What Is Psychological Safety?
Psychological safety is a term developed by Edmondson after years of observing hundreds of corporate teams to identify what makes effective teams. While her research has focused on the business world and work teams, the highly social nature of a classroom makes her findings relevant to student interactions and learning. Psychological safety can be defined as a "shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking," and "a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up." A team is simply a collection of individuals who come together for a shared purpose. Having a class that functions like a team, with a shared purpose, is what makes teaching fun and is when the “magic” happens.
The brain processes emotional experiences through many of the same pathways as physical sensations. So when a child feels threatened by her environment and is afraid of rejection, being laughed at, or teased, these emotions may trigger many of the same fight-or-flight pathways as threats to physical safety. When this happens the brain is focused on self-protection and the curiosity that is so critical to learn is lost in the shuffle. This is why programs such Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports and other school climate measures are so critical to learning.
How Educators Can Create Psychological Safety
As Table 1 highlights, a significant hurdle to learning in highly public social situations is the natural desire to manage the impressions others have of us. If teachers are able to create a psychologically safe classroom then Edmondson’s research suggests students will shift their focus away from managing impressions and toward what Edmondson describes as “learning behaviors”: asking questions, making mistakes, accepting feedback and so forth. And as students make that shift we can move closer to our dream of inspiring and leading young minds.
Teach Empathy and the Give-and-Take of Conversation
The behaviors that create a sense of psychological safety with a team are essentially the same unwritten rules we use to establish relationships with individuals. In particular Edmondson’s work has highlighted empathy and conversational turn-taking as the building blocks of a psychologically safe team. Human beings are highly social animals and our sense of physical and psychological safety is rooted in our relationships with those around us. Social isolation has been linked to everything from early death to mental illness. Numerous research studies have shown that having rich, meaningful relationships is the most consistent predictor to a happy life.
Belonging is the basis of community.
Recent research has shown that what distinguishes “good” teams from dysfunctional groups is simply how teammates treat one another and whether they see themselves as a team. In their best-selling book, Bronson and Merryman explain that “Even the barest suggestions of a shared identity can trigger an esprit de corps.” Walton and others confirmed this idea in their research where they show that simply telling students they shared the same birthday made students more motivated and persistent. The researchers conclude, “Even small social connections lead people to adopt the goals and motivation of others for themselves.” As human influence and sales expert Robert Cialdini explains, the best relationships simply allow people to say “oh that person is one of us.”
Create a Sense of Shared Identity
A common error in education is to focus on differences when, in truth, relationships are based on shared experiences and similarities. This is why recent research is suggesting the best way to create unity among a diverse student population is creating shared experiences and a shared identity; in short, focusing on what you and your students have in common rather than what makes them different. The more we are able to create shared goals for our classes, give students opportunities to depend on the success of their peers, and focus on shared experiences and similarities, the more our students will engage in learning behaviors.
Creating this shared sense of belonging with students is especially important for many marginalized and struggling youth. Many students feel a degree of mistrust and to expect unequal treatment in schools. These perceptions and experiences may make some students feel acutely sensitive to cues to belonging. This is why there is such a great deal of interest in “growth mindset” types of psychological interventions. These brief interventions are meant to shift the narrative that many of our struggling students replay throughout their school days. The research suggests that if we can shift this narrative we can change the results these students achieve.
Resources for Educators
The Mindset Scholars Network, has identified specific mindset interventions that are designed to create the sense of psychological safety, or belonging, that is closely related to the ability of the brain to learn. For example, a brief intervention designed to increase the sense of belonging in African-American college freshman was able to dramatically close the achievement gap in participants. As one Stanford researcher, Gregory Walton, explained “...The intervention removed a critical psychological barrier early in a major school transition—a pervasive worry about belonging, rooted in an awareness of negative stereotypes. That helped students develop the kind of supportive relationships that everyone needs to succeed.” You can learn more about their research findings about cultivating belonging in learning contexts.
Recognizing the value of creating a learning community and building relationships with students is often talked about by excellent teachers as the thing that makes them special. What these researchers exploring terms such as “psychological safety,” “impression management,” and “growth mindset” are doing is giving us the research base to incorporate these practices more directly and deliberately into the school experience of every student.
As educators it is important we understand that the human brain cannot learn from people it does not trust. So if you are curious to get a better sense of the degree of psychological safety in your class here is a psychological safety survey that can be a guide. You may also want to look through more of the exciting research being done by the Mindset Scholars Network. This network of highly regarded researchers and speakers continues to research and develop resources that can help us understand and shift the actual psychological experiences of students during the school day.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.