where the “permissive” nature of the child-teacher relationship can stifle such expression. She shares,

“When a kid does something wrong at school or even talks during class, the teacher immediately orders them to stop. When someone keeps hearing ‘no’ every time they’re trying to express, it impacts them — instead, teachers should give them a platform or outlet to speak. Ask them if they’d like to share what they’re talking about with the whole class or with the teacher separately after class.” 

The goal, she adds is that,

“if we keep opening those channels of communication, what happens? Our young people begin to feel confident. They feel hard. They begin to feel seen. And they begin to feel listened to. And with that confidence, they know that this teacher is a safe person. The same goes for children’s toilet breaks. If they have to ask permission for performing a basic bodily function, it tells them they don’t have full bodily autonomy. So they should be allowed to inform — rather than request — for a toilet break.”

A culture of psychological safety means not just having uncomfortable conversations, but just any conversation at all. The aim is to normalise conversation because if we expect our children to share happening to or around them, we should first help them practice such self-expression and communication in routine conversations. 

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How can we help students feel comfortable to report concerns?

Following from the above idea of normalising conversations, it’s safe to say that asking for permission can be uncomfortable especially when it comes to reporting concerns. The first step in making children comfortable with reporting concerns is relinquishing the power dynamics, Karanja suggests. 

“Most of the time, they don't even have the language to express themselves. So, as teachers and as adults, we have to abandon the idea of power. We should aim to be in a place where a student can tell their teacher and/or parents anything.”

Essentially, the immediate reaction to any report should be one of support, validation, and reassurance. One way to ensure that is by creating a validating response for all conversations, not just serious incidents. It is also recommended that a behavioural approach be implemented to reinforce a culture where sexual harassment, abuse, and bullying are not tolerated. 

Sindall also dives deeper into the psyche of children when they’re contemplating reporting an incident, “When young people are struggling with whether to report bullying their two main concerns are one, what will happen to the bully (and will this make it worse?) and two, whether teachers will believe and support them.” It’s imperative that all staff members are well trained in this kind of first-responder situations. The Ofsted report recommends that schools, colleges and multi-agency partners act as though sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are happening, even when there are no specific reports. Thus, all staff should be trained to understand the definitions of harassment and sexual violence, including abuse and bullying, to identify early signs of peer-on-peer abuse, and to consistently uphold standards in their responses to such incidents.

The bottom line, according to Sindall, is that “if a school can demonstrate that all young people who have experienced bullying or abuse will be listened to, supported emotionally and provided a robust safety plan, more children may begin to report incidents.”

Conclusion

When schools work to cultivate a culture of psychological safety, children will come forward not only in times of crisis when they seek help, but also flourish academically because they’ll feel comfortable asking questions. Children thrive in an environment where they are allowed to learn without judgements. If such incidents do occur, they will then feel comfortable taking it up with staff, who can then report the same to a superior or a Designated Safeguarding Lead (DSL). In cases where the child is deemed to be at severe risk, immediate action can also be taken. 

NSPCC, working with the Department of Education, has launched a bespoke helpline for children and young people who've experienced abuse at school, and for worried adults and professionals that need support and guidance. If you are concerned about something, you can contact the NSPCC helpline Report Abuse in Education on 0800 136 663 or email help@nspcc.org.uk.

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posted 4 months ago
Kritika M Narula
Kritika is a research and media professional based in India.