Starting year 7 in a secondary school is a significant milestone. New pupils can have positive experiences full of excitement and a sense of achievement, but they might also experience anxiety, isolation and overwhelm. Therefore, it’s absolutely key to establish safe environments as a core part of helping young people navigate this period of change.
Safe environments play a crucial role in promoting positive mental health. They provide spaces where students can feel secure, can build connections with others and be in the right frame of mind to learn. It’s equally important for young people to be aware of who to reach out to and how they can support themselves during challenging times.
Encouraging open communication, and creating safe, supportive environments in schools, especially during periods of transition, is essential for supporting pupils’ mental health, fostering healthy relationships and overall personal growth.
What do we mean by Safe Spaces?
A safe space extends beyond simply being a physical location or a particular policy. It’s deeply rooted in the culture and atmosphere of the school, creating an environment where students feel secure, accepted, and comfortable enough to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences openly.
For a safe space to exist, there needs to be more than just the physical setting. It needs to be a supportive and understanding environment, good communication, with human processes and positive connections where young people can thrive.
The impact on young people’s mental health from changing schools
The transition from primary to secondary school can be exciting and it marks the next step of their life. But like any change, a new school can bring uncertainty.
Some young people will adapt well to change and feel ready for the move. Others may struggle with anxiety from the unfamiliarity of a new environment, new teachers and different classmates. Adjusting to a different routine or managing a new journey to school can also feel stressful.
If a young person is finding it difficult to make new friends or feels disconnected from their old friends, they might feel isolated or lonely. Some may feel doubtful about their abilities in class, leading to low self-esteem or confidence.
It’s important for schools and parents to be aware of these potential impacts on mental health, so they can provide appropriate support during this crucial time. Open communication, emotional support, and proactive strategies to cope can make a big difference.
The Role of Schools in Creating Safe Spaces
Schools play a crucial role in creating and maintaining safe spaces for education wellbeing. From continuing a positive school culture, training for staff, and mental health resources to promoting open communication and encouraging young people’s participation to ensure you know what they need.
This involves promoting positive behaviour, trust, respect, empathy, genuine concern for each other, appreciation of diversity, openness, and effective communication which are reflected in their policies.
Research shows that schools that adopt a trauma-informed approach and work with the understanding that behaviours and emotions, especially difficult ones, are often an understandable response to a challenging situation have many benefits for both students and staff.
Safe supportive environments can result in improved attendance, increased engagement, better mental health and greater staff wellbeing- evening contributing to staff retention.
Integrating Safe Spaces into schools
Integrating safe spaces into a school’s daily activities, curriculum, and overall culture is an ongoing process that requires a comprehensive and consistent approach.
Schools can support their new starters by clearly communicating that they understand the difficulties of this situation, and directing pupils to their wellbeing or pastoral team who will be there to support them. Knowing there are trusted emotional available adults and that they have somewhere to go when they are struggling can make all the difference, and prompt young people to attend school.
Here are some helpful approaches:
Focus on school culture: Fostering a culture of empathy, non-judgment and care for each individual is paramount to creating an inclusive environment in which young people can thrive. Make sure that the school environment feels safe, welcoming, and inclusive.
Prioritise relationship building and connections: Forming strong, positive relationships with teachers and students which includes showing genuine interest in their wellbeing, understanding, and acknowledging their feelings.
Training for teachers and staff: to recognise signs of emotional distress in pupils, ways to support them and understand how it might impact a child’s behaviour or academic performance. Regular training can help to maintain safe spaces, manage conflict, and support students’ mental health and wellbeing.
Encourage peer mentoring or buddy systems: which is an excellent way to empower young people and create a network of champions who can look out for other young people.
Mental health education and coping strategies: Offer regular workshops or seminars on topics like stress management, mindfulness, and mental health awareness. Young people might have their own healthy ways of coping but if not, they can be encouraged by staff to learn several coping strategies that can support them throughout the day at school. This can look like, movement, allocated school buddies, breathing exercises, taking time out, fidget toys, sensory and mindful activities that soothe and calm the nervous system. There are many different approaches, each young person is an individual, so learning what strategies work for the individual is important.
Access to mental health services: Ensure that students have access to mental health services, like counselling or tools and resources to support their wellbeing. Early intervention means young people can seek support and get the help they need as a preventative approach to mental health.
Curriculum integration: Schools can include elements that foster empathy, respect, and inclusivity in their curriculum. This can range from discussing relevant social issues in class, and promoting diversity in reading materials, to implementing a social-emotional learning program that teaches skills like empathy and conflict resolution.
Encourage open discussions: Create an environment where students feel comfortable to ask questions, share their thoughts and opinions, or express their concerns without fear of judgement. This can be facilitated during class discussions, group work, or dedicated ‘circle time’ sessions.
Regular check-ins: Teachers can incorporate regular check-ins with students to understand their wellbeing. This can be done in the form of one-on-one meetings, or more informal check-ins during class.
Involvement of parents and caregivers as a whole school approach: Regularly communicate about your school’s efforts to create a safe space. They can support their child at home along with the trauma-informed strategies used at school.
Creating physical safe spaces: This can include designated areas in the school where students can go to take time out and speak with a trusted emotional available adult if needed.
It is important to remember, creating a safe space is a continuous process that requires the effort of the entire school community. When schools adopt a trauma-informed approach with an understanding that behaviours and emotions, particularly those that are difficult are often normal responses to challenging circumstances—can have numerous benefits for everyone involved.
In a supportive environment, where each individual’s emotions and actions are seen in the context of their experiences, we can create a better place for both students and staff. The positive outcomes can be seen in various aspects such as better attendance rates, increased engagement, improved mental health, and enhanced staff wellbeing.
It’s not just about reacting to issues when they arise, but about proactively building a supportive, empathetic culture where young people can thrive.
Book a free wellbeing taster session for your school
We understand that moving to secondary school can be a big transition. Our experienced wellbeing trainer can deliver a free session on various helpful topics for year 7’s this Autumn such as:
- Anxious feelings: Starting a new school and the emotions related to that. Signs to look out for and tips for managing anxious thoughts and feelings.
- Nurturing friendships: Making new friends; tips on how to nurture friendships and how to spot the signs of harmful friendships; pressures of social media use etc.
- Reaching out: The power of reaching out to trusted people, teachers, family, friends, and the wellbeing services at school.
- Self-compassion: Being kind to yourself when you are struggling or experiencing difficult emotions at school.