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Opinion & Essays - Aug, 1999 Issue #60

By Lon Woodbury

When asking about the safety of a school or program, most parents are usually thinking about physical safety. Behind this question is the hope of being assured that there is minimal chance for physical harm to their child, if enrolled. This is a reasonable concern. Safety should be the first and foremost concern of the administrators of any activity for young people.

But the issue of safety reaches far beyond simple physical security. A school or program must be emotionally safe to be effective with at-risk teens. Emotional safety in turn contributes to physical safety. In other words, a child has to have some basic trust of the staff and situation before he/she feels comfortable talking honestly and deeply about what is really bothering him/her; a key step to healing and attitude change. While this feeling of safety is important to all of us, it is especially important to adolescents with low esteem, racked by self-doubts, desperately trying to convince themselves and others that everything is fine, while denying that their life is not going very well. If an at-risk teen doesn’t feel safe enough to be honest, then he/she will do what most of us do in that situation — protect ourselves by faking it! They will say one thing, and do something secretly to guard themselves, imitating their perception of the adults command to “Do as I say, not what I do.”

In order to be successful, schools and programs must establish a sense of emotional safety. Although subtle, it can be major criteria in evaluating the effectiveness of a program. If the participants feel safe emotionally, it can be observed and sensed by a visitor as a feeling of comfort and well-being. Without this sense of emotional safety, a program or school will always feel like something is about ready to explode, and the administration will find itself dealing with crisis after crisis.

Society is full of examples of institutions that lack emotional safety. The Dilbert phenomenon suggests a widespread lack of emotional safety in our nation’s businesses and government agencies. Top down, command and control thinking, often appears to the lower ranks (which also includes citizens, taxpayers and customers) as arbitrary, inconsistent and out-of-touch. When this kind of thinking occurs in the upper echelons, it results in confusion and a perceived need to cover-up, in the lower ranks.

Parents have come under fire in the last generation or so for not preparing their children to be confident, productive citizens. When parents do not establish and maintain firm boundaries, are too permissive or are arbitrarily harsh in punishment, the child has no consistency to depend on, and thus no emotional safety from their family. The result is uncertainty and defensiveness, and a search for strength and support from elsewhere.

As schools grew to massive sizes, discipline through relationships was replaced by discipline through a multitude of rules. In such a scenario, rules are not as consistent as we would like to think, because they can be manipulated, misinterpreted or selectively enforced. Students then look to cliques for the strength and support, the emotional safety they so desperately seek. They create their own culture, which then dominates their lives. Sometimes this contributes to tragic consequences as shown by the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado and other school shootings.

The root of emotional safety is consistency, which of course makes an important contribution to physical safety also. The child knows what to expect. Life is predictable and dependable; the child has a solid framework in which to grow up. When any institution is inconsistent, we get counter-productive employees, fearful and rebellious children, or students that resist both overtly and covertly; all of which can lead to dangerous situations. The magazine Youth Today reported the results of an 18-year longitudinal study (Family Lifestyles Project) that concluded one of the most effective ways to steer children away from risky behavior is for a family to consistently believe in a value system. This study tested several models of family value systems and concluded that the actual belief was not as important as its consistency, at least so far as keeping kids out of trouble.

When you hear childcare professionals talk about the safety of a school or program, if they know what they are doing, they will be thinking mostly about emotional safety. It is emotional safety that is necessary in order for the school or program to be both successful and physically safe.

Copyright © 1999, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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