Pupil wellbeing: Is your school a safe place?

Written by: Dr Pooky Knightsmith | Published:
Image: iStock

Dr Pooky Knightsmith offers us five tangible ways to ensure our schools are a safe space for vulnerable young people

For some young people, school represents the one constant in their life; it can be a safe haven for our most vulnerable young people. As they walk through the school gates, they can shrug off adult worries and responsibilities and become a child for a few hours enabling them the opportunity to thrive and flourish alongside their peers.

In this short article, I have explored the good practice I have observed around the country that makes schools feel like a safe space for those who need it most – some of these ideas and strategies might work in your school too.

Children know what to expect

Rules and consistency are the bedrock in helping to make life feel safe and predictable for children. We can feel that we are being kind and supportive when we flex and bend these rules for vulnerable youngsters, but in doing this we unwittingly make school feel unpredictable.

Ideally, there are shared expectations between home and school, but as a minimum, ensuring that pupils and staff have a shared understanding of what is expected and the consequences if pupils do not meet these standards, makes for a safe base from which pupils feel safe to engage.

Everyone feels welcome

Adults and children alike feel that they are welcome in school – frontline staff are friendly and helpful and an exploratory rather than punitive response is taken in the first instance to lateness.

A warm welcome helps even latecomers get off to a positive start at school, while questioning lateness before punishing it can quickly flag up difficulties that we need to be aware of and may be able to support with.

They can see ‘kids like me’ on the walls

Efforts are taken to create displays that reflect the diverse make-up of the student body, both in terms of physical appearance and also in terms of academic ability.

This helps children to feel included and can be extended by exploring different cultures and ethnicities where it is fitting as part of the richer learning journey. A culture where difference is celebrated rather than ridiculed makes for a safe and supportive environment where children dare to be themselves.

Sources of support have faces & names

Pupils know how and who to ask for help. Sources of support for common issues are signposted in a range of ways – for example on walls and toilet doors, the school website, in pupil planners and verbally in assemblies and lessons.

Named staff welcome pupils to discuss specific difficulties they may be facing. The make-up of this team should be driven by a needs analysis of your student body, and would include named staff who can support pupils who are LGBTQ, looked-after or struggling with mental health issues.

All staff, including non-teaching staff, should feel confident handling disclosures and pupils should feel that they will be listened to without judgement if they choose to confide in a trusted adult at your school.

Not just academic achievement

Schools where effort as well as achievement is celebrated and where success across a realm of different activities is highlighted can feel more inclusive and welcoming to children whose primary successes are not academic.

In addition this approach can prevent those who are not currently academic high-flyers from disengaging completely. This is taken further by some schools who support pupils in accessing a wide range of extra-curricular opportunities – giving pupils the chance to try, fail and try again in a range of safe situations which broaden their horizons, boost their confidence and self-esteem, and help them to find their niche.


Next time you walk through the gates at your school, put yourself in the shoes of one of your most vulnerable learners and try to see things through their eyes.

Does your school feel welcoming and safe? If not, ask yourself – or the relevant pupils – what small but tangible changes you could make to rectify this, because providing a safe space for all learners will give our most vulnerable learners both an emotional and an academic boost.

  • Dr Pooky Knightsmith directs the children, young people and schools programme at the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, a charity that provides fully funded mental health training to schools. Visit www.inourhands.com/cwmt/ and email training@cwmt.org. For more information on the charity, visit www.cwmt.org.uk

Mental health advice

Dr Pooky Knightsmith provides regular support and advice in SecEd. To read her previous articles, go to http://bit.ly/2daU4zs. If there are specific issues you would like to see addressed, email pooky@cwmt.org or tweet @PookyH


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