Creating Safe Spaces - Information Sciences Institute

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					              Creating a Safe Space to Discuss Emotionally-Charged Literature
                                 Judi Miller, LCSW, PPSC

Ground rules for Open Discussion
Trust is the foundation of risk-taking. If students are to discuss thoughts, feelings, and beliefs
about sensitive topics, students must feel that their peers and their teacher will be compassionate
and non-judgmental. Engage in an activity in which you create and model ground rules within
the classroom setting.

    o   Respect Others: You will hear ideas that may be new or different, and opinions with
        which you may disagree. Try to take in new information without judgment and to keep
        an open mind. Make sure that your words and body language reflect a respectful attitude
        toward others. Learn by listening to others. (No put-downs; No name-calling).
    o   Speak From the "I": Speak from your own personal experiences and do not judge the
        thoughts or experiences of others. Use I-statements such as "I feel…" or "In my
    o   Respect Confidentiality: Please make sure that everything said in the room stays in the
        room. When sharing personal anecdotes, make sure to avoid using the real names of other
        people. {Remind students of your legal mandate to report suspected child abuse or
        neglect and let them know if they disclose information that concerns you, you will follow
        up with them about this.}
    o   Share "Air Time": While you are encouraged to express your ideas and opinions, help
        create a safe space in which everyone can speak. No one, however, is obligated to speak.
        "Passing" is okay.

Set the Stage
    o Normalize that this book may bring up many personal reactions, memories, and
        experiences, as most great literature does.
    o Reassure students that they do not have to share unless they feel comfortable.
    o Discuss how students handle(d) it when they have/had strong memories, connections, or
                      o Take a walk
                      o Write in journal
                      o Pick a fight
                      o Listen to music
                      o Put the book down
                      o Space out
                      o Smoke
     Reinforce positive coping strategies (perhaps make a list to post in room); use the
        literature to look at how different characters coped.
     Reinforce use of resources (friends, advisors, trusted teachers, parents, clergy, etc.) when
        overwhelmed or coping isn’t working.
     Debrief after discussion and give enough time for closure, reflection, and individual
     Help students avoid over-exposure and contain when students appear to be revealing
        more than what classmates may be able to handle, or more than what student may want
     Follow-up with students who reveal a great deal; they may feel shame or uncertainty
      Special Note: Be careful not to reveal too much of your own personal experience. While
       students sometimes appreciate feeling validated or joined by adults, it can also be
       frightening and unsettling to hear too much about difficulties that adults have had.
       Sometimes students will feel they should care for adults when they learn about their pain
       or trauma. Instead think about ways you can validate and normalize their experience
       more generally (i.e. “When people read this book they often feel sad about times when
       someone they love has left them.” Or “Many of my students have been sharing stories
       about violent experiences they have lived through. It’s frightening how often this
       happens, and what you guys have survived.”).

Experiences that May Be Triggered
   o Drug or Alcohol Addiction
   o Abuse (physical, sexual, emotional)
   o Neglect
   o Abandonment, Separation, Loss of Caregiver
   o Immigration
   o Depression
   o Family violence
   o Community Violence
   o Anxiety
   o Trauma
   o Loss

When to Follow-Up
  o When students appear highly withdrawn or highly agitated.
  o When students are especially acting out or distracting during class.
  o When students disclose highly traumatic or painful material.
  o When students indicate that they have never told anyone or they’ve never had support
       around this issue.

Who to Tell/What to Do
  o Discuss how student has coped.
  o Let them know you’ll be sharing this with advisor in order to help support student; See if
       they would like to go with you so that you can talk to advisor together.
  o Reassure student that they are not in trouble and have not done anything wrong. You are
       hoping to act in a way that helps the child have another place to talk about their
       experience, and to get some extra support. (You are not signing them up for
       counseling…so I just use the words “to see how your advisor or the counselor can help.”)
  o If student has revealed suspected child abuse or neglect, you’ll need to report; I also
       recommend sharing with advisor and with Pupil Personnel Counselor.

Any questions or concerns? Feel free to contact Judi Miller, LCSW, PPSC, at x322.

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