September is Suicide Prevention Month: The importance of emotional safety in schools

10 min read
September 1, 2022

What is emotional safety?

Have you ever been in an environment where you wanted to speak up about something important, but felt your message would not be well-received? According to the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments, emotional safety is “an experience in which one feels safe to express emotions, security, and confidence to take risks and feel challenged and excited to try something new.” 

In the school setting, students should feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, feelings, and emotions without fear of being ridiculed, judged, or disciplined. Educators need to set the tone and foster a safe school climate through education and guidance.

How emotional safety in the school setting can support suicide prevention

Creating an emotionally safe school environment can open the door for students to feel more comfortable sharing suicidal thoughts and life stressors. When educators are able to create relationships with students and open the door to emotional security within the school setting, students are more likely to seek help at school or through outside sources of support for their mental health needs and life challenges. 

In an interview with USC’s online MSW program,  Professor Ron Avi Astor states that “suicidal ideation is often thought of as an individual issue treated in counseling, but he believes that schools can help by addressing possible peer dynamics that may contribute to strong suicidal ideation. Because most youth attend school, this is an important environment to reach students about social and emotional learning and increase mental health literacy.”

How can teachers and schools support students’ emotional well-being and create an emotionally safe environment?

The key to making mental health education impactful and effective is to create emotional safety. Otherwise, that information may be lost or viewed as a requirement from the school and not an effort to show authentic care, support and concern for the students’ lives. Since educators are not typically trained mental health specialists, here are some quick tips that can promote a sense of belonging in the classroom and address challenges:

1. Help build emotional literacy daily- Empowering students can be a key component in creating an emotionally safe school setting. This can be accomplished by inviting students to be a part of problem-solving and planning, providing choices when possible, creating a consistent and predictable schedule and environment and setting a nonjudgmental and accepting school environment.

2. Create opportunities for creative expression- Using tools to foster expression can be a powerful, fun and effective way to introduce or encourage emotional safety. Whenever expressive outlets are perceived to be fun, it is a chance to increase our levels of dopamine. Here are a few examples of how educators can add expressive outlets in the school setting:

  • Create a sign, hand signal or identify an object that has an understood meaning for the classroom to eliminate verbal pressure and increase emotional expression
  •  Introduce a project using art, free-form journaling or role-playing to encourage emotional expression
  • Use ritual messaging at the beginning and/or end of each class that helps set the tone for emotional safety. A great example of this is a teacher on TikTok, Maddie Richardson (@themissrproject).  

3. Meet students where they are by reframing undesirable behaviors- When a student displays disruptive behaviors, the root cause can stem from many sources. This creates an opportunity to reframe that behavior instead of viewing the behavior as defiant, disrespectful or aggressive. “As Mona Delahooke explains, when adults fail to recognize that many behaviors represent the nervous system’s response to stress, we expend effort on techniques designed to correct the behaviors, such as compliance-based systems and reward-and-consequence systems.”

4. Be aware of the warning signs of a mental health crisis- Here are some important signs to be aware of in the school setting:

  • Changes in behavior, especially being sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks
  • Persistent difficulty with stillness or concentration, particularly when this behavior puts the student at-risk for harm to one’s self or harm to others
  • Sudden overwhelming fear that does not have a known source, sometimes accompanied by symptoms of rapid breathing or increased heart rate
  • Mood swings that are severe in nature and that cause unhealthy interactions with relationships

It is important to be aware of these warning signs and to alert the mental health counselor or professional in your school immediately if any of these signs are present. 


Dr. Dan Siegel notes, “a child’s nervous system has the capacity to function at the optimal level only when the child feels a sense of safety and belonging.” Keep this in mind as you are approaching how to best implement social and emotional learning and as you are trying to create an emotionally safe environment.

If you're looking for resources on promoting mental health literacy and creating or maintaining an emotionally safe environment, email Brain Health Bootcamp at

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