Higher Education: Exploring Classroom Safety in Health and Human Services

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As a new era of teaching and learning emerges, a focus on psychological safety and inclusivity for health and human service students is paramount. An important component of student engagement and academic success is the cultivation of psychological safety and inclusivity in the classroom.

To adequately prepare health and human service students for graduation in our globalized context, it is important that students are exposed to worldviews, values, and beliefs that challenge their own to help develop their critical and intellectual thinking skills. Exploring diversity beyond the physical characteristics that define us as individuals is also essential to learning about one’s own values and beliefs in contrast to those held by others. This concept of cultural exploration in the classroom requires a two-fold approach; firstly, students need to feel their own diversity is recognized and valued, and secondly, this recognition presents an opportunity for students to extend this concept to others.

The classroom environment

From learning environment research, there is compelling evidence to suggest the classroom environment has an influencing effect on student outcomes. When students do not feel safe in their learning environment, the analytical capability of their brains is turned off and they enter survival mode, thus hampering their ability to make thoughtful connections (Bosher & Pharris, 2009; Flensner & Von der Lippe, 2019). Moreover, post-secondary education classrooms are traditionally spaces of delivery, not dialogue (Hockings, 2011). And yet, how do we ignite constructive dialogue? How can classroom facilitators create learning spaces that allow students to feel vulnerable enough to enter these important conversations with confidence?

Flensner and Von der Lippe (2019) argue that safe spaces are “a main precondition for exploring diversity” (p. 277), and yet we often associate the concept of diversity simply with the physical traits of an individual. Students need to be engaged with their learning and feel comfortable expressing their views and opinions without fear of reprisal. In essence, students need a ‘safe space’ to learn in. However, this then begs the question of who we are keeping our students safe from, and how do we define what a ‘safe space’ actually is? 

A safe space

The concept of a ‘safe space’ is borne out of feminist and LGBTQ movements of the 1970’s to help identify physical spaces where like-minded individuals could meet and share their experiences safely (Flensner & Von der Lippe, 2019). Today, a ‘safe space’ in an educational setting signifies spaces that are free of discrimination and harassment, where students can feel free to share their ideas and be open to hearing the views of others without fear of judgment. Inherent to this idea is then the blending of creating a space that is open enough to include all perspectives but also to have an element of structure with a shared understanding of the rules (Flensner & Von der Lippe, 2019). 

Inclusive learning

When we talk about inclusive learning as instructors, we often associate this with students with disabilities, or those that are marginalized or racialized; in other words, we take on a deficit-focus, which in turn can pose a barrier to learning. Likewise, traditional perspectives of diversity can, in some cases, serve to perpetuate societal stigma and stereotypes through the longstanding belief that equates diversity with being somehow “lesser than.” In broadening this definition to account for the ways in which diversity can enrich the lives and learning of everyone, the emphasis on inclusivity shifts from the ways in which we are different, to include the ways in which we are all the same (Hockings, 2011). 

Adult students often find the post-secondary education system intimidating, especially if they have been out of school for a long period of time. They often struggle with balancing the desire to fit in with their colleagues and peers, with needing the instructor to see them as an individual with accompanying individual needs (Hockings, 2011). The fear of appearing wrong or lacking in knowledge prevents some students from sharing their ideas, and those educated in other countries or systems may be unfamiliar with the post-secondary education culture, thus potentially hindering their engagement. Others may simply lack exposure to different cultures or ethnicities. In the absence of honest dialogue, where students are reluctant to share opposing or critical views for fear of appearing ‘different,’ it becomes difficult to challenge or “unpack” these ideas, risking perpetuating stereotypes and bias. Facilitating reflexive dialogue in the classroom where these ideas are openly discussed has the capacity to make learning more meaningful and relevant to students, ultimately contributing to their success. 

Influencing student engagement

In saying this, student engagement is also influenced by the knowledge and enthusiasm of the subject matter by the instructor, as well as the beliefs or inherent bias the instructor may have about the students (Hockings, 2011). Our identity as instructors is underpinned by a combination of our previous experiences with students, personal value systems, institutional and organizational culture, and the context within which we work. In addition, sociological and psychological factors, such as our personal approach or philosophy of teaching also contribute to how we construct our learning environments. Furthermore, there is often little time to get to know students individually, particularly with time constraints and increasing class sizes. In other words, there are aspects to creating the ideal classroom environment that are well-within the control of the instructor, while some less so. To begin construction of a safe learning space for students starts with the instructor’s willingness to practice personal reflexivity, and allowing instructors to (re)consider multiple viewpoints and challenge any inherent biases we ourselves may hold (Bosher & Pharris, 2009). Ultimately, this helps in promoting relational interactions with students.

From the student perspective

Creating a safe space in the classroom is not about making the students comfortable or creating an environment that is conflict-free (Holley & Steiner, 2005). Of equal importance is also defining a safe space from a student perspective; otherwise, the instructor risks creating a classroom environment they believe will support an honest dialogue and participation, but from the viewpoint of the student, does not (Holley & Steiner, 2005). Likewise, what may be perceived as safe to one student may contrast with another students’ perception of safety.

Creating a safe learning space can begin with something as simple as learning the names of students and their correct pronunciation, to more complex strategies such as engaging in reflective instructional practices. The simple act of learning student names with the correct pronunciation translates to the recognition of that person as an individual. Setting ground rules at the outset, where the expectations of mutual respect and reciprocity are understood and agreed to by all is key; clear expectations for both the classroom environment and course outcomes allows students to participate in their learning with an unambiguous understanding of how they can achieve success in their program area. Moreover, being explicit with expectations dramatically decreases student anxiety, while simultaneously increasing their self-confidence and overall success (Bosher & Pharris, 2009).

Ultimately, affirming students’ intelligence and giving them permission to reach whatever outcome they have imagined for themselves is vital; there is an element of vulnerability in letting go of previous narratives that students may bring with them to the classroom, however, for authentic learning to begin, this starts with an openness to seeing the world from the perspective of the other. When the classroom is a safe space where all who enter feel seen, valued, and important, we can contribute to creating health and human service graduates who are grounded in their awareness and understanding of both themselves and the context around them, and work towards shaping a more inclusive system overall. 

Ashley Goddard holds a bachelor of science in nursing from Vancouver Island University and master of arts in counselling psychology through Yorkville University. Goddard has been working as a registered nurse for over 10 years practicing in both clinical and educational settings. Currently, Goddard works as the program chair for the Health Care Aide program at Bow Valley College in Calgary, Alberta.  

Ashley Holloway holds a master of public health through the University of Liverpool, a graduate diploma in global leadership from Royal Roads University, and has been a practicing Licensed Practical Nurse for over 15 years with both clinical and education experience. Holloway has worked internationally in low-resource settings, as well as in Canada’s Arctic. She currently works as faculty in the Health and Human Services Management program and Bow Valley College in Calgary, Alberta. 


Bosher, S. D., & Pharris, M. D. (2009). Transforming nursing education: The culturally inclusive environment. Springer.

Flensner, K. & Von der Lippe, M. (2019). Being safe from what and being safe from whom? A critical discussion on the conceptual metaphor of ‘safe space’. Intercultural Education. 30:3, 275-288. Doi: 10.1080/14675986.2019.1540102

Hockings, C. (2011). Hearing voices, creating spaces: the craft of the “artisan teacher” in a mass higher education system. Critical Studies in Education, 52(2), 191–205. https://doi-org.bowvalley.idm.oclc.org/10.1080/17508487.2011.572831

Holley, L. C., & Steiner, S. (2005). Safe space: Student perspectives on classroom environment. Journal of Social Work Education, 41(1), 49–64. https://doi-org.bowvalley.idm.oclc.org/10.5175/JSWE.2005.200300343