Creating Psychological Safety in Early Childhood

The May edition of the CCEI newsletter focuses on ways that program staff can create and maintain safe learning environments for young children.  We can all agree that this is the top priority of the early learning workforce.  Equally important, however, is the ability to create psychologically safe environments for children.

Dr. Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”  Dr. Edmondson’s work focused on adult working environments, but one could argue that teachers are unable to create psychologically safe environments for children if they work in environments that are psychologically unsafe.

Here are some statements presented by Dr. Edmondson that teams can reflect on as they begin to contemplate psychological safety in their environment:

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
  2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
  4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

Depending on your position within your organization, the answers to these questions may vary.  How program administrators feel may differ from the thoughts of the teaching staff.  New employees may feel differently than seasoned staff.  It may be a good exercise to present these questions as an anonymous survey to capture a true picture of how employees are feeling about the psychological safety of the work environment.

Only small shifts in language are necessary to adapt these statements to focus on how children experience psychological safety in the environment:

  1. When a child makes a mistake, it is seen as a learning opportunity rather than a reason for punishment.
  2. Children are encouraged to talk about their struggles and support is offered as they attempt to solve problems.
  3. All children and families are welcomed, affirmed, and valued.
  4. Children are encouraged to take risks, explore new materials, and express themselves.
  5. It is common for children to ask peers and adults for help.
  6. Children are learning new social and emotional skills every day. They are not acting out to hurt my feelings.
  7. Children feel safe to communicate their needs and share their interests and skills.

We encourage you to take some time to sit with these questions, either independently or with your coworkers.  The answers may not all be positive as you recognize opportunities to add elements of psychological safety to your learning environment. Create a plan to address situations with a new approach and slowly but surely, you will be actively creating a psychologically safe environment for children and your peers!

Here are some additional resources to help you on your journey: