Promoting a Safe & Inclusive Learning Environment

We talk a lot about how to create safe places for the people we serve, but I also want us to consider how to create those safe environments for the people who attend our and your training events.

A big push in creating safe environments for people is becoming more and more trauma informed. As we learn more about how to best provide services in a way that is safe and engaging for the people we serve, the benefits become clear. Unfortunately, attention is not always paid to our staff members and there are a number of people who were traumatized during their own childhoods, and some of that trauma is rooted in their educational experiences. We need to make concerted efforts to make a safe space that is beneficial for our staff to learn in. Here are some ideas towards that goal:

Sometimes the physical layout of the room can have an impact. Classroom style may actually be a subtle reminder of unpleasant school experiences. We encourage a layout that is conducive to discussion and feedback such as a “U” shape as you set up your space. This allows everyone to see everyone else and is more likely to get people talking about your topics for discussion.

Right off the bat, start with introductions that will set an expectation for tolerance and inclusion by including your preferred pronouns (“My name is Nikki Wince and my pronouns are she/her”). You might even consider writing that on your name tent allowing others to potentially follow suit. Perhaps not everyone in your class will be comfortable stating their pronouns, but you might be surprised how safe that will make people in the LGBTQIA+ community feel just knowing that you, as an instructor, are sensitive to other’s preferences. People need to feel safe emotionally so to that end, celebrate diversity, expression and accomplishments. Do everything possible to make the space one that is nurturing to your group.

One way to start off your training experience is also to discuss expectations that people have of the course they are about to attend; expectations they have of other participants; and, expectations they have of you as an instructor. This is a great way to get a better understanding of what your audience hopes to accomplish during the training as well as discussing some areas where expectations differ. My favorite example of different expectations comes down to the idea of “punctual.” Most people agree that they want everyone to be punctual, however, the definitions of punctual vary by wide margins! For some people if you are less than 15 minutes early you’re late, and for others, even if you arrive after the start time as long as it’s not more than 15 minutes, it’s still close enough to “on time” to count as punctual. This is also an opportunity to explain the flow of the training event. When breaks will occur, how long lunch is going to last, etc. Sometimes I will have people indicate that their expectation is frequent breaks, long breaks, long lunches, and early dismissal. The reality is – not all of those things can happen! It’s better to get everyone on the same page so we all know what to expect from one another.

Recognize the expertise that your staff members bring to class. Some of our customers talk about the longevity within their agencies and it is vital to tap into the experiences and skills of members of your class. These might be folks who didn’t have the opportunity to attend college to get their degree, however, their years of service have still made them experts in their fields. Ask for (and be receptive to) the personal experiences of members of your audience. Don’t be judgemental about their contributions to your training environment. Encourage those stories and comments to the degree possible.

When it comes to psychological safety – ensure everyone trusts their ability to ask questions, take chances, give and receive feedback. Encourage that participation by thanking people for their input. An enthusiastic “yes!” can also go a long way towards validating participation. We have some people that ask everyone in their events to feel free to put notes on name tents during the breaks (“I loved that example you gave!” or “you are so friendly to everyone.”). Make people feel important in your classes. Try to remember specifics that you’ve learned about them and refer back to that (“you said your daughter had a ball game last night – how did that turn out?”). Remembering some of those details will definitely tell people that they are important enough for you to remember particulars.

Incorporate music whenever possible such as before class starts, during breaks, etc. Music reduces stress and anxiety and helps people regulate their emotions and improve focus. Create a playlist that touches on “feel good” types of music from multiple genres and age groups so it is more inclusive to your entire group.

Smile often! People will be focused on you as you are presenting information and smiling helps people feel safe and more at ease. Smiling also makes you more likable and can assist in building trusting, positive relationships, which is what The Mandt System is all about.

Stay calm – especially when things get hectic or stressful, as they so often do. Your demeanor will set the tone for the rest of the group in the way they respond to situations. One of my favorite things to say in my events is “if that’s the worst thing that happens to us today, we’re doing okay!” It’s just a little reminder that things aren’t so bad.

Make mistakes into learning opportunities. This applies to everything from questions or comments to the self study guides and all the way to the testing elements. When it comes to the self-study guides, if someone gives an answer that is not 100% correct, I like to say something to the effect of, “A and B are correct, yes. Did anyone get any other answers as well?” For the actual tests, I use a highlighter instead of a red pen (flashbacks to school homework, am I right?) and will tell people that “anything that is not yet 100% correct on your test has been highlighted. It might be a test question, it might be that you forgot to initial a page, or maybe the event number was left off.” This is a purposeful approach to avoid this idea that something is “wrong.”

Lastly, I know that when I ask current instructors what things they do in their own classrooms to create a feeling of safety, chocolate comes up often! Never underestimate the power of tasty treats!

We’d love to hear from you if there are other things you do to create safer learning environments for your schools or agencies as you provide Mandt training.

Nikki Wince – Director of Faculty Development

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