The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Fostering a sense of safety in higher education

by Lauren McAllister, Luke Ward, and Lauren Young

From left to right: Lauren Young, Lauren McAllister, and Luke Ward

As three lecturers who have taught on a postgraduate course for several years that covers topics around race, gender, identities, parenting, development, disabilities, mental health, wellbeing, and the associated experiences of managing these oppressive and regulatory discourses – we began to question how we can keep ourselves, and our students ‘safe’. We had reflected that we were not talking about a physical sense of safety here, but rather a felt sense of feeling understood, or perhaps even contained.

Having spoken to colleagues and other lecturers who similarly teach some topics that may be deemed ‘challenging’ or ‘sensitive’, we found that there was very little agreement with regards to how to approach some of these topics and discussions.

What does it mean to feel ‘safe’ within the higher education classroom?

Historically, this idea of a feeling of being ‘safe’ derived from feminist movements where a physical space was created for like-minded individuals to meet and explore their experiences (Flesner and Von Der Lippe, 2019). Within UK universities, safe space is also explored in the context of addressing sexual violence, harassment and discrimination (see: Anker and Von der Lippe, 2018;, 2022).  Research which did explore safety in the context of a relational sense in the classroom, either positioned the achievement of safety as unrealistic (Du Preez, 2012) or as necessary to ensure both educators and students feel comfortable unpacking difficult dialogues (Nolan and Roberts, 2021). Despite this discrepancy, there was a general agreement that lecturers felt anxious and ill-equipped when teaching sensitive/contested/difficult topics – often leading to them avoiding or minimising engagement in the teaching of such topics (Sue et al, 2010; Warde et al, 2022). We also noted that there was not a clear sense of agreement with regards to what is considered ‘sensitive’ in teaching. In fact, some pedagogical researchers argue that students experience topics differently, and assuming students homogenously feel safe fails to consider this diversity (Barrett, 2010).

As a result, we felt we had several core unanswered questions which drove our research, including: how then as educators do we manage the complexity of experiences, when topics are differently experienced? How do we balance our own anxieties around teaching topics that are differently experienced, and morally/ethically ensuring are students are feeling ‘safe’? And finally, are we as educators responsible for this management of the classroom space?

Our research: What did we do and what did we find?

Our research used collaborative methods to explore both students’ and lecturers’ experiences of ‘safety’ within the HE classroom. We conducted our project in four clear stages to ensure that lived experience was at the heart of any recommendations we established.

Firstly, we conducted five focus groups with students, unpacking the notion of safety and jointly creating a vignette which would be used to scaffold the lecturers’ focus group discussions. We then conducted four lecturer focus groups in which we similarly explored this notion of safety, before using the collaboratively created vignette. This vignette was presented in four stages, with discussion encouraged at each stage. The vignette anchored discussions and enabled lecturers to explore how they prepared for difficult topics; the management of an in-class disclosure; the impact of a dominant voice; and finally, how they end their sessions. Following the focus groups, both groups were thematically analysed separately, before themes were established across the groups, with the support of two students from the student focus groups. The final stage of the project was then to establish some useable recommendations in the form of a workbook/resource for lecturers, which was similarly created with the support of students.

Within the focus groups we found that both the students and the lecturers focused less on whether a topic was deemed ‘sensitive’ or not, and more so on the space ‘between’. Students for example talked about the need to feel heard, the trust between the group and the worry about how their contributions could be perceived. Lecturers noted the impossibility of being able to prepare students for challenging discussions, and many explored the need for students to feel uncomfortable and uncontained, as part of their learning.

Our findings raised two core areas of focus which we used as basis for the development of our workbook: the development of the foundation of relational trust, and the scaffolding of discussions. Building on scholars who positioned relationality as core to teaching and learning (Hobson and Morrison-Saunders, 2013), we developed the concept of ‘relational trust’. We conceptualised relational trust as this shared or mutual understanding between all members of the group (students and lecturers), of an expectation of disagreement, misunderstanding and challenge. We also recognised that this foundation was not a set or established entity, rather it was relationally created and needing to be continually nurtured through considered teaching and learning activities/experiences. In the implementation of our findings, we therefore began to focus less on the framing of a particular topic (ie as inherently safe, or not), and more so on ways through which conversations could be scaffolded within our teaching.

Ok, but what can I ‘take away’ from this and use within my teaching?

Based on the discussions with the students and staff, we can make several usable recommendations to support educators:

  1. Development of a classroom agreement: Firstly, we explored the importance of this foundation of relational trust, whilst also acknowledging that this foundation is never truly ‘set’ or done – rather it is something that needs to be continually nurtured (and revisited). Lecturers and students explored the benefits of a ‘class contract’ during the induction of a new group, whilst also acknowledging some key barriers to the effectiveness of this contract. We explored the importance of needing to revisit this class contract, acknowledging that this relational trust changes with the introduction of new members to the group, changes in topic, general changes in dynamic etc.
  2. Clear expectations of roles: Both lecturers and students lacked clarity with regards to the role of the lecturer – and in turn, the student – in the classroom space. In particular, there was a clear blurring of expectation of what was expected of the lecturer when engaging in discussions that may be considered challenging.  Lecturers generally have multiple roles within higher education, but our findings suggest there is an expectation for lecturers always to fulfil all these roles within the classroom, and that lecturer roles are not neatly compartmentalised into ‘teaching’, ‘module coordination’, ‘office hours’, ‘dissertation supervision’, ‘personal academic tutor sessions’ etc. Therefore, we explored the importance of having a discussion/activity where you actively engage with your students, considering the different expectations of the student, lecturer, and other facilities – to ensure that there is a mutual and shared understanding of roles.
  3. Scaffolding of discussions: Using ecological systems theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1992) and trauma-informed pedagogical practices (Carello and Butler, 2013; Dana, 2018; Perry and Hambrick, 2008), as a basis, we recognised the multiple layers of comfort and safety and how these could be scaffolded within classroom discussions (see Figure 1). We have therefore provided a framework below through which lecturers can frame their discussions, enabling students to contribute and be heard in spaces that gradually feel more comfortable, negotiating possible language and elements of disclosure. For this activity, it is useful to consider an element of teaching, eg a core topic, an activity, discussion, skills practice, and reflect on/plan out how this might look, starting at the ‘individually’ zone and working your way towards ‘wider group/class’. For example, the activity might be a discussion point on ‘what childhood means to you’, which you may then ask students to (1) reflect on individually for a few minutes, and note this down on a post-it, before then (2) discussing this with the person next to them, noting areas of similarity and difference. Later, the students are then tasked with (3) forming small groups and assigning a particular developmental stage, asking them to mind-map the main themes of childhood for particular developmental stages. Before then (4) bringing the class together, asking each group, in turn, to share their discussions, starting with the group who was assigned the youngest developmental stage, working up to early adulthood, to produce a co-constructed developmental trajectory.

Figure 1: Zones of Comfort

Four circles all within each other showing how a task can gradually include more people (individual, pairs, small groups, and wider group)

Beyond these useable recommendations, we also argue that there needs to be more of a systemic shift within the university culture where work that involves caring for students needs is often undervalued or unseen (Baker et al, 2021). For example, some universities do not provide hours for staff to prepare and undertake course inductions which promote this relational trust, nor are they given time throughout the course delivery to consider activities that purposefully consider inter-class relationships.

Want to hear more? You can find us on Twitter: @Lauren8McA, @Lukewrd, @Laurenyoungcbt

Dr Lauren McAllister is a senior lecturer and programme lead for the MSc Child and Adolescent Mental Health course at the University of Northampton.

Dr Luke Ward is a lecturer in child and adolescent mental health and a registered therapist working with children, young people, and families who have experienced trauma.

Lauren Young is a lecturer in child and adolescent mental health, a registered cognitive behavioural therapist, and a registered children’s nurse.


Anker, T and Von der Lippe, M (2018) ‘Controversial issues in religious education: How teachers deal with terrorism in their teaching’ in Schweitzer, F and Boschki, R (eds) Researching religious education: classroom processes and outcomes  Waxmann Verlag GmbH

Bronfenbrenner, U (1992) Ecological systems theory Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Dana, D (2018) The Polyvagal theory in therapy: Engaging the rhythm of regulation WW Norton & Company

Perry, BD and Hambrick, EP (2008) ‘The neurosequential model of therapeutics’ Reclaiming children and youth 17(3): 38-43