Attentiveness to the safety of the learner groupCreating a safe, inspiring learning environmentRecognises learners' needs and limitations as well as any changes in the situationUnderstanding and facilitating individual and group learning process

Thinking about safety

In the educational activities we often hear “safety first”, yet sometimes having a safety plan is not enough as many unplanned issues can happen when working with people. The physical safety that is connected to the venue and other aspects that can more or less be controlled or in some cases – avoided, is covered in the tool “Safety regulations”. This tool deals more with the aspects that are not written down in the regulations, but still you need to observe and anticipate.

Why did I choose this tool?

The safety often depends on the context and the topics that are or will be discussed. Therefore, there is no way of developing a complete list of what is safe of not safe for the group. This is the reason why I chose a few areas for you to reflect and brainstorm, what are the possible threats to safety and what can you do to ensure that participants go home in one piece physically and emotionally.

How does this apply to being a trainer? This applies to being a trainer in the most direct way that is possible. Broken (physically or emotionally) participants are no joy, especially if you want to do some training on the topic. Therefore, we need to be mindful and attentive to the safety of the group.

Main content:

Regarding the activities and methods, we need to divide the safety into physical and emotional. Physical safety is quite straight forward: is there a chance of injury? Do you know the physical and medical conditions of the participants? Are you planning to use any methods or activities that require extra attention to safety? The trainers who often use outdoor experiential learning methods first of all gather information about the physical well being of the participants, former traumas, injuries, pregnancy, allergies etc. and help the participant to evaluate their abilities to take part in the activity. Different types of safety regulations apply to concrete activities, so if you are choosing to do high ropes, low ropes, kayaking or any other sort of activity, revise your knowledge on it.

The methods that we are implementing inside, the “traditional”, “regular” methods also need to be critically evaluated. Look through the last programme that you have implemented and reflect on the behaviour of the participants. Write down the situations in which things went or could have easily gone wrong or you had to intervene. Consider physical safety so far: possibilities of falling, injuries, etc.

Now let’s move to emotional safety. Again, go through the programme and honestly reflect on how the safety of participants was (or wasn’t) ensured, what measures were taken and what were the consequences.

Emotional safety is no less important. During the process of choosing methods for the programme, critically evaluate the possible risks of the topics that you are discussing and the methods that you are choosing to use. The topics could be too sensitive, too challenging, etc. For this you need to know the background of the participants. As it is written in Compass: manual for human rights education with young people, “be aware of each person in the group and any sensitive emotions which might be triggered by a particular activity or by a particular part in a role-play or simulation. Make sure everyone feels safe and knows that they are at no time under any pressure to say or reveal anything about themselves that they do not feel comfortable with. Allow participants time to warm up before any activity and to wind down afterwards. Finally, remember to allow enough time for debriefing and discussion so that everyone feels that their opinion and participation is valued” (Compass).

What is also useful to think in terms of safety of the group is to know well the typical behaviours of the group and group dynamics stages according to Bruce Tuckman (you can doublecheck it in Donatas’ tools if you forgot). In my point of view, the first stages (forming and storming) are great to discuss the safety issues with the group and agree on what safety for this group will be. Emotional safety might be at risk as you or your group members still do not know what is OK to say and which topics require extra sensitivity. While in the norming stage you should be very much aware of the physical safety of the participants since the general excitement of the group and feeling indestructible. As Gailius et al. (2013) note, “it is important to be watchful and supervise the security of group members. Ideas grow sky-high in the confidence stage and they aren’t always safe. The group leader has to stop the group in time, if she/he sees that ideas are becoming dangerous. In this stage, group members get to know each other intensely. Life stories and plans are shared and skills of self-discovery as well as relationship clarification via feedback can now be the content of work with the group. Also, topics that require an atmosphere of confidence in the group (e.g. sexuality, fear, the meaning of life, death, belief and spirituality, etc.) might arise. In any case, the group decides on the topics. It is the time when group members are given increasingly more responsibility for what goes on in the group. In this confident stage, the group is very reluctant to accept new members. If a new member joins, in order to achieve his/her full integration into the group, the first two stages of group development should be repeated” (Gailius et al. 2013, 47)

Reflection questions:

  • When did you feel unsafe as a participant in a training activity? What was happening? What did you expect from the trainers, staff, other participants to do in order to feel safer?
  • What are the safety issues that you are facing most often when working with the groups? What helps (could help) you to deal with them better?
  • What do you consider “safe” and “unsafe” in an educational activity?
  • What are the main struggles for you when it comes to safety in the group?


How to apply it in everyday life:

Include the group into Thinking about Safety. At the beginning of the training programme, do an activity with the participants (for example “Walking on clouds” or any other that requires physical contact) and reflect not only on the group process, but also on the safety. Include reflection on safety in the programme and watch the consciousness rising.

Author of the article: Justina Garbauskaitė-Jakimovska

Justina Garbauskaitė-Jakimovska is a freelance educator and researcher in the field of non-formal learning and youth who also works in the teacher training programmes at Vilnius University in Lithuania. Favourite topics are facilitation of learning, personal and professional development. Justina is also a member of the Pool European Youth Researchers, her research interests are non-formal learning process, how learners experience and make sense out of it, the professional development of youth workers and trainers in the youth field. All of this combined = evidence based practices + practice informed research.

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Editor: Donatas Petkauskas

is professional supervisor, coach and experiential learning trainer, having more than 15 years of experience in consulting various organizations and individuals, creating and conducting training course on national and international levels. Donatas has extensive experience in non-formal education, training of youth workers and trainers. He is working in the field of non-formal education since 2003, since 2004 he is a member of trainers pool of Lithuanian National Agency (currently an alumni).

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Brander et al. (eds.) (2012). Compass: manual for human rights education with young peopleGailius et al. (2013). Handbook for people working with youth groups: Non-formal education practice in Lithuania

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