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Feeling Safe at School: How New Technologies Can Help

By: National Center for Technology Innovation and Center for Implementing Technology in Education (CITEd) (2008)

Research on school climate and connectedness has found that in order to create a positive learning environment for all students, it is important to assess and enhance social and emotional conditions for learning. Students must feel both physically and emotionally safe from harm. They must feel that the adults in their lives care about them and are there to support them. Students also have to be equipped with the social and emotional skills to deal with their behaviors and actions in nonviolent, mature, and reasoned ways. Finally, it is important that all students feel engaged and challenged in their learning environment, with high expectations set for all. Research is finding strong relationships between addressing social and emotional learning (SEL) and academic achievement (see the Further Reading section).

Social and emotional conditions are especially important for students with disabilities. For students with LD and related conditions, the social environment of school can be as much or more of a concern as academic achievement. Many successful adults with LD and ADHD have shared their traumatic school experiences of being lost, bullied and teased, and subjected to low expectations and inappropriate tracking (Reiff, Gerber, & Ginsberg, 1997; Rodis, Garrod, & Boscardin, 2001; Wren, 2000). These experiences of feeling physically and emotional unsafe can scar students' ability to achieve and their engagement with learning. This Info Brief provides some technology tools for families and educators to implement to address some of the common issues.

One important area of SEL, safety, includes whether students:

  • feel physically and emotionally safe at school and on the way to and from;
  • perceive that they are treated fairly and equitably by authorities and peers; and
  • avoid risky behaviors by abiding by safety rules, avoiding substance abuse, maintaining respectful personal space, etc.

The best way to know how students feel< is to ask them. Doing so in a way that allows for an anonymous answer offers them the opportunity to be brutally honest. Consider using web-based survey platforms such as surveymonkey.com, zoomerang.com or other inexpensive web services. A multiple choice survey avoids the concerns over recognizable handwriting or inhibited writing due to poor spelling. Be sure that the survey is readable and comprehensible by all students, even those with reading disabilities. Offering the survey in alternate formats — such as a simple Word document that could be read by a screen reader — would address some of the access issues.

Addressing these issues of safety requires a team of dedicated school and community personnel. A single adult cannot change the school environment. Consider volunteering for or starting such a team or committee, either as a parent or as an educator. Publicizing the work of the committee, if not the results of a student survey, is the first step to making a public commitment to making all students feel safer at school.

There are many new technology tools that can be leveraged to help students feel safe. Ideas are shared below to jumpstart your thinking. But remember, any new technology students are expected to use need to be explicitly taught and practiced before it can be used independently — or it, too, will increase students' anxiety levels!

Key safety zones at school

In order to feel safe and not stressed, students need to be able to get around the campus and not feel lost; get around the buildings without incident (tripping, falling, bumping into jutting corners, etc.); feel safe in a crowd such as hallways and cafeterias; and feel safe in spaces away from direct adult supervision (bathrooms, playground, sidewalks, buses). Students with disabilities that impair their ability to read social situations accurately are especially vulnerable to being teased or bullied and they often do not know how to express these incidents to authorities. Consider trying some of the resources below to increase students' comfort level.

Wayfinding Technologies

Technology makes maps more accessible and available in multiple formats. However, students need to practice with them. So, take the extra time to explore various options and give students the opportunity to select the option that works for them and to practice their wayfinding. Consider these resources:

  • Create satellite maps (using google maps or mapquest) that show the neighborhood and talk about how to walk safely to and from school and home. These maps can be received on mobile devices such as cell phones.
  • For students who are out and about, consider investing in a mobile GPS unit he or she could carry in a pocket or backpack; the price of these devices has dropped dramatically in recent years. These devices can give spoken turn-by-turn directions or create a variety of map types from nearly anywhere.
  • Create maps of the school building. Use paper maps like mazes to practice traveling to and from classes, nurses' office, library, etc. Color trip paths like a subway map. Laminate a map that the student can keep in his or her binder. If a mobile device is an option, you can scan the map you create and make a digital image that can "live" on the mobile device.
  • When students start a new school, there is often an orientation visit when they can walk the halls and find new classrooms. Don't miss these opportunities! Rick Lavoie suggests that students get a "dry run" before activities in novel settings, such as a new school (See Further Reading below for a link to more of Lavoie's practical advice). However, empty hallways don't look anything like hallways full of loud students traveling in friendship packs. It may be instructive to show students some video of the school hallways on a normal day to get a sense of how full they will be on the first day. For the student who is truly uncomfortable in a crowd, an appropriate accommodation may be to get through the hall one minute ahead of others. See ideas on setting reminders so that this early release does not disrupt classes.
  • Have students experiment with the type of map that works best for them. Do they prefer a route with landmarks along the way? Do they prefer the "bird's eye view" of a school? Do they prefer the "turn by turn" directions list-type of map? Have students gradually take over the process of choosing and creating maps and the technology tools.

Enhanced Supervision

School buses, hallways, and playgrounds are now prime spots for security cameras, either installed as part of school security hard-wired systems or as webcams that stream video to websites. However, even with the increased scrutiny, these spaces are also unfortunately still prime spots for bullying, teasing, and harassment. Too many of these incidents do not get reported and therefore cannot be addressed.

Consider establishing an anonymous reporting channel for students to report incidents. Such channels may include: a toll-free telephone hotline number, a text message hotline number, anonymous email from dedicated "Suggestion Box" computer terminals in public locations and school computers. Tracking the locations and times that are reported as trouble spots will allow schools and communities to step up live supervision where and when needed.

Key safety issues in the classroom

Students also need to feel comfortable in the classroom environment and know that their learning needs are acknowledged and respected. They need to feel safe enough to ask questions and ask for help; comfortable with classroom routines and equipment; in step with a lesson; and safe from teasing or judgment to collaborate with peers. Consider some of the technology solutions that can address these issues and increase students' comfort while decreasing anxiety.

Advance Preparation

Entering a situation for which you feel unprepared is very stressful, as we can all attest — it happens to the best of us! Students with LD report feeling disoriented and stressed in this way every day. Consider some of these suggestions for using technology tools to give students with LD a heads up to feel more prepared:

  • Post lesson plans and any advance materials on a website or online learning platform where students can access it and ask questions in advance. This requires additional organization and preparation from the teacher but it will pay off for students.
  • Add text-to-speech support to school and classroom websites. Allowing students to hear the material will reinforce and support vocabulary learning and scaffold comprehension. See BrowseAloud, ReadPlease, or equip students' computers with literacy support software reviewed in the TechMatrix.
  • Create classroom blogs or wiki's where students can enhance and share their understanding of a topic over time. For more ideas on using these tools, see the article, Blogs, Wiki's and Text Messaging.
  • Pre-assign team assignments when structuring cooperative work so that students' needs are scaffolded and intellectual and creative talents can be shared. For example: create digital study guides that scaffold comprehension and response; ensure that students who need them have laptops or notetaking devices for writing assignments; create advance outlines or graphic organizers to scaffold writing assignments. See technology tools that offer writing support and comprehension support reviewed in the TechMatrix.

Asking Questions

Students who struggle in class are often inhibited from asking questions aloud because they don't want to show their struggles and/or cannot articulate their question fully. Waiting to ask the teacher privately after class or later in the lesson is just not an option for students with LD and attention disorders — they've often forgotten their question or gotten even farther behind, distracted by needing the information. Consider the following ways for students to submit questions anonymously in real time to create a learning environment that is more respectful and accommodating of questions:

  • Ask students to email questions to the online learning platform to be answered anonymously at the end of the lesson; these can be submitted in advance if lessons and materials are posted in advance.
  • Use web-based social sites such as Twitter to create anonymous collections of questions and reflections on a topic that can be shared with the whole class.
  • Try a real-time polling software to check student understanding anonymously, see Poll Everywhere for a cell phone-to-web option.

Reminders

Many students with disabilities need reminders for medicines, appointments, changes in daily routines, etc. Being caught off guard having forgotten a routine or expectation leads to feelings of anxiety and stress. Capture daily and weekly routines in advance and find non-stressful ways to remind students. The older a student gets, the less involvement they typically want from adults with these reminders. Using personal technologies may be the solution.

  • Set digital watches to buzz when it is time to take medication or leave class for an appointment.
  • For students with personal laptops or cell phones, set up text message reminders or web-based to-do lists with reminders using free services such as Remember the Milk, BackPack, and TaDa Lists. These reminders promote student independence, but may need explicit structuring to become a maintained routine.

Further reading

  • Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice. This site contains publications and resources for exploring conditions of learning in more detail and across settings.
  • Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. This Center works to advance the science and evidence-based practice of social and emotional learning (SEL) and offers articles and briefs that synthesize scientific advances in SEL and explain their implications for practice.
  • Chicago Public Schools School Connectedness Project. This online toolkit contains research guidance, reviews of strategies, and school reports on Student Connectedness surveys and ways Chicago Public Schools is addressing these issues.
  • Darling-Hammond, L. (2008). The collaborative classroom: An interview with Linda Darling-Hammond. Video available at edutopia.
  • Kendziora, K. T., & Osher, D. (2004). Fostering resilience among youth in the juvenile justice system. In C. S. Clauss-Ehlers & M. D. Weist (Eds.) Community planning to foster resilience in children (pp. 177-195). New York: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  • Lavoie, R. See collection of books and video tapes on the topic of relating to and accommodating the needs of students with learning disabilities.
  • Safe and Sound: An Educational Leader's Guide to Evidence-Based Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Programs (PDF)—In an easy-to-read "consumer report" fashion, this guide distills what is known about effective SEL instruction and provides information on effective programs for the classroom that promote SEL. It discusses the associated costs, the grades covered, the level of rigorous evidence, which schools are most effective at teaching SEL skills, and which promote professional development for teachers.

References

References

Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Reiff, H., Gerber, P., & Ginsberg, R. (1997). Exceeding expectations: Successful adults with learning disabilities. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

Rodis, P. A. Garrod, & Boscardin, M. L. (Eds.) (2001). Learning disabilities and life stories. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Wren, C. (with Einhorn, J.) (2000). Hanging by a twig: Understanding and counseling adults with learning disabilities and ADD. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.