What is ‘safeguarding’ and why is it so important for U.S. students?

If students' social-emotional needs aren't met, neither are their academic needs
Curtis Linton
Curtis Linton

Safeguarding as an educational practice was established in the U.K. following the tragic death of a young elementary student due to neglect. Since that 2012 event, safeguarding has been implemented in all K-12 settings in the U.K., allowing schools to proactively engage, manage and address the many challenges, crises and traumas that students face.

With the stressors caused by isolation, anxiety and loss during the COVID-19 pandemic—an incredible amount of trauma for students in a short timeframe—safeguarding is more important than ever for students across the globe, including here in the U.S.

Schools, of course, have a basic responsibility to protect students from harm and ensure students are set up for success. Safeguarding addresses the non-academic barriers to learning, whether it’s bullying, sexual abuse, racism, hunger, an unstable home life, threats to safety, lack of access to technology and other obstacles.

However, without a proactive strategy to tackle non-academic concerns, schools tend to implement reactive responses to the challenges that students show up with each school day. Safeguarding equips educators and the adults with the tools and expertise they need to manage the diverse obstacles and traumas a child might face—ensuring concerns are addressed and students’ well-being and mental health is top of mind.

This is safeguarding—proactively and equitably supporting a student within their own unique needs in order that the student can stay engaged and thrive in their learning. After all, if students’ social-emotional needs aren’t met, neither are their academic needs.

How to implement safeguarding

Educators have more responsibilities than ever before and safeguarding is an additional—but important—one. This school year, the U.S. Department of Education has emphasized physical, social and emotional health as a higher priority than academic progress.

Yet, most schools and districts don’t have the funds to hire additional support or help to handle these issues, despite knowing the importance of enhancing students’ well-being. Too often, schools and districts compartmentalize the servicing of students’ social-emotional needs. Certain social welfare concerns are managed for compliance by one department while other non-academic student needs are addressed ad hoc by educators, administrators and the central office. This leads to inefficient and often insufficient support of students and their unique needs.

Successful safeguarding is a combination of people, systems, tools, processes and leadership that enables schools to understand and proactively mitigate the concerns and risks students face.

With the tools and practice of safeguarding, educators are encouraged to report all the concerns they witness without having to decide whether it is serious enough to need to be addressed. With a designated safeguarding lead at each school empowered to review and manage submitted concerns, educators and non-certified staff are no longer pressured to make on-the-spot judgment calls.

The safeguarding lead manages the record-keeping, a critical part of the process. Too often, we make a mental note of something in our classroom, just to forget about it later in the afternoon. Through detailed records, other educators can access background information on students and keep tabs on specific students’ behaviors that might need to be addressed with other educators, administrators, families and support staff.

These best practices take some of the pressure off educators and provide a clear sense of roles and when to address potential issues.

Setting the foundation for success

Just like a good school improvement plan uses data as the basis for strategic academic growth, successful implementation of safeguarding begins with identifying the core needs and concerns that students currently face while strategically organizing to address those needs. Safeguarding works best as a comprehensive, integrated system based on sound principles that put students at the center—not as a collection of independent activities in separate silos.

There have been bumps and snags during the transition back to in-person learning. However, with the right safeguarding measures in place, educators have more time to teach and students are better prepared to succeed—now and in the future.

Curtis Linton is the executive director of Safeguarding in the U.S.A.

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