Safe settings are key to young people’s healthy learning and development

Safe, supportive and engaging climates – within schools and other youth settings – contribute to multiple aspects of kids’ wellbeing.

What do lower rates of substance abuse, fewer mental health problems, increases in psychological wellbeing, and increased academic achievement and graduation rates all have in common? According to a recent article in the Review of Educational Research titled “A Review of School Climate Research,” these areas are all associated with a positive school climate that is sustained over time. Across the country, a growing number of state Departments of Education are paying close attention to these connections and emphasizing the importance of school climate reform as an essential aspect of their school improvement and bullying prevention efforts.

According to the National School Climate Center, school climate refers to the “quality and character of school life.” A sustainable and positive school climate includes norms, values and expectations that support people feeling socially, emotionally and physically safe, as well as engaged and respected. Along with other expectations and strategies, these elements of a positive school climate contribute to the positive learning, engagement and development of young people, as well as provide risk prevention.

Intentionally focusing on creating environments where young people feel safe, engaged and respected isn’t limited to school settings. Those who work within youth programs offered during the out-of-school time also have a responsibility to support sustainable and positive climates – and many consider this to be foundational to their youth work. For example, Michigan 4-H Youth Development stresses seven guiding principles for positive youth development. These include that youth have opportunities to develop positive relationships with adults and peers that are sustained over time and that youth feel physically and emotionally safe within an environment that reflects honesty, trust and respect.

Other organizations have similar emphases on fostering safe and affirming relationships and settings. Girl Scouts stress their volunteers’ responsibilities for protecting girl’s emotional and physical wellbeing. Camp Fire USA advocates youth-centered programs that are welcoming and centered within positive youth and adult relationships. The Boys and Girls Club of America emphasizes the importance of providing young people with safe settings and experiences that foster a sense of belonging and acceptance.

Working intentionally to create a sustained and positive climate – and doing so in partnership with young people – is the focus of a Michigan State University Extension resource titled Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments. Designed for use in out-of-school settings (such as 4-H, Boys and Girls Clubs, Scouts and afterschool programs), Be SAFE helps young people ages 11 to 14 and adults work together to develop positive relationships and to address, reduce and prevent bullying behaviors. The 224 page Be SAFE curriculum is available at the MSU Extension Bookstore, where you can also download a free PDF of the introduction section of the guide.

A day long workshop focusing on ways to use Be SAFE in a variety of youth settings will take place on August 8, 2013, in East Lansing, Michigan.

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