Safety Loss: Using the Social Engagement System to Find ‘Felt Safety’

By: Kelley Munger & Megan Marcus

While there has been a wide spectrum in how schools have responded to COVID-19, it would be near impossible to identify a school, educator, family, or student who has not experienced tremendous change this year. As we know from this collective tragedy, much of this change has been laced with uncertainty, anxiety, loss, and for many, trauma. Now, as we all breathe a sigh of relief and hope that we are on the path to re-opening and renewing our educational communities, we also face the daunting aftermath of the past year. One such impact that many educators, parents, and policymakers are concerned about is the academic learning loss that children have experienced in this unprecedented year, especially in light of inequity across our systems of education, many of which were laid bare during the pandemic.

But before we all turn our urgency, attention, and resources to the learning loss of the last year, we need to first consider and recognize the widespread impact of the safety loss that has taken place.

When schools as we know them changed overnight in March 2020, children, families, and society at large lost what is called “felt safety.” Felt safety, a term commonly used in attachment and regulation theory is the ability to feel safe, calm, and at rest in your environment. Under ordinary conditions, schools are places where many students and their families feel held by an invisible web of emotional, social, physical, and academic support. Parents reliably count on teachers and school support staff to warmly welcome students each morning and deliver them back to them each afternoon. Students learn so much more than just reading, writing, and arithmetic in the social interactions with peers at recess and after school, many of which are supported by caring educators. And when educators are able to use their full gifts to attune to and support students in the classroom, they often feel a deep sense of purpose and meaning in their lives

All of these facets of schooling provide great safety, and all of this was disrupted.

From a place of felt safety, trust, growth, and learning unfold; but without it, humans are pushed into stress responses and survival states that impede learning. In other words, what the science tells us, and what most educators already know, is that students must experience safety in their bodies (versus simply being told they are safe) before they can flourish in any classroom setting. Felt safety is experienced in our autonomic nervous systems and leads to feeling relaxed, grounded, connected, calm, and social. This felt safety is foundational to learning, and the loss of it for students and educators over the past year has had and will continue to have profound effects.

How might we expect this loss of safety to show up in students and school staff? Well, when students do not feel safe, there may be a rise in behavioral struggles including reactivity, withdrawal, or shutting down. Students may feel anxious about their basic needs and may focus this worry on things like food or the safety of their caregivers. Likewise, educators who have lost a sense of safety may struggle to find footing this year with their own emotional health, which may lead to a struggle to perform their job as they ordinarily would. Like a rubber band that has been “stretched out” by stress over the past year, many educators are reporting chronic exhaustion, anxiety, and/or sadness. Unfortunately, the effects of compounding stress on students, educators, and families won’t magically go away without concerted effort and intentional support.

Our goal for this year should be to help both educators and students “bounce back” before focusing on academic expectations. Safe relationships and positive unconditional support fuel this elasticity, creating the resilience that promotes learning and flourishing. Fortunately, if we can name the lack of safety that is a result of trauma, transition, and loss, we can also plan for how to help students back into feeling safe, calm, and of course, ready to grow and learn. So where do we begin?

When welcoming students back into whatever your school’s new normal is, as an educator, use your body’s built-in superpower—the Social Engagement System (SES)—to communicate safety to your students. The Social Engagement System is the way we both read and give out social cues in our environment. Because we humans are social creatures, just like trauma is experienced through our senses, safety is also experienced through our senses: warm eye contact, soothing voice, and healthy touch from a protector can calm a frightened or stressed person, bringing the body out of a stress response into the calm zone. Using your SES to help others recover from safety lost means providing for students (or staff) the following:

  • Warm eye contact
  • Relaxed face
  • Soft to medium voice
  • Easy and inviting posture
  • Vocal tone that is warm and gentle, and at times firm, but never harsh

All of these are signals from your SES that, without words, powerfully tell a student, “I’m safe, and you are safe too.” But here’s the catch with using the SES: it reflects a person’s internal state, and so it will always reveal what is “behind the scenes.” As a result, the only way for educators to truly invite a student back into felt safety is for educators themselves to feel safe. Naming this compassionately both with and for educators is the first step to recovery and the reason why filling educators’ cups is imperative to addressing both safety and learning loss.

School and district leadership across the country can address the need to restore educator felt safety through the following practices:

  • Providing information about and support for educators to receive therapy
  • Forming networks of peer support within schools
  • Creating therapeutic spaces such as processing circles for educators to digest their experiences
  • Providing school and district leaders with empathy training so that they can improve their ability to help educators feel safe and seen.
  • Encouraging educators to share their story of the trauma they have experienced, and being a safe space for this

Helping students to recover safety will involve educators filling their own wells, which will require leaders of educators to gain the skills that are prerequisite to developing others: empathy, genuineness, and the communication of unconditional positive regard and to design workspaces where educators can feel safe and seen. Through these practices, educators can feel safer and seen inside their professional cultures, creating post-traumatic growth in not only educators but in educational systems on the whole. Trauma often pulls people together; now is the time to pour our resources into not only recreating but reimagining safety for educators and students in schools across the world.

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