Should We Have Safe Spaces at School or Teach Resiliency?

A recent New York Times article, In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas examines a new trend in some colleges: The creation of “safe spaces” to provide students a place to recuperate from any topics or discussions that trigger their emotions or trouble them in any way. These safe places have cookies, Play-Doh, coloring books, calming music, blankets, and videos of frolicking puppies to help college students deal with any traumas that may arise in lecture.

So, for example, a recent victim of rape can seek comfort in their school’s safe space if topics relating to sexual assault are covered in class. While it’s important to raise our children to feel comfortable and secure, in this world of helicopter parenting, are these types of resources harming more than they help?

Teaching Resilience

Resilience is a child’s ability to recover from life’s everyday disappointments and difficulties. It’s the idea of being able to move through problems without breaking down psychologically… or needing a safe room. If students, who are meant to learn, understand, and grow, are allowed to skip out on anything that makes them feel “uncomfortable,” how can they be taught to move beyond their trauma? How can they be taught to be resilient?

Focusing on Learning

Researchers at The National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (NAECS/SDE) noted in a 2008 Beyond The Journal report, that children are not able to take in information if they are emotionally upset. The article goes on to state that teachers need to be aware of this and learn how to help their kids calm down and concentrate on learning. Sounds great, right? But what does it look like in action? And how much protection is too much?

Common Core’s Responsive Classroom Program

One nationally used psychology program is Responsive Classroom, developed by an international organization called Center for Responsive Schools, Inc., has been endorsed by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) as a promising program for delinquency prevention. It is also closely tied to the corporate Common Core programs used in all 50 states.

The program requires classrooms to have a particular type of emotional environment with clear and defined rules. There is a consistent psychological vocabulary because teachers “trained in the Responsive Classroom approach share a common set of values, vocabulary, and skills for the social-emotional domain”. The whole school uses the same psychological language terms and there is a great deal of consistency. This seems inconsistent to the development of resilience, where kids learn that different teachers talk differently, have different personalities, and different ideas… and it’s okay. A resilient kid would learn to perform to the best of his ability regardless. This standard of consistency seems at odds with ideas of diversity, with the ability to communicate with different people, deal with different personalities, etc. Emotional safety is important but this level of standardization may be a handicap.

Overly Sensitive to Emotional Triggers

In a Common Core Responsive Classroom, group thinking begins at age 5. Kindergarteners gather around the new water play table and the first thing they do for their “social-emotional development” is decide on rules. Then they “collaborate in their explorations and engage in cooperative problem solving.” After the 5 year olds have successfully cooperated, they write (and draw) an assessment of what they’ve learned. It’s clear that group cooperation is the Responsive Classroom’s highest mental health value. I’m not sure I’d call that water play.

If a calm, cooperative atmosphere where the teacher and administrators have “schoolwide consistency” in their use of psychological language is the goal of the Responsive Classroom program, no wonder some kids grow up overly sensitive to emotional triggers. They’ve never encountered any challenges. They’ve been psychologically trained since kindergarten in cooperative group behaviors and rule following.

Additionally, children are taught to “self-check” and monitor their own behavioral control at any given moment. They are to stop and ask themselves internally, “Am I doing what I should be doing right now?” and correct their behavior if they are not. Presumably, splashing in the water table over following the group rules would prompt a self-check moment.

When a calm, productive work/learning environment is ideal, anything emotional that upsets it needs to be self-checked and eliminated. Children are trained to identify their difficult emotions, be aware when someone “attacks” them, and to use techniques to remain calm. The picture it paints is of a world full of emotional enemies.

Coloring Books and Puppy Videos

Microaggressions are small, everyday actions or words that cause a child to remember how someone was thoughtless or mean to him at an earlier time. He gets unhappy and can’t be taught well. He is trained to view this as an “emotional attack.” Move these concepts along into high school and college and you have a person who is too easily offended to attend debates on controversial subjects. You have students (and parents) who lobby against teaching important subjects that may cause some students to feel uncomfortable.

If he or she must retreat to a “safe room” where there are calming materials such as coloring books and videos of puppy dogs, then what have we done to the resilient child? And mightn’t it be better if that rape victim contributed to the discussion on sexual assault, rather than retreating?

How do you feel about safe rooms at schools over teaching resiliency?

Tags : education   schools   university   emotions   psychology   behaviors   

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