Creating a Safe and Supportive Learning Environment

It is important to foster a learning environment in which students feel safe, relaxed, and willing to take risks, especially for learners who may have had negative experiences in traditional classroom environments. Students often describe supportive learning environments as expanding their sense of family and enhancing their self-esteem, which, when combined with increased literacy skills, help students take more chances in pursuing their goals.
Here are some ways to create a supportive learning environment for your students:
Build a strong classroom community
The adult education classroom can play an important role in helping students build stronger and larger networks. Classrooms provide students and staff with friendship, skills, and contacts beyond their immediate communities. Intentionally building networks in the classroom can create meaningful, supportive relationships among students and teachers.
  • Use pair work, as well as small-group and whole-class activities, beginning the first day of class to help students get acquainted, and provide ongoing opportunities for students to form connections with students they don’t interact with as frequently in the classroom.
  • Provide students with opportunities to share about their backgrounds and cultures.
  • Seek to connect students with the greater community, through field trips, current events discussions, bringing guest speakers, etc.
See our website for information on monthly workshops and field trips that teach about community involvement and service while improving language skills.
Build self-esteem and self-efficacy
Students’ determination and belief that they can achieve their goals are important factors in their persistence in ongoing learning. Adult learners may have negative feelings about themselves due to failure experienced in their lives, due to dropping out of school, losing a job, or not being able to read or write well enough to complete a job application or read to their children .
  • Ensure that students experience success at their first meeting so the first experience is a positive one. It may be appropriate to start with material that is slightly below the student’s level.
  • Be patient! Patience is an extremely important characteristic for any teacher or tutor of adults. Adults can often take a longer time in the learning process because of various learning barriers, but this does not mean they aren’t motivated to learn.
  • Accept your student as he/she is and respect his/her values even if they differ from yours.
  • Believe in your student and he/she will begin to believe in him/herself.
  • Memorize the names of all your students within the first week of instruction. Use students’ names frequently.
  • If your students are English learners, learn a few key phrases in their native languages to model that it is acceptable to struggle with pronunciation and language learning.
Use positive nonverbal communication
Nonverbal messages are an essential component of communication in the teaching process. It is not only what you say to your students that is important but also how you say it. An awareness of nonverbal behavior will allow you to become a better receiver of students’ messages and a better sender of signals that reinforce learning.
Some areas of nonverbal behaviors to explore include:
  • Eye contact: Teachers who make eye contact open the flow of communication and convey interest, concern, warmth and credibility.
  • Facial expressions: Smiling is a great way to communicate friendliness and warmth to students.
  • Gestures: A lively and animated teaching style captures students’ attention, makes the material more interesting, and facilitates learning. Head nods also communicate positive reinforcement to students and indicate that you are listening.
  • Posture and body orientation: Standing erect, but not rigid, and leaning slightly forward communicates to students that you are approachable, receptive and friendly. Speaking with your back turned or looking at the floor or ceiling should be avoided, as it communicates disinterest.
  • Proximity: Cultural norms dictate a comfortable distance for interaction with students. Look for signals of discomfort caused by invading students’ space, which include rocking, leg swinging, crossed arms, tapping and gaze aversion.
  • Paralinguistics: Tone, pitch, rhythm, timbre, loudness and inflection in the way you speak should be varied for maximum effectiveness. Students report that they learn less and lose interest more quickly when listening to teachers who have not learned to modulate their voices.
  • Humor: Develop the ability to laugh at yourself and encourage students to do the same. Humor is often overlooked as a teaching tool.  It can release stress and tension for both instructor and student and foster a friendly classroom environment that facilitates learning.
Motivate students
Motivation is a key factor in student success, and whatever level of motivation your student brings to the learning environment will be transformed, for better or worse, by what happens in the learning process.
  • Involve students as active participants in learning. Students learn by doing, making, writing, designing, creating, and solving. Pose questions. Don’t tell students something when you can ask them.
  • Be enthusiastic about what you are teaching. An instructor’s enthusiasm is a crucial factor in student motivation. If you become bored or apathetic, students will too.
  • Work from students’ strengths and interests.
  • When possible, let students have some say in choosing what will be studied. Let students decide between two locations for a field trip, or have them select which topics to explore in greater depth.
  • Vary your teaching methods. Variety reawakens students’ involvement in the course and their motivation. Incorporate role playing, debates, brainstorming, discussion, demonstrations, case studies, audiovisual presentations, guest speakers or small group work.
  • Relate new tasks to those students already know.
Encourage students to see literacy as a tool that empowers them to take action in their lives and greater society. Find ideas about how to integrate civic engagement into lessons or the overall curriculum here.