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A Safe Space to Play, Learn & Grow

Friday, October 2, 2015 - 16:41

How Educators Can Foster Safe Physical & Emotional Environments in H&PE

We all learn best when we feel safe and included. The 2015 Ontario Health and Physical Education (H&PE) curriculum for elementary and secondary students takes this to heart. In fact, one of the curriculum’s fundamental principles is that physical and emotional safety is a precondition for effective learning in health and physical education. This means that regardless of their individual differences, interests and abilities, when they step into the gym or the health room today’s students can expect to feel safe, included and capable of success.

Enjoying H&PE starts with feeling safe.

While helping students to feel safe and supported should be a priority for all subject areas, in many ways, it’s especially important in H&PE. After all, if we want students to develop physical literacy (the ability to move with competence and confidence in a wide variety of physical activities) they need to first feel safe enough to take risks and make mistakes in front of their classmates. “Unlike in other subjects, in physical education you don’t have a book or a desk to hide behind,” points out Kathy Doherty-Masters, a Healthy Active Living Consultant with the Waterloo Catholic District School Board. In the gym, students’ learning is on display for all to see.

Meanwhile, in the health room, a range of topics is discussed—and whether the topic at hand is human development and sexual health or healthy eating, educators must tread cautiously. “What one person might view as a sensitive topic, another might not,” explains Heather Gardner, Ophea’s Curriculum Consultant. For example, learning about how to make healthy food choices could be a sensitive topic for a student whose family is struggling to buy groceries, and discussing substance use and abuse may be especially difficult for a student whose family has been affected by substance abuse. It’s important to create an environment where, regardless of their backgrounds and experiences, students can feel safe asking questions and expressing opinions.
Most importantly, however, part of the curriculum’s overall vision is that students will not only develop the comprehension and capacity to lead healthy, active lives, but also the commitment to do so. Put quite simply, if a student feels unsafe, they’re going to dread H&PE instead of enjoying it—and that’s a big problem. “[As H&PE teachers] we’re the main vehicle to get these kids to learn the content that will create lifelong habits for being healthy and active,” explains Russ Minnis, an H&PE teacher at École St-Jean-Baptiste in Amherstburg, Ontario. “If we don’t use good practices to make students feel safe, we could lose a whole generation of students.”

Playing safe means managing the risks and increasing the fun.

Although there are inherent risks in any physical activity environment, there are some simple ways educators can minimize risk while helping students to learn safe practices along the way.

“First of all, go to the Ontario Physical Activity Safety Standards in Education and check with your school board’s safety practices to make sure you’re following the minimum standards of risk prevention,” says Gardner. These easy-to-navigate guidelines are available free-of-charge online and help to focus the attention of teachers, intramural supervisors and coaches on safe practices in every activity.

Educators can then use these minimum guidelines as a place from which to build in additional safeguards, such as setting ground rules. “In my gym, we have a rule called appropriate intensity,” says Minnis. “Whether it’s floor hockey or basketball, you only go as hard as necessary to stay safe and active.”

Many schools also have safety committees—a great way to ensure that safety becomes a shared responsibility. “Each school in our board has a safety team,” explains Doherty-Masters. “It’s important to have a variety of perspectives in the group. It can be made up of people like the principal, the custodian, an educational assistant and a teacher. We do a bi-yearly inspection of the school grounds, equipment and practices as they relate to safety.”

Emotional safety means everyone belongs and everyone can succeed.

Increasing physical safety is an important part of the equation—but so too is making sure that students feel included, accepted and respected. One key way to foster an emotionally safe space is to allow all students to experience success. “Offer a wide range of activities,” suggests Minnis. “If we play floor hockey, all the hockey players will feel good about it. But then I take the same kids and play a game on a balance beam or an activity where problem solving skills are needed, and a different set of skills will bring success.”

Another key strategy is to take the emphasis off “winning” and instead place it on attaining the lesson learning goals—a strategy which is supported by Growing Success, the Ministry of Education’s policy document concerning assessment, evaluation and reporting. “Right now our learning goal is ‘to actively and safely participate in all activities,’” Minnis explains. The goal was posted on the gym wall, and before the unit started each class sat down and co-constructed what success would look like for them. “This week one group in a grade three class collected more items in a relay race than another group,” Minnis recounts. “But instead of focusing on how many items they had, I brought them back to the learning goal.” By shifting students’ focus from the outcome to the process, everyone has an opportunity to feel good about what they’ve accomplished.
When it comes to increasing students’ comfort levels, Gardner recommends that teachers really take the time to get to know their pupils. This can be as simple as starting the year with a student interest survey to determine what they like and don’t like. Meanwhile, at Dryden High School in Dryden, Ontario, H&PE teacher Lorna Tremonti has made good use of technology as a way to increase her interactions with her students and to encourage everyone to participate in discussions. “I use Google Classroom a lot,” she explains. “It’s a safe online area for students to share opinions, and a way for students who aren’t comfortable speaking in front of other people to have a voice.”

Students who feel safe can focus on building living skills.

Students who feel safe are not only more likely to try new physical challenges and to learn more effectively in health class, they’re also in a better position to develop the living skills—the personal, interpersonal and critical and creative thinking skills that are woven throughout the curriculum.

For example, learning to build and maintain healthy relationships is an important part of the living skills, and there are many opportunities to teach, foster and model these skills when the health classroom or gymnasium is a positive and safe environment. “If I see a kid apologise, or play rock paper scissors to decide who will go first, we stop and focus on it,” explains Minnis. “It’s just like when I’m teaching the kids how to do a layup. I can’t just describe it. They have to see live action versions of what I want them to do.” What’s more, as students develop positive ways of managing their own emotions, solving problems and interacting with one another, the environment becomes both kinder and safer for all.

Safety means putting systems in place to prevent bullying.

Modelling positive social interactions can go a long way toward preventing bullying; however, when it does occur—in H&PE classes or elsewhere—schools and educators can take steps to ensure that it is properly addressed. “Each school will have a safe schools action team within the school and there are safe schools policies and steps teachers need to take depending on how severe it is,” says Gardner.

“In our school we have anonymous reporting about bullying through our website,” adds Tremonti. “It’s important to have different checks in place so that students know: If I’m being bullied or feel unsafe, here’s what I can do right now.”

A safe environment fosters resiliency.

Of course, creating safe environments doesn’t mean eliminating risk and adversity for students—but, rather, teaching them how to take care of themselves and manage difficult situations. Doherty-Masters suggests that this can often be as simple as helping students to look at challenges in a new light. “One thing my principal last year introduced to us was a growth mind-set. It’s such a simple concept that’s about getting kids to think differently when they approach a challenge. He added one word to the phrase ‘I can’t do it’... and that’s ‘yet.’ ‘I can’t do it yet.’ It really lends itself to the development of resilient kids. They learn that, if they fail, it’s not the end of the world.”
It’s also important to provide safe spaces and to let students know where they can turn for support. “We have a graduation coach who is there to make sure that kids feel safe and are able to cope with the demands of high school,” says Tremonti of the high school where she teaches. “There’s also a drop in centre for kids who need to get away. Although it was funded through a First Nations Métis Inuit Education grant, it’s open to everyone in the school. There are couches and support there every day. Teachers know that if a kid is in that room they needed to go somewhere to regroup.”

Educators need support, too!

When working to foster a safe physical and emotional environment, it’s important to reach out for help. After all, creating a safe environment for students—not only at school but also in the larger community—is a shared responsibility.

The obvious first place to turn is to the curriculum itself. “It was built to ensure inclusion and the promotion of mental health,” says Minnis. The upfront section of Ophea’s H&PE Elementary Curriculum Resources is also a wealth of information on instructional strategies for creating an inclusive classroom environment. A number of resources have been produced by the Ministry of Education to support educators and parents work together to help students learn the important content within the curriculum. One resource related to physical and emotional safety is Quick Facts for Parents – Learning about Staying Safe.

Reaching out to the community both within and beyond your school walls can also be invaluable. “Definitely start by connecting within your own school,” suggests Gardner. “If you’re looking at a specific student, talk to teachers who have worked with that student in the past and find out what strategies have helped.”

“Every board has a mental health lead,” adds Doherty-Masters. “This person has a wealth of resources to share, whether they’re local, provincial or national.” Educators can also consult a variety of organizations for online resources (such as those available from Ophea) and can reach out to experts in the community such as their local public health unit or police department, who can often provide guest speakers or resources on specific topics like preventing bullying.

To support educators as well as the entire school community in fostering physically and emotionally safe environments in H&PE, Ophea has developed the All About H&PE resource. This resource features posters and online learning videos that provide an in-depth look at the five Fundamental Principles that underpin the 2015 H&PE curriculum. The materials are great conversation starters that can be posted and shared within the school.

If kids feel safe, they’ll play.

“If kids feel safe, they’ll play,” Minnis concludes. “And they’ll want to play more because they felt safe. It goes full circle.” Supported by a curriculum that aims to reach every student, educators like Minnis, Tremonti and Doherty-Masters are creating safe spaces where everyone feels valued, respected and included. In short, they’re changing the way a generation of kids relates to H&PE.

Today, regardless of a student’s background, individual abilities or interests, they’re likely to graduate with positive memories of H&PE, as well as with an understanding that physical activity is not only fun, it’s for everyone—and that’s just the kind of head start kids need to develop and maintain a lifelong love of healthy, active living.