I’ve been excited about writing this post since beginning this series on Creating Safety and glad to finally dive into one of my favorite topics: the impact physical spaces have on our emotional wellbeing and ability to self-regulate. Such calming spaces are an important element of a child’s emotional “Safety Plan”, and can be both stationary or portable (with many tools accessible on the go).
I first started exploring the concept of Safe Places during my time as a school-based mental health therapist at a PreK-8 school in Portland, OR, where I observed students the need for kiddos to connect with and verbalize their emotional states through accessible tools that could transform their upset (sadness, anger, worry) into self-regulation and a return to receptive learning.
I was inspired by Dr. Becky Bailey’s Conscious Discipline approach to Safe Places, which enlists the whole classroom and school community in shifting the paradigm from punitive to restorative discipline, beginning with adults adapting their responses to greet the current brain state of the child and target their responses accordingly. Teachers would ask themselves, “Is this student having a fight, flight or freeze (Survival Brain) response? Or making a bid for connection from the Limbic (emotional) System? Or ready to problem solve from the Executive Functioning part of the brain?” Then respond with various skills outlined by Conscious Discipline that align with the particular brain state’s needs.
The goal is to invite children to notice when their strong feelings increase and choose to respond to them in a safe and appropriate manner using the Safe Place.
As students learn to accept their feelings and connect with them, the classroom as a whole becomes a safer place for all to experience the emotional highs and lows of a typical school day that may interfere with learning. A Safe Place creates a norm that there are no “bad students” or “wrong feelings”, instead offering a zone that children self-elect to visit when they need to push the reset button or take a few moments for themselves to breathe during the busy classroom flow. Time and time again, I witnessed students feeling empowered by these spaces, which were available not only in classrooms, but in common areas such as the cafeteria, counseling offices, near the gym and even in the staff break room. Students knew what expect through consistent visual cues, sensory soothing and photos of important people in their lives.
Some parents began taking interest in the Safe Places in the classrooms and the positive impact they were having on their kiddos’ learning. They’d ask me to guide them in setting one up at home and we would begin tailoring the components to their unique child.
I loved this building process so much. It served as a time for parents to reflect on the needs and strengths of their child, and creatively engage them in creating their Safe Place (which they could name themselves!) to visit while at home. Children enjoyed teaching their parents about belly breathing and befriending their feelings — wisdom we can all use reminders of — and parents would then set up Safe Places of their own with items oriented toward adults. The ripple effects were felt far and wide.
What should your child’s Safe Place include?
There’s no one right way to build one! They work best when they can include a variety of things that resonate with your unique child.
* A chair, beanbag, throw rug or pillow to serve as the base. A tent to reduce sensory stimulation may also be helpful.
* Fill the space with tools that correspond with the 5 Senses or other activities that support self-regulation (or co-regulation, as you are welcome and encouraged to join your child in their special place as needed to support them in managing their feelings).
- Smell – Aromatherapy, scented pillow, lotion, scratch and sniff stickers
- Sight – Visual cues (pictures of breathing icons or relaxation prompt cards, such as these from Conscious Discipline or these from Slumberkins’ “Comfort Corner” collection), pictures of nature or something peaceful), sensory glitter bottle, kaleidoscope, small mirror to check in with facial expression.
- Sound – Noise-cancelling headphones, recording of favorite song, calming nature sounds, classical music, or guided visualization, and quiet chimes
- Touch — Hoberman sphere (ie, breathing ball), thinking puddy, pillow, weighted blanket, stress ball, fabric, a special lovey to connect with (which may also represent an important person in your child’s life).
- Taste — Gum or snacks with different textures, chewable jewelry, water bottle with bite valve
* Provide options for creative expression (writing/drawing) with notebooks or coloring materials (mandalas, coloring pages). May also include children’s books such as Visiting Feelings, In My Heart, I Love You, Monster, Listening to my Body, or The Way I Feel that normalize the emotional experience and offer a way to externalize feelings in order to better explore them.
Routines to incorporate in the creation of your Safe Place:
- Create an “I feel” picture book by asking your child to make faces of various feelings. Then print the photos or post them on the wall (along with some photos of special family and friends in the child’s life) so your child may identify their current emotional state through facial recognition.
- Practice breathing together and create your own unique belly breaths with corresponding motions. Kiddos love making up silly breaths and teaching adults
- Use the tools with your child by role-playing in the special place, or taking time to connect there throughout the day. After all, every feeling is welcome in this cozy place, and you can visit it with your child even when they are not feeling upset. The more comfortable and cozy the child feels in the space, the safer it will be for he or she to self-regulate there.
- Remember, this is not a Time-Out place! It’s important children hear the message that they are capable of attending to their emotional needs and can enlist adults and tools for support, without the association of punishment. You can, however, offer a visit to the Safe Place or remind a child that it’s available if it seems like their body could use some calming (ie, arriving home from the school day or during other transitions). You may also choose to model its use during moments when you need a dose of self-regulation. 🙂 Offering a “Time-In” to connect and co-regulate with items available can be a wonderful part of the routine.
I recently created a toddler-version of a Safe Place for my daughter using Slumberkins creatures and Comfort Corner visual tools, a teepee we built, as well as other materials I’ve used over the years in my therapy office. We are enjoying using it together multiple times a day for reading, relaxation and calming together: