Using a mosaic-based approach to construct children's understanding of safe space in school

  • Maria Mearns Macdonald

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctorate in Educational, Child and Adolescent Psychology


This participative, creative research aimed to explore the meaning of ‘safe space’ at school, defined as areas which children could access when emotionally dysregulated. This conceptually confused term, originating in 1960’s civil rights movements and popularised through psychotherapy, has recently been described as the second-most popular strategy for supporting children’s anxiety in UK schools. The scarce research literature documents adult views of the benefits of safe space, with little reference to children’s perceptions. Using a Mosaic-based approach, offering child-centred, multi-modal methods enabled seven children and their three teachers to construct their understanding of safe space in school. Children designated as users of safe space due to having autism and/or socioemotional difficulties, led the researcher on a school tour and took photos of a puppet in their chosen safe spaces, teachers were subsequently interviewed. Visual data was categorised using content analysis and combined with inductive, reflexive thematic analysis of verbal data to identify themes. Children’s multiple, dynamic understandings of safe space generated themes of liberated places, safe bases and belonging, contrasting with teachers’ differing understanding of a static, boundaried, restricted space. The value of psychological safety in school alongside giving children agency to self-regulate according to context and need is emphasised when considering individualised safe space. Discussing the ‘dilemmas of difference’ arising for teachers operationalising safe space in school leads to consideration of the potential implications for educational policy and practice. The value of deconstructing dominant adult discourses through visibly listening to children using a humanistic, empowering psychological framework is highlighted
Date of AwardDec 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsNorthern Ireland Department for the Economy
SupervisorAnthea Percy (Supervisor) & Elida Cena (Supervisor)


  • Safe space
  • mosaic approach
  • children’s perceptions
  • children's perspectives
  • voice of the child

Cite this