A Safe Environment


To learn, students need to care. And to care, they need to feel cared for. This is a core lesson from the experience of Vivian Paley, an early childhood teacher long associated with the University of Chicago Lab School.

Such an environment requires a focus on the collective good, not just our individual needs. That is a huge mental shift for little kids, and comes easier to come than others. Applying the rules with five and six year olds requires judgment, especially as at this age it is normal for students to fall short of our expectations.  

Our primary tool in building a safe culture is Responsive Classroom, a program that guides teachers to help children build their intrinsic capacity for self-regulation. At morning meeting in the beginning of the year, teachers guide the children to develop an agreed-upon set of rules. Consequences for breaking those rules are also discussed, in advance. Consequences are designed to be proportionate and immediate, along the lines of ‘you break it, you fix it.’Reviewing the issue we ask the child to think about how he or she could make a better choice the next time.

In rare cases a behavior is dangerous or inappropriate enough that the school administration becomes involved. We balance our concern for each child’s individual development against the needs of the classroom community. We try, as Mahatma Gandhi once said to “hate the sin and not the sinner.”

This is hard work, for kids and adults. When we have to reprimand a child, they may think their teacher does not like them. But it is through failure that we grow, emotionally and academically. Gaining respect for ourselves as we care for others.

Our efforts to create classrooms that work academically and emotionally can pay huge dividends. A few years ago, actor David Duchovney shared how his high school basketball coach taught "a reserved, scared, outwardly blasé teenager" that it's ok for men to care:

Coach Byrnes told me I was worthwhile and good and that we could win. He talked to me as if I were someone worth telling a story about, subtly enjoining me to become active in that story. My father was mostly gone by then, and now here was a man who respected me by demanding that I respect myself and a game. I never knew if he liked me. That wasn't so important. He saw potential in me, and I began to respect myself.


In the end, self-respect, caring for ones self, is the basis by which we care for others. And our focus in building a safe environment for your children.

Matthew Levey