Creating Safe Spaces for Talking About the Environment

Cover Image Creating Safe Spaces for Kids to Talk About the Environment/ a group of kids having a discussion on the grass

As teachers, we know the importance of making our classrooms feel safe and inclusive. We want all students to feel as if they are seen, valued, and important. This safe space is exceptionally important if we want to have deep and meaningful discussions with our students. Our students need to feel safe to share their views, understandings, and beliefs without being judged or ridiculed. It is our job as educators to create safe spaces for talking about the environment. 

Environmental issues can be contentious and divisive. Many people hold deep beliefs about the Earth and the environment, and some don’t even know where these beliefs have come from. These beliefs may be rooted in family beliefs, religious beliefs, or even their economic background. It is only with discussion and exploration that these beliefs can be uncovered and examined. However, these discussions can become very personal and sometimes tricky.

Additionally, environmental issues affect people in different ways. Minority groups and people of lower socio-economic status are generally the first to experience the effects of environmental degradation. The effects on these people are often catastrophic, ranging from illness to loss of their homes and livelihoods. It can be exceptionally difficult for people in these positions to share their concerns and feel heard and understood.

When we create a safe space for talking about the environment, we create a space where our students can be vulnerable. They can feel that they are safe sharing what they know and belief to be true. They can also challenge their own understandings through careful listening to the beliefs of others. The safe space results in an atmosphere of empathy and respect. A space where everyone’s ideas are valued.

Disclaimer: I am writing from the perspective of a middle-class, straight, cis-gendered, white woman. I acknowledge that I benefit from a significant amount of privilege. 

a group of kids having a discussion

Creating Safe Spaces for Talking About the Environment…​

1. Allow Everyone to Be Heard​

Set the precedent in your class that everyone has the right to be heard and that their ideas matter. Often times in discussions there are the leaders who enjoy sharing their ideas dominate the discussion and others are left out. Having protocols in place that allow everyone to have a change to speak can allow everyone to have a chance to be heard. Some ideas that I have used are:

  • turn and talk- during a discussion you ask the students to turn and talk to the person closest to them. The expectation is that no one is left out…therefore students can’t seek out their friends for the discussion
  • sharing circle- there are many different protocols for a sharing circle, many of which are based in Indigenous traditions. If you are using a specific protocol please be sure to address that and give the appropriate credit. We simply pass around an item (a rock, or a stuffed animal.) Only the person holding the item is able to share, if others wish to respond they need to wait until it is their turn. If it is your turn and you choose not to share, that is ok too!
  • write and share- if it is a bigger topic that students need to spend some time processing, I might have the students journal or write their thinking first, then share with a partner. This way students are able to get their ideas out without feeling like they are grasping for words or ways to explain their thinking. 
  • discussion cards- students work in small groups and use prompts on discussion cards. Each students is allowed a turn to share within the group.

2. Teach and Practice Mindful Listening​

Mindful listening is essential to ensure that everyone feels heard and valued during an environmental discussion. Mindful listening is listening without judgement or interruption. I tend to think of it as listening without trying to figure out what I am going to say next. This is actually exceptionally difficult for many people. We tend to be so tied up in wanting to share our part of the discussion, that we don’t take the time to listen carefully to what others have to say. However, this listening is key to developing empathy and understanding of others and creating that safe space. 

In mindful listening we need to:

  • focus on the person speaking
  • try not to get distracted by our surroundings or our own thoughts/feelings
  • it sometimes helps to repeat back what the other person said, but using your own words

As a teacher you can model mindful listening to your students. You can also explicitly teach your students how to mindfully listen to each other.

a group of kids sharing an ipad

3. Expect Respect​

Create a culture in your classroom where everyone feels valued and respected. Students won’t feel safe to share their thoughts and opinions during a discussion unless they feel respected and like their opinions matter. Set the example for your students that all students are to be respected and heard regardless of their gender, race, sexual orientation, or religion. In fact, celebrate the diversity and honour the diversity of ideas present in your classroom.

One of the fastest ways to create a respectful environment is to model it for your students. Find ways to minimize embarrassing students when dealing with conflict or student issues. Ensure that all students feel like they are being treated fairly and listen openly when they share concerns. If there are issues between students, provide a platform for the students to all share their thoughts and concerns. All of these factors will lead to a classroom where respect is expected amongst everyone. 

4. Teach Students to Acknowledge/Give Credit for Ideas​

Nothing feels worse than someone else taking credit for your ideas. This has happened to minority groups and women all throughout history. Teaching your students to acknowledge the original source of an idea during discussions will help everyone to feel valued and respected. It will also help students to feel as if they have been heard and understood by their peers. When students feel acknowledged, they will feel safe to share their thinking, even in more intense discussions.

Some examples might be…

  • Lisa’s idea about (fill in the blank) was really interesting. I think we could build on it by….
  • I like Lisa’s idea about (fill in the blank), I had never really thought about it that way before. Thank you Lisa!
  • Like Lisa said…

5. Teach Your Students How to Respectfully Disagree​

In creating a safe space for talking about the environment, you will encounter times where kids just don’t agree. Disagreements are not bad things. In fact, disagreements allow our thinking to go deeper as ideas are challenged and discussed. However, many people do not like conflict. They may take a disagreement personally or feel like the disagreement is an attack. 

In order to prevent students from feeling attacked, teach your students how to respectfully disagree during a discussion. Ensure that discussions don’t devolve into personal attacks or attacks on beliefs. Have your students focus on listening to the other persons point of view to gain an understanding of their perspective and why they believe that. Also provide a safe space for students to share if they feel like their ideas and beliefs are being attacked or if they don’t feel safe sharing anymore. You may even want to have a signal that students can use if they no longer feel safe.

This article describes some of the ways that we can teach kids to disagree respectfully. 

a group of teens having a discussion

6. Do Regular Check-ins To Ensure Everyone Feels Heard​

This is important, but also hard for teachers. Give enough wait time so that everyone has an opportunity to formulate their thoughts is a great start to this. Additionally, if you notice a quiet student who has “that look” like they want to share something, it might be a good time to check in with them. They might just be waiting for an invitation to share. 

9. Model Acknowledging Your Own Biases, Assumptions, and Changing Thoughts​

When talking about environmental issues, there may be times when your own biases or assumptions become visible. We all have our own biases and assumptions, often based in our past experiences. A lot of times we don’t even realize that we have them, they are just there, waiting to be challenged. Model for your students what it looks like to acknowledge that you have encountered a bias or assumption that you have made. Or if a student’s argument has helped you to change your thinking on a topic, acknowledge that as well. We are all growing and evolving. It is important that students see that we are not stuck in a single way of thinking. 

10. It All Comes Down To Relationships​

Ultimately, creating a safe space in your classroom to talk about difficult things comes down to relationships. Students will feel safer discussing difficult topics if they feel safe and comfortable with their teachers as well as their fellow classmates.

Find ways to build relationships through:

  • connecting with each of your students every day. Even if it is just saying good morning, and asking them how their day was
  • focus on tasks that build teamwork and cooperation among your students
  • organize larger activities where students can take on leadership roles or allow students to share their unique talents and abilities
  • modelling empathy, respect, and valuing each student as they are

11. Make the Space Comfortable​

A safe space for talking about the environment needs to be a comfortable space. No one wants to get involved in discussions when they are uncomfortable. Work on your classroom or outdoor setting to ensure everyone feels comfortable. If kids are too hot, too cold, too hungry, or don’t have a comfortable place to sit, they aren’t going to focus on talking about the environment. Instead they are just going to focus on their discomfort.

a group of kids talking on the grass

Now Get Started on Creating a Safe Space for Talking About the Environment in Your Classroom…​

Creating a safe space for talking about the environment takes time and intention. If you want students to feel comfortable and confident in sharing their ideas, then you need to put the time and work into creating that space. Modelling respect, mindful listening, and acknowledging our own biases is a great start. It helps our students to see that we are humans too and we are still able to grow. 

Additionally, creating a space where every student feel valued regardless of their demographics or background is even more important. If we want our students to share their diverse ideas and opinions, they first need to feel seen, comfortable, and like their input matters. With some time and effort, we can work towards a space where everyone feels like they belong.  

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