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Using the science of learning and development to design practices that support the whole child


Supportive Environments

We know that for learning and development, context matters – and school and classroom environments are especially critical contexts as they are where students will spend an enormous and influential portion of their lives. A supportive school environment is physically, emotionally, and identity safe, while creating a strong sense of belonging.

In order to create a true sense of safety and belonging, there must be a shared, authentic commitment to giving power and voice to all community members – students, staff, caregivers, etc. – practicing inclusion even when it is difficult. This means designing together the school culture itself (e.g., co-creating classroom norms), as well as prioritizing mechanisms of support and repairing relationships, instead of only discipline, when challenges inevitably arise (e.g., using co-regulatory and restorative practices). As all voices are invited into the conversation, it is especially important that those with power are aware of how their identities and relative institutional positions affect their role in creating a supportive school environment.---Split---

Creating that sense of safety also means we must understand the difference between striving towards calm vs. co-regulation. There are times in schools where a calm environment is supportive to learning – but demanding calm at all times is not responsive to students’ developmental needs. In classrooms where students must always be quiet and composed, adults may also be prioritizing their own need for comfort and control, as well as missing a fundamental opportunity to support students’ self-regulation skills. Instead, a co-regulating environment provides predictable and consistent structure students can rely on, provides adults who are attuned and responsive to students’ needs in the moment, and models and matches the level of engagement and energy required for students to meet their goals.

Creating that sense of safety also means we must be willing to ask: Is this dangerous, or does it cause discomfort for adults? Often, behaviors or even students are implicitly or explicitly labeled as dangerous, unsafe, or problematic, because of biases, cultural differences, or a need for adult-only control – and consequences are given accordingly. In fact, to keep our students (especially those who hold marginalized identities) safe, it is likely that there will be productive discomfort.

This is important for all students, and especially those whose brains and bodies are already on “high alert” for danger, due to chronic stress or trauma. The predictability and consistency of a supportive school environment gives a hyperactive stress response system the opportunity to categorize the pattern of experiences as nonthreatening, thus allowing the nervous system to stay out of “fight, flight, or freeze” mode and in an open, engaging, and learning mode.

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A supportive environment is NOT:

  • Always highly rigid, structured, and educator controlled for the sake of calm, quiet, and order
  • Relying on exclusionary discipline practices to maintain safety
  • Mirroring oppressive societal structures that unfairly police students’ bodies and choices

A supportive environment IS:

  • Physically, emotionally, and identity safe for all community members, especially those who hold marginalized identities
  • Inclusive, creating an unwavering sense of belonging
  • Co-regulating, predictable, and consistent, especially for students who have experienced chronic stress or trauma

Supportive Environments Core Practices:

Select a core practice below to start redesigning:

The Science of Supportive Environments

Use the following materials to dig deeper into research from the science of learning and development about supportive environments

Building a Belonging Classroom


What moves did the educators in this video make to create a physically, emotionally, and identity safe environment?

The video says, “When we feel we don’t belong, our brains naturally monitor for threats, leaving fewer cognitive resources for higher-order thinking.” What do you think that might look like and feel like for a student?

[Video credit: Edutopia]



Explore this infographic that explains the interactive process of regulatory support between a caring adult and child, called co-regulation.


Co-Regulating Environments


Check out this infographic that explains how environments can be causes of stress, dysregulation, and excessive cognitive load, or how they can be co-regulating experiences.


The Marshmallow Study, Revisited


Learn how researchers at the University of Rochester revisited a classic experiment to show the role of a supportive environment in students’ skill development.

Why Black Girls Are Targeted for Punishment at School — and How to Change That


Watch author and social justice scholar Monique W. Morris’s TED talk, where she describes how schools must become contexts for healing and learning.

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