Portrait of a Learner 9-12

Systems Change

Factor Connections

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Safety is being and feeling physically and psychologically secure at home, at school, and within our neighborhood and larger community. Students who feel safe are typically better able to focus on learning and therefore are more likely to excel academically. Students who feel less safe tend to miss school and participate less often in class activities, therefore missing out on learning opportunities. In adolescence, students' own behaviors can become increasingly unsafe, in addition to the Safety of their surroundings.

Main Ideas

There are a number of types of Safety that affect a student's learning including:

Risk-taking: Adolescence is a period where individuals typically increasingly seek out new and intense experiences. As a result, adolescents may engage in more risk-taking and unsafe behaviors themselves, including crime, alcohol, or drug use. These may also result from changing social dynamics where adolescents are sensitive to peer and social pressure. Some adolescents, such as those with ADHD, may be at higher risk for engaging in risk-taking behaviors.

Digital Safety: As learners become more avid users of media, including social media, it is important that they understand and implement efficient digital safety practices, including protecting personal information, understanding the implications of cyberbullying and harassment, and consuming appropriate content. When caregivers and educators provide a safe space for learners to discuss online encounters and questionable content, they can support learners as they navigate digital spaces.

Home Safety: Adolescents can feel unsafe at home for many reasons, such as: witnessing violence; being victims of abuse, or having caregivers who suffer from severe mental illness or substance abuse. Safety at home is critical to development because a lack of Safety at home can contribute to chronic stress which can make it difficult for students to engage and reach their full potential at school.

Neighborhood Safety: Students who live in safe neighborhoods typically have better academic outcomes than students who perceive their neighborhoods as less safe. Exposure to violence and crime in the community in childhood and adolescence is linked to many negative outcomes due to the effects of chronic stress on mental and Physical Well-being.

Bullying: Even under teacher supervision, bullying, primarily verbal aggression and exclusion behaviors, is common in classrooms and is also common outside of school. Students who are bullied in person or online typically experience higher rates of depression and anxiety, have lower levels of academic achievement, are more likely to drop out of high school, and are less likely to continue to higher education. Perpetrators of bullying also experience higher levels of depression and suicidal ideation. Many students experience school-based bullying, discrimination, or microaggressions as a result of stereotypes and stigmas around aspects of their Identity (e.g., their race, gender or gender identity, disability status, or sexual orientation, among others). In fact, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) issues nationwide guidance around the additional responsibility schools have to address the safety of students who are bullied and also have disabilities.

School Safety: The reduction of bullying and school violence are two main goals of school Safety. Because of the many repercussions of bullying, all U.S. states have implemented legislation to combat bullying in school and cyberbullying that moves into the school space. The prevalence of school shootings in recent years is also a major concern. Students who survive these traumatic events are at risk for experiencing serious psychological issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet, despite the increase in the number of victims of school shootings, overall crime rates in U.S. schools have declined in recent years due to increased security measures. Early research suggests that, while active shooter drills enhance student preparedness, they also bring more attention to the threat from potential shooters, which can increase anxiety. With the possible risks, it may be more effective to focus efforts on proactively creating a safe school environment. It may also be helpful to think about best practices to support recovery from these traumatic events, for instance, including educators and students in the process of thinking through possible changes or solutions or allowing conversations that may question the status quo, and ensuring students are aware of supports beyond the school walls.

Educators can help students who are experiencing low levels of Safety either in their own personal lives or at school by being trusted Social Supports and listening with empathy, and fostering a Sense of Belonging in school. At the same time, it is critical to acknowledge that educators can themselves lack support after traumatic incidents, may need their own time to heal, and therefore may have more difficulty supporting others.

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