Creating a Safe and Welcoming Classroom for All

Creating a safe and welcoming classroom is a goal for most K-12 educators as well as those in higher ed. As health educators, we should model this environment for all teachers throughout our schools.

In our health education classrooms, we discuss issues that are controversial and may be personal to many of our students.

The big question is: How do we, as health educators, create a safe and welcoming #healthed classroom?

SHAPE America’s November #SHAPEHealthEd Twitter Chat answered that question and more!

SHAPE Twitter Chat Promo - Creating a Safe and Welcoming Classroom for All

Here are some of the great ideas, tips and resources that were shared by our #SHAPEHealthEd Twitter Chat panelists and chat participants:

Q1: What can you do at the beginning of the school year to ensure all students feel welcome in your classroom?

  • We do a class “korowai,” which in Maori means cloak. We develop a protective cloak of concepts, values and guidelines that protect ALL students. We ask, “What are some things that might contribute to social well-being in our class?” We list some of those things on the board, give each student two paper feathers and ask them to put down qualities they hope to demonstrate to enhance the social well-being of the class. We then take everyone’s feathers and weave them together to make a protective cloak. In so doing, the students develop their own guidelines for the class. This activity outline may help.
  • Have students introduce themselves with their preferred name (and pronunciation) and pronouns (if they feel they are able). Don’t require students to share pronouns! Make time for building community within the learning space and for connections/relationships between the teacher and student.
  • I create a “Wonder Wall” where students feel valued and heard, also allowing them to ask questions throughout the year. We also create our “Essential Agreements” together, helping them feel included in the decision-making.
A "Wonder Wall" with student questions to the teacher about desired lessons written in Post-It notes

Q2: What state laws protect students from being discriminated against based on gender identity and sexual orientation?

  • Here are some laws that protect children from discrimination in California public schools: Fair Education Act SB 48, Safe Schools AB 827, Seth’s Law AB 9, School Success & Opportunity Act AB 1266, CHYA AB 329, and EC 51933.
  • Schools should develop local policies that specifically protect students based on orientation, identity and expression.
  • If students are being discriminated against in Illinois, they can call the State of Illinois Sexual Harassment and Discrimination Helpline at (877) 236-7703.

Q3: What can schools do to create a positive school culture that is inclusive for all students?

  • The first thing that should be done is to create a “Rainbow Group,” a diversity group that works toward making the school explicitly safe for LGBTQ & diverse students. Here is an amazing resource on this developed by @HayleyMcGlashan.
  • Schools need to develop explicit curriculum policies that include underlying values and theories that promote critical thinking (from a sociological sense) and allow students to question taken-for-granted truths.
  • Schools should ensure their staff and curriculum materials represent the students they serve. Everyone should see themselves reflected in the academic material and in the staff.
  • Libraries should offer diverse reading material for students and offer student clubs such as GSAs and Black Student Unions. Pride flags should be on proud display, as long as staff has been properly trained and resourced in supporting LGBTQ+ young people. 

Q4: What inclusive language supports all students in the classroom?

  • For introductions never assume someone’s pronouns. When you introduce yourself, share your name and the pronouns you prefer. Use terms like “folks,” “everybody” or “y’all” instead of “boys and girls,” “guys” or ladies and gentlemen.” Here is a “Get to Know You” form.
  • It would be interesting to see what students feel is inclusive and how they would define it.
  • Compassion and respect are the most important elements to support all students. Just using gender-neutral names and the word “partner” does not make a curriculum inclusive.

Q5: How should an educator respond to students that feel negatively about a person who is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in the classroom?

  • Many people think we should just “shut this down.” I disagree. I recognize this is a polemic statement. I think we need to use these types of events as learning opportunities to: 1) recognize they do not fear the person, but rather they fear a concept (difference in gender or sexuality); and 2) I think this provides an ample opportunity for that person to reflect on why they feel that way. Many times it comes back to their own morals/beliefs system which have been influenced through socializing norms.
  • Educators need to address EVERY incident of bullying and hateful language! They need to stop the behavior, name why it is not acceptable, and explain any school policies that prohibit that behavior.
  • Refer to the group agreements you set out with each class at the start of the year and review the promises they made to one another, which includes treating people with respect. Insist that in the school and in your classroom in particular, every student gets to show up as their full selves and in order to do that, no aspect of anyone’s identity or humanity is up for debate.

Q6: Other than sex education, what other topics can you make sure all students are represented in your class narratives? Share examples.

  • When discussing relationships in health education, use the term partner(s) and discuss all types of relationships. During mental health, highlight the need to support #LGBTQ mental health. Here is a video by one of my students.
  • Inclusive #sexed is anti-oppressive sex education. If you teach HIV prevention, include a day on the history of HIV stigma, lack of government response, and ACT UP activism that finally made the U.S. government fund research, diagnostics, and treatment.
  • If you talk about the inaccuracy of mainstream porn, highlight the violence and stereotypes that porn often features, then invite young people to contextualize that with larger conversations about digital ethics and responsible internet usage.

Q7: When teaching sexual health how do you ensure your curriculum is medically accurate and inclusive for all students? Share lessons.

  • I feel when health education teachers use the term “medically accurate,” it’s due to their fears of not being valued in schools. They may think that aligning their work to a biomedicine provides cultural capital. Instead, I think #healthed should be valued for what it is, not because of its tangential links to the biomed community. There’s evidence that teaching #sexed using a biomedical model is ineffective, filled with prejudices, and does not affect #publichealth. One of the examples I give is likening sex ed to drivers’ ed. We don’t teach students the biomechanical operations of the car. We teach them the role of the car and driver in society, rules of the road, and laws that work to protect drivers, citizens and the public.
  • Check your facts on reliable websites; use resources developed by organizations that have expertise in LGBT issues; ask students for feedback; hire an organization or professional to review your curriculum and materials.
  • Read research. Keep up to date on the research regarding contraception efficacy/access, #HIV testing/treatment, #STI rates, program efficacy, drug/alcohol use, new state laws, and the #YRBS.
  • Use research to set curriculum priorities. Advocate to attend professional development and purchase curriculum supplements. Make sure your students have a mechanism to give you feedback on your activities — they’re more than happy to tell you what works and what doesn’t.
  • Advocates for Youth’s “3 Rs” curriculum is free and great!

Q8: What are your go-to resources that can support an inclusive school? Resources for teachers? Students?

Many thanks to all the teachers who shared their knowledge and resources on this Twitter Chat! You can find the complete transcript here.

Please join us for our next chat — Responding to Difficult Questions in #healthed — which will be held on Monday, December 16 at 9 p.m. Eastern. Just log onto Twitter and follow the hashtag #SHAPEHealthEd. Hope to see everyone there!

Additional Resources

Chad Dauphin

Chad Dauphin is a health educator at Adlai E. Stevenson High School, where he served as associate athletic director from 2006-2017. He has presented at several state and national conferences on the topics of health education and athletics and served on the SHAPE America Health Education Council. Chad is currently chair of the #SHAPEHealthEd Twitter Chat task force. He can be reached at