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  • Writer's pictureKevin Graham

Emotional safety is the linchpin

Over the past 25 years, I’ve conducted 103 surveys of students at independent schools across North America and beyond. These surveys include, on average, more than 100 questions, probing into every nook and cranny of the student experience. Results from these surveys are always fascinating, especially when they point to discrepancies in comparison to results from surveys of parents or surveys of faculty and staff. Indeed, student surveys sometimes shine a very bright light on realities to which we are otherwise oblivious.

These realities and discrepancies have revealed themselves sharply in survey results over the past two years. We live in a different world now. Apples-for-apples comparisons have, for some measures, become apples-for-watermelons.

Here’s one thing, though, that has not changed, and I suspect never will. For decades, I’ve been shouting from the rooftops, “Engagement is everything!” In fact, this was the title of my first blog entry back in 2009. I won’t stop shouting this mantra because it’s so true and so important. Until you get engaged, nothing good can happen.

Engagement is everything because it leads to a sense of belonging… and sense of belonging is… well, you know the drill. Ask Maslow. We are social creatures. We must belong in order to survive and to thrive. I’ve made this engagement-to-belonging connection in past entries. “I belong to something…” in 2013 and “I belong; therefore, I am” in 2020. I won’t litigate this contention again here. Suffice to say that my endorsement goes to the school that engages my child in the effort to find a sense of belonging in a safe environment, such that they may be better prepared for the same task later in life when confronted by a not-so-safe environment.

As the years pass by and millions of datapoints pile up in my brain, the answer to “why is engagement so important?” becomes more and more secure. All the while, I’ve also been pondering on the matching question, “how?” How do we best find our place? How do we engage?

Nine years ago, I wrote about engagement in, “Note to a Grade 9 student on the first day”. This was also the note I gave to our youngest as she began her journey at a new school.

My note to Alana reflects a recommendation I regularly offer to administrators. Ask and answer three questions for every student at the school:

  • Is this child engaged in out-of-classroom activities at the school?

  • Does this child have at least one close friend at the school?

  • Is there at least one trusted adult for this child at the school?

In the absence of affirmative answers to any of these questions, the child has not found a place. There can be no meaningful sense of belonging for this child within the community.

If I appear to offer more questions than answers, you understand me correctly. It’s what I do. Our mission proposition, itself, is a question: “How can we add value to conversations in education management?” In recent months, I’ve been digging deeply into great masses of data. I find myself in a position to study, at a glance, mountains of data for each of 103 student surveys, all the while asking myself, “How do all these variables fit together in a conceptual model that offers actionable output?” What leads to engagement that, in turn, leads to sense of belonging? This, for me, represents the holy grail of my work. This conceptual model remains a work in progress, but for now, my starting point is the title of this entry.

Emotional safety is the linchpin.

Comparing 100 measures in a survey against each other will generate literally thousands of correlation coefficients. The volume of data can be mind numbing, to be certain. At the same time, when we tumble the data into an orderly framework, key themes are revealed. What bubbles to the top ten among variables correlated with this measure? What about this measure, or that one over there? Let’s run it all over again for the next survey, and the next one, and so on.

Here’s what I’ve learned. Consider each of the following measures that commonly appear in our surveys of students:

  • Feeling encouraged to express one’s opinion

  • Caring among students

  • Sense of community

  • Respect for diversity

  • Feeling treated as an individual

  • Love of learning

  • Self confidence

  • Feeling a strong sense of belonging (this, of course, is the biggie)

Agreement with the statement: I feel emotionally safe while at School X repeatedly ranks in the top ten in correlation with these measures, regularly holding the number one rank. One can argue correctly that correlation does not mean causation and that we cannot impute from this exercise the direction of cause and effect. As Bill Maher said yesterday, there are things I don’t have facts to support but I still know to be true. This is one of those things for me. Emotional safety contributes to success on all of these fronts. Importantly, the absence of emotional safety is a significant stopper to success on all of these fronts. No doubt, it goes both ways and success in each of these areas also contributes to emotional safety.

If I don’t feel emotionally safe, I won’t take risks. If I won’t take risks, I will learn nothing. I won’t ask questions. I won’t raise my hand. I won’t stand up. I’m not resilient. I won’t advocate on my own behalf. I won’t take on a leadership role. I will not take charge of and responsibility for my life.

If I don’t feel emotionally safe, I also won’t get enough sleep (I have the data to say this). This is one that goes both ways, of course.

If I don’t feel emotionally safe, I won’t feel capable of balancing my daily workload (I have the data to say this). This, too, is one that goes both ways.

For certain, a loss in sense of belonging will inevitably lead to a loss in emotional safety. All of these variables are bi-directional with each other. Our task, then, is to identify a path to the creation of a sustainable sense of belonging. My contention is that emotional safety is pivotal in navigating this path.

Find a friend. Find a trusted adult. Find another friend. Find another trusted adult. Repeat.

………………………..

My understanding of the world and my small place in it involves the constant study of stories, concentric microcosms, flow charts, and a lot of Venn diagrams. Da Vinci said, “Everything is connected to everything else.” The more I study, the more I like the quantum term for it – entanglement. Life for me is a journey of untangling data in hopes of making sense of it all.

How do my findings connect to the big world out there? Where does emotional safety fit into my understanding of our messy world? How is all this useful?

This need for emotional safety holds both for our children and for us. Over the past two years, everyone’s emotional safety net has been tested. Some have more successfully absorbed the shocks of being cut off from our families and friends, our social supports, our schools, our work, our places of worship, our weekly game of pickup hockey (that one really hurt!).

With this loss of emotional safety, some of us have lost faith in our governments, in the integrity of healthcare, in the economy, in the viability of democracy itself. Of course, these losses are bi-directional. We reach out, grasping for any kind of leadership that points the way to recovery of our emotional safety.

How we’ve been guided at home and school will dictate how and where we look for that leadership. Have we been trained to think critically and to choose wisely? If not, are we vulnerable to voices that offer false promise to rescue us from some grand conspiracy? In our feeling of disenfranchisement, do we latch on to fear and hatred? In my desperation, do I need to belong even more? In my isolation, have I been set up to belong to some cultish movement that leads nowhere good?

Are we swept up as unwitting participants in revolt because some stranger has provided some new level of emotional safety in purpose… the wrong purpose, but purpose just the same? Give me purpose and I will follow. I am fearful. Give me hope to belong. Just tell me who is to blame.

………………………..

The moment I blame someone else, I cede control of my life. Life is not what happens to me, I argue. Life is what I do about what happens to me. In my view, this is on a very short list of important lessons, both for us and for our children.

Experiences in education that promote: resilience; a willingness to face new challenges; taking responsibility; self-advocacy; creative problem solving; critical thinking; and intellectual curiosity… will be central to our children’s successful navigation to a place of emotional safety.

Matching these attributes with: inclusion; compassion and respect; culturally competence; collaboration; and commitment to something larger than the self… we may find a starting formula not only for survival but for success, both as individuals and as a community.

Stay safe,

Kevin Graham

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