By Dr. Caelan Soma, Chief Clinical Officer

All children deserve a safe and healthy environment to learn and thrive. There is growing interest in improving school safety by building supportive school communities conducive to students feeling a sense of physical and psychological safety. When this is the case, the adults who teach and care for them also experience overall well-being. Multiple studies examine what places children at risk for perpetrating violence and the factors that protect them from violence. In addition to having access to guns, childhood trauma, mental health concerns, and being a victim of violence are among the risk factors. Research identifies school attachment, belonging, social support, and supportive teacher-student relationships as protective factors against violence (DePaoli & McCombs, 2023). This is consistent with what we know about the experiences of trauma and resilience. The same situation can be experienced entirely differently when a person is supported or not supported. Trauma experiences are mitigated by resilience. The presence of resilience factors helps with not only the healing of trauma but also the ability to cope positively with future adversity.

Current resilience literature cites four main protective factors for children: having a secure attachment with an adult, self-efficacy, the ability to regulate emotions and behavior, and feeling valuable to others. As protective factors increase, risk factors decrease. Students’ sense of belonging in their schools improves their health. These students are less likely to engage in high-risk behaviors, experience fewer mental health symptoms, and demonstrate strong academic performance.

Significant controversy exists about strategies intended to increase physical security in schools, such as restricting building access, installing metal detectors, and adding security. Additionally, studies to show the impact of these measures on school safety are lacking.  However, strategies prioritizing school connectedness, positive relationships, mental health, and social-emotional learning prove effective and sustainable. Supportive school communities matter most in protecting from violence. This article explores each, details supporting evidence, and provides action steps to take for implementation.

School Connectedness and Positive Relationships

Students who feel a sense of school connectedness think that adults and peers care about their learning and them as individuals. They feel cared for, supported, and like they belong at school. Relationally rich schools can positively influence both mental health and learning. School belongingness has a statistically significant positive impact on meaningful school and substantial adverse effects on internalizing and externalizing problems. The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a study of health and well-being among middle and high school students, found that school connectedness is the most potent protective factor to decrease school absenteeism, substance abuse, violence, and risk of injury. Additional research has found that a secure relationship with at least one caring adult can buffer the effects of a child’s stress and trauma experiences (Cantor et al., 2019; Osher et al., 2020).

School connectedness is essential for children at increased risk of feeling alienated or isolated from others. Those at risk for feeling disconnected include students with disabilities, students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender or questioning their sexual orientation, students who are homeless, or any chronically truant student. Strong family involvement and supportive school personnel, inclusive school environments, and curricula that reflect the realities of a diverse student body can help students become more connected to their school.

Students who feel a sense of school connectedness and experience positive relationships with adults and peers will say things such as:

  • They notice when I am there and miss me when I am not.
  • I can be myself in that classroom, with that person.
  • I try hard at school because my teacher is rooting for me to do my best.
  • I feel like I can talk to my friends about my problems.
  • There is a teacher or another adult who cares a lot about me.
  • I feel comfortable giving suggestions about making my school even better.
  • People at school see how my strengths and talents are valuable to others.

Take Action

  • Strong family/caregiver and school connections help communication between home and school.
  • Block scheduling allows more extended class periods to decrease the number of students teachers see daily, allowing for more in-depth teaching and learning.
  • Looping allows students to remain with the same teacher for more than one school year, which supports and strengthens student-teacher relationships.
  • Small learning and teaching communities allow teachers and students to get to know one another.
  • Ask all administrators to conduct building-wide connection assessments.

Supportive, relationship-centered schools are crucial to keeping students safe in school. These environments prevent violence and bullying, improve communication, and minimize the risk of students becoming disconnected or disengaged.

Mental Health

Mental health encompasses overall social, emotional, and behavioral health. Left unaddressed, mental health problems have adverse outcomes, including academic and behavior issues, student truancy dropouts, and delinquency. Students are more likely to receive mental health services in school than in any other setting, and school-based mental health services improve students’ mental health. Multiple studies have found that mental health support can reduce disciplinary incidents and recidivism, improve teachers’ attitudes about their school culture, and increase academic achievement (National Association of School Psychologists, 2021).

Unfortunately, there is a significant strain on schools’ ability to provide needed support. First, a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health has been declared by the American Academy of Pediatrics, Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Children’s Hospital Association, and the Biden Administration (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2021). Second, there is a profound shortage in the number of mental health practitioners available to the number of children who need support. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 42% of schools offer mental health treatment services. Inadequate funding is another barrier.

What this means is that every child-caring adult must be trained to understand the signs and symptoms of stress, trauma, and overlapping mental health symptoms and reactions and practical strategies and interventions to use during the moment-to-moment interactions they have with students.

Take Action:

  • Provide training to all staff about understanding the impact of stress and trauma on children and strategies for fostering resilience.
  • Integrate mental health, suicide prevention, and trauma-informed practice in existing curriculum, instruction, teacher training, and professional development.
  • Form external partnerships with community mental health providers.
  • Allow schools to provide behavioral health services via telehealth.

Social and Emotional Learning Development

Social and emotional learning is the process through which youth acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthily, identify and manage emotions, achieve personal and collective goals, show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, n.d.). Approximately 75% of all schools use a social and emotional learning program and it is more likely for students who attend a school with a social and emotional learning program to report feeling safe in school. Teachers and counselors often name social and emotional learning strategies and programs to support students’ emotional challenges among the top things that would improve school safety.

Zero tolerance policies and exclusionary discipline practices do not help improve school safety and cause far more problems in social interactions, delinquent behaviors, accelerated school failure, and dropout (Skiba & Losen, 2015). This is why in addition to social and emotional learning programs, schools are also implementing Restorative Practices. Restorative Practices are designed to repair relationships when conflict or harm has occurred and to build relationships and community to prevent misbehavior and conflict proactively. Community circles, norm-setting, and restorative conferences encourage students to care about and understand themselves and others, peacefully resolve conflict, make amends when they have caused harm, and reattach to the school community. Studies of Restorative Practice programs consistently find that they reduce the use of exclusionary discipline, decrease rates of student misbehavior, and improve school climate (Lodi et al., 2021).

Take Action

  • Train all staff about the importance of and how to teach, model, and implement social and emotional skills. Offer coaches to support educators.
  • Teach and practice restorative discipline practices.
  • Encourage daily classroom circles and meetings.
  • Reinforce the importance of educators practicing mind-body skills with their students as the short time spent engaging in a few deep breaths, a walk around the playground, or getting up and moving to the sound of music can positively impact everyone throughout the day. Download a free, guided imagery and relaxation activity for ages 6-12.

School violence can have long-lasting effects on students and their health. It also negatively impacts teachers, reducing their self-efficacy, professional engagement, and retention (Yang et al., 2021; Kraft et al., 2016). In 2022, Congress passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA), which includes measures and resources to increase gun safety, fund school violence prevention efforts, increase school-based mental health access, improve school climate, and increase school attachment and engagement. As administrators of districts and schools consider policies and practices that will promote school safety, consider the evidence about the benefits of strategies that work to keep children safe and boost their resilience.

If you want to prioritize school connectedness, relationships, mental health support, and the prioritization of social and emotional skill development and practices, please visit


American Academy of Pediatrics (2021).

Bipartisan Safter Communities Act, 1313 U.S.C. S 2938 (2022).

Cantor, P., Osher, D., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (2019). Malleability, plasticity, and individuality: How children learn and develop in context. Applied Developmental Science, 23(4), 307-337.

DefPaoli, J. & McCombs, J. (2023). Safe Schools, thriving Students: Evidence-based Strategies for creating safe and supportive schools. Learning Policy Institute. ://

Osher, D., Cantor, P., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (2020). Drivers of human development: How relationships and context shape learning and development. Applied Developmental Science, 24(1), 6-36.

Kraft, M. A., Marinell, W. H., & Yee, D. (2016). School organizational contexts, teacher turnover, and student achievement. Evidence from panel data. American Educational Research Journal, 53(5), 1411-1499.

Lodi, E., Perrella, L., Lepri, G. L., Scarpa, M. L., & Patrizi, P. (2021). Use of restorative justice and restorative practices at school: A systematic literature review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(1), 96.

Skiba, R. L., & Losen, D. J. (2015) From reaction to prevention: Turning the page on school discipline. American Educator, 44, 4-12.

Yang, Y., Qin, L., & Ning, L. (2021). School violence and teacher professional engagement: A cross-national study. Frontiers in Psychology, 12.