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3 Ways to Support True Risk Taking in Your Classroom

Updated: Mar 20, 2021

Want to know a secret? It's kind of a big deal...

In this article, I'm revealing a huge pice of the Safe Space Method for creating Trauma-Supportive Classroom Environments!

So, grab your favorite notebook, or the notes app on your phone, and get ready for a practice shift that's going to lead to big change...

Have you ever realized how many risks you take each day?

  • Driving a car

  • Exercising

  • Investing your money

Now, think about your students' risk taking:

  • Starting karate lessons

  • Meeting a new friend

  • Saying “I’m sorry”

Okay, now think about your kids with trauma histories and the risks for them each day:

  • Walking into school

  • Speaking to an adult

  • Raising their hand

  • Asking for help

  • Sitting criss cross applesauce

  • Sharing information about their family

  • Fixing an incorrect answer

  • (I could go on and on...)

At first glance, you may not realize that each of those items is indeed a huge risk for students with a history of trauma.

What's the deal with risk-taking?

You see, we don’t always take the time to truly uncover the anxieties and fears underlying a behavior or lack-there-of in our classrooms.

If you’ve been around SST for a while, you probably heard me preaching that safety-->risk taking-->engagement.

I would shout it from the educational rooftops if I could (I can be pretty loud).

Vulnerability & Taking Risks

The thing about risk taking, it is inherently vulnerable.

The act of stepping outside our circle of comfort, perceived safety, and insulation is a tough one.

For those of us used to taking risks, we do so because we instinctually understand at our core, that the outcome will be okay.

If we interview for the job and don’t get it, we will still be okay. Another opportunity will come up, or we will stick with our current job a little longer.

If we take a risk to go to a dinner party at a new friend’s house (yes, I know we are still pandemic-ing, but stay with me here), we trust that even if we don’t hit it off, it will be okay.

For our students who have experienced trauma, they don’t get those “okay” moments.

For them, coming to school and taking off their jacket, or asking for help when they are unsure is a behemoth of a risk.

And that can be kind of frustrating to work with as a teacher, I get it.

So, what do we do about it?

We have to mitigate the risk for our students and we do this in three ways:

  1. Identifying the anxieties

  2. Teaching/recognizing risk taking

  3. Accommodating

Identifying the anxieties

Under every action we want our students to take, there are anxieties. When we dig below the surface and seek to uncover them, we can develop a plan to support them.

For example, a student might not be able to fix their errors on a writing assignment. This student may have anxiety and fear around being told they are wrong.

As soon as the teacher says, “we have to fix this,” it triggers their stress response system into thinking they’re unsafe. That they’ve just been exposed, that their narrative has been damaged.

Whatever may be happening internally, it’s a vulnerable act for this student to accept they were incorrect and go back in to fix it.

Let’s program for this!

We can create affirmations, anchoring phrases that support mistake-making.

We can teach self-compassion when we make errors.

We can have a conversation with the student and ask what they believe would best support them.

We can create a 2:1 rule. For every 2 errors the teacher sees, only 1 will be addressed.

We can get really creative here and try new things to address the fear of taking these risks.

Teach/Recognize Risk Taking

We have to explicitly teach and narrate what risk taking means by showing examples of big risks and small ones. By consistently identifying when students take risks, we connect the dots.

We can say something like...

“Wow, Sarah, you didn’t understand the directions, but you asked me for help. I know that can be really hard sometimes, but I’m proud of you for taking that risk. Now, I can help you work on it and you’ll know how to do it.”

In this way, we’re showcasing the student’s bravery in taking a risk, identifying that it’s safe to do so because we are going to help them, and highlighting what taking that risk leads to. In this case, it’s that the student will learn how to do something with help.


We won’t be able to uncover and support every anxiety directly.

In these cases, we must be flexible and create a feeling of emotional and physical safety within our classroom that will eventually lead to lessened anxiety and fear around taking a specific risk.

In the meantime, we have to accommodate for these instances.

For example, the student that refuses to take their jacket off at school. Even though every other student comes in and hangs up their coat, this student needs the accommodation of being allowed to wear it.

So, if there’s a rule in the “handbook” that says “no jackets on during class time,” or if it’s a pet-peeve of yours as a teacher, this student simply isn’t ready to remove their jacket. It could be regulating their nervous system, keeping them in a more relaxed, parasympathetic state, or it could just be their favorite item. Either way, we don’t have the power to assign what’s meaningful and not meaningful for our students or what is, or is not, anxiety-provoking.

We let the student wear the dang jacket! No one is harmed, no control is lost, everyone is supported.

That's how we acknowledge and integrate risk taking with our trauma affected students. That's how we build trust and move our students forward toward greater academic and social engagement.

I hope you found these 3 tips helpful in working through some risk-taking with your students.

I’d love to continue this conversation with you inside of The Trauma-Supportive Classroom Method. That’s where I show you how to implement the above strategies and more in creating a classroom environment full of safety, risk-taking, and engagement!

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