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Creating Safe Spaces for Exceptional Learners

For students with learning or social/emotional disabilities, the configuration and atmosphere of their learning environment can mean the difference between success and frustration. The professional special education team, made up of educators, administrators and family members who create the Individualized Education Program (IEP), must plan for success by designing a safe and accommodating place for students to learn and grow.

This plan may include providing unobtrusive manipulatives, modifying assignments, and seating students so they can easily observe instruction, have easy access to educators, and are close to students who may serve as advocates or learning partners. But at times, students need a more secluded area to process anger or frustration.

Special Needs and Class Placement

Many students with mild to moderate learning disabilities and high-functioning students on the autism spectrum are placed in general education settings and receive additional support from a special education teacher or interventionist. Or they may be placed in a self-contained special education classroom, designed for students performing well below grade level. Self-contained classrooms are also offered for students with behaviors that preclude them from achieving success in a general education setting.

For these students, frustration may emerge as they struggle to keep up, working beside students who process information more quickly and independently. This frustration often leads to acting out behaviors, like “fight” (boisterous physical movements and loud talking) or “flight” (shutting down and refusing to work).

Creating Safe Places

It is for these occasions that teachers must think ahead and prepare safe places where students can calm down and diffuse whatever emotions they are experiencing. There isn’t one right way to set up the space. In fact, teachers and students often work together to create an area students can call their own. Here are a few ideas:

  • Separate the area from the rest of the room with a bookshelf or curtain, allowing the teacher to monitor the students’ behavior, mood and progress without letting the rest of the class see them.
  • Make the area student-friendly. A comfortable upholstered or bean-bag chair, pillows and a soft, washable rug give students options for sitting or lying down.
  • According to Kirstan Beatty, school counselor at Yongsan International School of Seoul, “[provide] any type of hands-on activity like fidget spinners, Thinking Putty, Rubik’s Cubes, puzzles, anything that will redirect the mind away from emotion caused by the stressor so that the person can determine a solution without being in the fight or flight response.”
  • Post a visual reminder or checklist to help them go through the steps of calming down. The list will include only the most basic steps, such as the following:
    • Find a chair.
    • Set the timer.
    • Choose a calming tool or toy.
    • Get back to work when the timer sounds.
  • Keep the space clean and clutter-free. A neat environment contributes to a feeling of calm.

What Are the Logistics?

Students who need a safe place to work or calm down also need to know how it works. Most teachers have very specific rules and teach them to students before there is a need to use the area.

Permission to go to the safe place — Except in extreme cases, students who feel the need to escape to a calming area must ask permission to leave their desks or tables. This can be accomplished by a nonverbal signal, such as a small card with a special sign that students can discreetly hold up until the teacher takes notice and nods approval. The Matrix Parent Network and Resource Center indicates that “even children as young as first grade should be taught to recognize when their feelings are getting out of control and to remove themselves from the group in order to calm down.”

When the situation is more serious, or students experience dramatic emotions over which they have little control, teachers and students must work out a different plan in advance. For example, students who have identified emotional disabilities may not have the patience or ability to wait for permission to calm down. In these cases, students may be permitted to leave for the safe place without permission. The sole requirement upon leaving is that students leave something on the desk to indicate to the teacher that they can be found in the safe place, following the rules. The number of times each day students can take advantage of the privilege, however, is limited.

Length of time — Each student has a different processing speed, both academically and emotionally. The length of time a student should be allowed to stay separated from the rest of the class would be determined in advance, perhaps with the assistance of the social worker.

In many cases, the student can set a timer upon entering the space. Otherwise, the teacher will set the timing system, such as a digital timer or hourglass. For some students, listening to a certain number of songs or the chapter of an audiobook may prove to be a more effective method to specify the length of time.

Re-entering the whole-group learning environment — As part of the process of learning to use a calming area, students must be instructed on how to calmly and quietly return to class. It is when students are calm and ready to work that teachers have opportunities to give positive feedback and to help them process what happened.

According to the Watson Institute, “The Calming Corner should be a safe place where a student can go to calm himself using pre-taught strategies for a short amount of time.”

Even the most experienced teachers are not always familiar with creating and using safe places or calming centers. If you are interested in learning more about working with students who have special needs, you may want to pursue a Master of Science in Education in Special Education degree from Northwest Missouri State University. The coursework offers graduate students opportunities to research, investigate and discuss best practices and strategies that prepare them to help students with special needs reach their full potential.

Learn more about Northwest Missouri’s online MSEd. in Special Education program.


Bright Hub Education: Create a Proactive Learning Environment for Students With Special Needs

Matrix Parent Network and Resource Center: Accommodations for Children With Learning Differences

ELSA Support: Behavior Chart

Watson Institute: Mission

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