Tutoring: Create a Safe Space for Learning

Place the student, not the content, at the center of your tutoring practice to build not just academic skills but also relational capacity.

Grades K-12 10 min Resource by:
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Using social and emotional learning (SEL) as a foundation for tutoring helps tutors and students create a safe space for learning. Making the student, and not the academic content, the center of the experience changes the tone of the tutoring session from “What don’t you understand?” to “How can I support your learning?” A student-centered space is one that meets the needs of the student first and foremost, including their social and emotional needs.

SEL is at the forefront of many educators’ minds as we begin to assess the toll of the global disruption in students’ educational experiences. The last few years have clearly demonstrated a need for more than content learning in the classroom. Social and emotional learning is the purposeful development of skills for self-understanding, self-advocacy, building and maintaining relationships, and responsible decision-making. With the additional need for academic support to address learning loss, bringing SEL into the tutoring space is another path to improving outcomes for students.

CASEL—the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning—has defined five core SEL competencies. When these core competencies are addressed in an academic setting, such as tutoring, it can lead to a greater sense of both personal and academic accomplishment. Applying SEL to tutoring supports students in developing:

  • Self-Awareness: Recognizing strengths and understanding academic areas of need
  • Self-Management: Utilizing organizational and goal-setting skills to manage stress
  • Social Awareness: Navigating and influencing their environment and respecting others
  • Relationship Skills: Effectively communicating and collaborating in an array of settings
  • Responsible Decision-Making: Using inquiry to thoughtfully identify and approach challenges

Establishing a Student-Centered and Safe Space for Learning

Learning is grounded in relationships. Creating a student-centered learning environment through the intentional use of social and emotional learning strategies is essential to successful tutoring. This environment is created when the tutor and student work together to assess the academic area of need, address each other with positivity and respect, and communicate their understanding. When there is rapport between students and tutors, students are able to be authentically vulnerable and seek the help they need.

To connect with students on both an academic and personal level, consider the following strategies to develop a student-centered and safe tutoring space:

  • Establish a safe environment. Establish norms for the tutoring sessions in collaboration with students. What are the agreed-upon expectations? How will each person contribute and participate? Consider creating a social contract for group tutoring. Knowing what to expect and how to behave makes tutors and students feel safe.
  • Facilitate introductions and routines. Getting to know students, and having them get to know their tutors and each other, will help establish relational capacity and a safe learning space. Consider mixing up the following introductions and routines to start off each tutoring session:
      • Respond to a question of the day, such as, “What is your favorite _____?”
      • Make a prediction about a neutral topic.
      • Ask a “Would you rather…?” question. (“Would you rather _____ or _____?”)
      • Reply to a silly prompt to make fun connections. (“If I were a superhero, I’d want to be _____.”)
      • Ask, “What is one high or low since our last tutoring session?”
      • Implement a wellness check-in or SEL pulse survey using an emotions chart or mood meter. Examples may be found online.
      • Respond as a character in a story.
      • Tell a telephone story.
      • Share something for which you are grateful.
      • Check in with students with a “Fist-to-Five,” where they can share how they are feeling by showing a fist, one, two, three, four, or five fingers. A fist represents a very low feeling, while a five shows that they are feeling great.
  • Use resources to support the process. Provide resources, such as language scripts, to help guide students as they get started with tutoring. The Heart and Brain Feedback protocol is a great resource to support tutors in providing constructive feedback.
  • Monitor who is doing the lifting. Is the tutor doing the majority of the talking? Who is holding the pencil or whiteboard marker? Each person should have an equal voice, and the student should lead the work. The person doing the work is the person doing the learning.
  • Provide voice and choice. Look for opportunities for students to personalize their tutoring, such as flexible seating options, or to give feedback and support continuous improvement. Having some say in the process will make the tutor and the student feel respected.
  • Create a space for celebrations. A physical or virtual bulletin board can be used to celebrate the academic and personal accomplishments of both students and tutors. This type of public recognition of achievement helps to develop a safe tutoring environment.
  • Create micro-moments. Community building can happen in small chunks of time, even as short as a minute or two. Consider inserting a brain break when students (and tutors!) need to reenergize. Combine an academic activity with a personal connection. Students can work with a partner or as a small group. Have them introduce each other to the larger group before presenting their work.

A safe space for learning needs to be intentionally cultivated. Once it is established, it must be maintained with year-round efforts. Continue to use these strategies and add in others from professional learning or educational websites and newsletters. Invite students to make suggestions of activities they have done in other settings and revisit the tutoring norms together from time to time to make adjustments as needed. Social and emotional learning underpins all learning, and incorporating it into tutoring sessions will help to embed academic skills while also supporting the core competencies of SEL.

AVID Connections

  • AVID’s Four Stages of Building Relational Capacity: This resource provides a model that explores the Four Stages of Building Relational Capacity to assist educators in developing a caring and supportive community that uplifts all members.
  • Creating a Social Contract: This resource provides instructions for developing a sense of relational capacity and group buy-in through collaboration in creating a social contract.
  • Academic Language Scripts: This resource provides academic language scripts to support the academic conversation during tutorial as well as focused note-taking.