Teaching & Learning


Creating safe spaces for students in the classroom

Providing a safe space for students to grow and learn where they feel their voice is heard has a large impact on their learning and well-being. This guide contains tips on how to create this space.

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27 April 2020

Holley and Steiner (2005) propose a safe space is:

“The metaphor of the classroom as a ‘safe space’ has emerged as a description of a classroom climate that allows students to feel secure enough to take risks, honestly express their views and share and explore their knowledge, attitudes and behaviours. 

Safety in this sense does not refer to physical safety. Instead classroom safe space refers to protection from psychological or emotional harm…

Being safe is not the same as being comfortable. To grow and learn, students must confront issues that make them uncomfortable and force them to struggle with who they are and what they believe.” (p.50)

What are microaggressions?

Sue et al. (2007) define microaggressions as:

“are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of colour.” (p.271)

Some examples of microaggressions include:

  • Inappropriate jokes
  • Stereotyping
  • Exclusion from groups and/or being dismissed or ignored
  • Not learning names
  • Denial of racial reality

Whilst microaggressions are typically subtle and interpersonal, macroaggressions are often overt and occur at a systemic level.

Understanding race and racism in higher education

Warmington (2018) states:

“The greatest barrier to addressing race equality in higher education is academia’s refusal to regard race as a legitimate object of scrutiny, either in scholarship or policy. Consequently, there is little recognition of the role played by universities in (re)producing racial injustice.” 

It is important to recognise and address the ways in which we as individuals, as well as an institution, ‘contribute to academia’s racialised culture and practices’ (Warmington, 2018). 

This is explored in detail in Arday and Mirza’s (2018) work, Dismantling Race in Higher Education. The book contains a collection of essays which explore the ideology of whiteness and the roots of structural racism in the academy.

Understanding the decolonise movement

There are increasing calls to decolonise the university and curriculum across the sector. 

Although evidence of inclusive practice is clear, for example, the diversification of reading lists, decolonising extends beyond these practices in isolation. 

Whilst there is no consensus regarding a definition of decolonising in an educational context, Begum and Saini (2019) propose:

“decolonisation is crucial because, unlike diversification, it specifically acknowledges the inherent power relations in the production and dissemination of knowledge, and seeks to destabilise these” (p.198)

Why is creating a safe learning environment important?

Racial microaggressions have an adverse impact on students’ self-esteem and well-being.

Nadal et al. (2014) found that racial microaggressions negatively affect students’ mental health. 

Their results showed that microaggressions that occur in educational and workplace environments are particularly harmful to victims’ self-esteem.

Our legal obligation

The Equality Act (2010) outlaws direct and indirect discrimination on grounds of protected characteristics. Therefore, we have a legal obligation to provide education in a non-discriminatory manner.

Creating a safe space is important to students and their perception of how much they learn

Holly and Steiner (2005) researched student perspectives on safe learning environments. 

They found that “the vast majority of students consider the creation of a safe space to be very or extremely important and that the majority of students perceive that they learn more in such a classroom” (p.61).

It affects students sense of belonging, which is associated with academic success and motivation

Research suggests that racial microaggressions can make students feel unwanted, unwelcome and reduce a sense of belonging (Hurtado and Carter, 1997; Smith et al., 2007). 

Fostering a strong sense of belonging is important as it is positively associated with academic success and motivation (Freeman, Anderman and Jensen, 2017). 


Tips for creating safe spaces

A selection of practical tips are provided to help you create safe and inclusive learning environments. 

Additional guidance, tips and resources are provided in the full PDF guide.

These include:

  1. Learn and pronounce students names correctly
  2. Address challenging behaviour head on and use these as teachable moments
  3. Use micro-affirmations
  4. Establish ground rules for interaction with your students at the beginning of the course
  5. Write a diversity and inclusion statement for your syllabus

1. Learn and pronounce students names correctly

Ambrose et al. (2010) state that “creating an effective learning climate often includes making students feel recognised as individuals, both by instructors and peers” (p.182). 

This can be achieved through learning students’ names and providing opportunities for students’ to learn each other’s names.

However, whilst learning names can reduce anonymity, pronouncing names correctly is also important. 

Research by Kohli and Solorzano (2011) shows that mispronouncing names can have a negative impact on the world view and emotional well-being of students. 

In order to help you learn names, consider asking students to state their name before they begin speaking, for example if they are responding to a question or comment, or use name tents (a folded piece of card with a students’ name on it). 

If you unsure how to pronounce a student’s name correctly, ask them directly and do not be afraid to ask more than once. 

Taking the time to learn and correctly pronounce a student’s name will not only make the individual student feel valued, but also provide an opportunity to model inclusive behaviour for all students and create a positive classroom climate (O’Brien et al., 2014).

2. Address challenging behaviour head on and use these as teachable moments

Do address any challenging behaviour head on, for example:

  • microaggressions
  • alienating behaviours or
  • attitudes etc. 

Research shows that students will take cues from teachers about how to react in tense moments, therefore, ignoring challenging behaviour can further marginalise students, and squander opportunities to promote mutual understanding and dispel stereotypes (Sue et al., 2009; Bergom et al., 2011).

Not dealing with challenging behaviour such as microaggressions, can have an adverse consequences for the individual responsible, which include lowering empathic ability and maintaining false illusion (Spanierman et al. 2006). 

Therefore, try to turn these difficult moments into teachable moments and opportunities for learning.

Ambrose et al. (2010) suggest that if tensions are running high, to “funnel those emotions into useful dialogue” for example, encourage students to take a different perspective using role play, or use a time out to allow students to write down their reactions, thoughts and feelings (p.184).

3. Use micro-affirmations

Rowe (2008) defines microaffirmations as “tiny acts of opening doors to opportunity, gestures of inclusion and caring, and graceful acts of listening” (p.46). 

Research by Estrada et al. (2019) found that students’ experiences of microaffirmations can positively contribute toward their integration into discipline communities’ (p.13). 

Moreover, studies have shown that ‘students with high levels of identity affirmation are more likely to have: 

  • higher self-esteem, self-concept, academic achievement; 
  • fewer mental health problems; and 
  • positively cope with and respond to everyday discrimination (Ghavami et al., 2011; Umaña-Taylor et al., 2008, as cited in Ellis et al. 2019, p.2).

Powell et al. (2013) condenses micro- affirmations into actions, which you can use in your everyday interactions with students.

These include:

Active listening

Focus on hearing clearly what is being said by students, and reinforcing this understanding through use of eye contact, nodding, open body language, summarising statements and asking questions to confirm understanding.

Affirm students emotions

If a student discloses an experience (positive or negative) to you, verbally acknowledge and validate students’ feelings regarding this experience. Express affirming statements with genuine sentiment and appropriate body language. 

Statements can be simple, such as “I appreciate this is frustrating...” “I can see you are really excited by this opportunity...”

If the experience is challenging, validate students’ feelings whilst guiding them to develop a productive perspective on their experience. 

Where appropriate, signpost students to services and identify relevant resources and options available to them. 

Recognise and validate students experiences

This does not mean you have to have agree with the student’s interpretation of the experience. 

Instead, focus on making it clear to the student that you understand the challenge of their experience, and that you are willing to help them consider productive ways of dealing with it. 

You can do this through using verbal, written and body language cues that show you care about what the student is saying and are interested in helping them.

4. Establish ground rules for interaction with your students at the beginning of the course

Research suggests that students must confront their biases and be aware of their values and beliefs in order to think critically and become culturally competent (Diller, 2004; Van Soest and Garcia, 2003). 

This can be facilitated in a number of ways, including classroom discussion. 

However, Holly and Steiner (2005) suggest that if students are to risk self-disclosure in discussion (i.e. expressing views that might not be readily accepted by others), the rewards of doing so (i.e. personal growth) must outweigh perceived consequences (i.e. possible embarrassment or ridicule). One way to facilitate and encourage open and honest discussion is through establishing ground rules with your class.

Ambrose et al. (2010) state that “ground rules can help to assure that peers are being inclusive and respectful in order to create an effective learning climate and promote students’ development” (p.183). 

Garibay (2015) suggest that if possible, instructors should dedicate a portion of the first session to develop ground rules with students, however, if this is not possible due to time constraints, ground rules should be included in the syllabus.

Example ground rules

Garibay (2015, p.9) provides the following suggestions for ground rules:

  • Respect the opinions of others in class discussions.
  • When you disagree, make sure that you use arguments to criticise the idea, not the person.
  • When offering an opinion or answering a question, support your assertion with arguments and evidence, not generalisations.
  • Avoid dominating class discussions.
  • Be open to the ideas and experiences of others in the class.
  • If you are nervous about speaking in class, remember that your perspective is valid and the class deserves to hear it.
  • Be conscious of body language. Nonverbal responses can also indicate disrespect.

5. Write a diversity and inclusion statement for your syllabus

The Harriet W. Sheridan Centre for Teaching and Learning (HWSCTL) at Brown suggest “including a diversity statement on your syllabus can set the tone for your classroom environment. It shows students that you value and respect difference in intellectual exchange and are aware of current campus conversations surrounding diversity.”

Tips on how to write a diversity statement, as well as more examples are available from Yale’s Poorvu Centre for Teaching and Learning

Example diversity statements

From the University of Iowa College of Education 
“Respect for Diversity: It is my intent that students from all diverse backgrounds and perspectives be well served by this course, that students’ learning needs be addressed both in and out of class, and that the diversity that students bring to this class be viewed as a resource, strength and benefit.

It is my intent to present materials and activities that are respectful of diversity: gender, sexuality, disability, age, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, race, and culture. 

Your suggestions are encouraged and appreciated. Please let me know ways to improve the effectiveness of the course for you personally or for other students or student groups. 
In addition, if any of our class meetings conflict with your religious events, please let me know so that we can make arrangements for you.”

From Monica Linden, Neuroscience, Brown University
“In an ideal world, science would be objective. However, much of science is subjective and is historically built on a small subset of privileged voices. 

I acknowledge that the readings for this course, including the course reader and BCP were authored by white men. 

Furthermore, the course often focuses on historically important neuroscience experiments which were mostly conducted by white men.

Recent edits to the course reader were undertaken by both myself and some students who do not identify as white men. 

However, I acknowledge that it is possible that there may be both overt and covert biases in the material due to the lens with which it was written, even though the material is primarily of a scientific nature.
Integrating a diverse set of experiences is important for a more comprehensive understanding of science. Please contact me (in person or electronically) or submit anonymous feedback if you have any suggestions to improve the quality of the course materials….”


The student perspective

Views from UCL students

“Racial discrimination is subtle, in the sense that it’s not explicit, but rather the way lecturers and students word things, this can come across as offensive for a person of a minority background.” UCL’s Race Equality Charter (REC) Student Survey 

“Discrimination often occurs in a very subtle way... people who do it, may not notice it. The way teachers for example sometimes refer to “the Chinese people” or “the Indian people” etc. in a lecture, just because of physical appearances.” REC Student Survey

“Teaching staff poke fun at international students – knowing they will not get the joke.” Challenge Consultancy. focus group

“From blatant comments to a lot of microaggressions and subtle racism from peers. None gets addressed because the majority of lecturers and seminar tutors are also White. Therefore, either unable to recognise it or have an unwillingness to do so.” REC Student Survey

“Whilst I feel that race and ethnicity is discussed in academic discussions, I find it is only ever briefly brushed past or not spoken about explicitly enough… This often gives the impression that issues of race and ethnicity are outside the norm, that they are in the peripheries of what is important as opposed to central to many peoples’ life experiences alongside how many issues are navigated in our world.” REC Student Survey

Views from other students in the sector

“Nicknames have to be adopted by lecturers for minority students for whom their names are deemed too difficult. Often this takes place initially when a lecturer screws their face upon seeing an ‘ethnic’ name on the register.” Tackling racial harassment: Universities challenged, Equality and Human Rights Commission

“A lecturer commenting about people speaking in ‘difficult’ accents – it made me feel selfconscious about the way I speak. I feel that in the beginning of my course, I was not very sensitive towards microaggressions and would a lot of the time just blame it on myself and thus resulted in me feeling less able than my white peers.” Insider-Outsider, The Role of Race in Shaping the Experiences of Black and Minority Ethnic Students at Goldsmiths

“My teacher ignored me and went round the class asking everyone in order questions, when she got to me she skipped past me and asked the person next to me instead (I was the only BME person in the class). She also never knew my name and just said “you” or point at me, whilst she knew everybody else’s name.” Degrees of Freedom, SOAS 

“Most of the time it’s in the way teachers talk to you, their body language, their demeanour. They’ll use certain phrases that they wouldn’t use with your Caucasian peers. There is a change in the attitude when they address you. And you can feel it.” Tackling racial harassment: Universities challenged, Equality and Human Rights Commission


A full list of resources is available in the full PDF guide.

Resources to help close the awarding gap on the project website also has many more resources and further reading.

This guide has been produced by the BAME Awarding Gap Project for the UCL Arena Centre for Research-based Education toolkits. You are welcome to use this guide if you are from another educational facility, but you must credit the project.