When we were kids and were told to go outside and play, it wasn’t uncommon for us to grab our bikes, flip the kickstands up, and just ride. We knew to be back by the time the streetlights came on and not to ride on the interstate or kill ourselves, but that was about the limit of our safe-riding guidance. We rode our bikes in the street, hopped curbs onto sidewalks, found ramps to jump, and often had the scars, scabs, and casts to prove our daring.
Today, the world is different. As news coverage on concussions and brain injuries becomes more commonplace, as states enact more-restrictive safety laws and policies, we are now in a world where buying a stylish, well-fitting helmet requires as much deliberation as buying the right bicycle. In my house, I have a daughter with a pink Disney princess helmet, a three-year-old with a helmet displaying a fake Mohawk, a blue helmet with baby ducks for my youngest, and a stylish, aerodynamic, orange-and-black helmet for my oldest child. They’ll be safe when riding, and they want to look cool doing it.
Each of my kids is at a different place in his or her bike-riding progression, yet each knows that before the butts hit their seats, helmets go on heads. Before attempting to have any fun or learn any new tricks, they must be protected.
In our classrooms, the same responsibility exists. Learning needs to be safe. It needs to exist in a climate free of harm and full of security. We need to metaphorically strap our helmets on and remind our students that they will not be hurt while they’re with us. We will set up procedures and processes full of feedback but free of condemnation. We will avoid sarcasm and put-downs and instead work to boost children up and increase their sense of self-worth. We will plan our instruction, and we will put just as much thought and care into making a safe learning environment as we do to making it rigorous.
We all know that some kids are more prone to injury and insult. Some kids fall down often and thus need a little more protection. I have one such child. He may need kneepads, elbow pads, and maybe even a Teflon vest to go along with his helmet when on his bike. Not every child needs that much protection, but all will need to at least protect their most vulnerable and essential component, their heads. In your classroom, you need to make sure you are also providing the same protection.
We need to be sure kids know they can grow and achieve. We need to make sure they have no fear of failure or falling. They need to know that although the learning process will be difficult and they will have stumbles, they will not get hurt and will not be harmed. We’re there to make sure they are safe, protected, and secure. Students are willing to take risks and push boundaries only when they feel secure.
So how do you know if your room is safe? Quite simply, are your students willing to take chances? Does every child willingly participate? Do students try new things? Do they come to you for support? Are they willing to put their emotional, social, and academic well-being in your hands? If not, what helmets can you round up for them?
During your first two weeks of school, do you spend all your time telling your students what they can and can’t do, or do you spend your time trying to establish a relationship of trust and encourage future risk taking?
My kids have all depended on me when learning to ride in part because I am convenient but in large part also because they trust that I will do them no harm. They believe that my main priority as their dad is to keep them safe. Yes, I will teach them life lessons. Yes, we will make memories. But more important, when they are with me, they feel safe. Is the same true of the students in your classroom? They may depend on you to teach them curricula and to pass out some amazing worksheets, but do they know that you will also give them challenges that are complex and dynamic and that ultimately you are there to make sure they are safe?
Think about any great relationship you have whether one with a lifelong friend, a spouse, or a family member. Your relationship was not built by establishing boundaries from the get-go but by looking for common interests, getting to know each other, sharing hopes and dreams, and making connections. If we want our classrooms to be safe places for risk taking, we must move beyond simply collecting academic achievement data on our students. We must do more than tell them all the rules and norms of our space. We must form relationships with all of them. It is only from here that we can confidently give our students the push they need to begin learning on their own. Helmets may make children feel secure, but the adults running alongside them truly makes them feel safe. It’s like riding a bike.