Creating a safe space

Environmental factors1

The features of settings where young people spend their time have been found to decisively impact on a young person’s development. The provision of a safe space is thus an essential component of effective community youth programs in health promotion that aim to enhance positive youth development. Peer programs aim to create a safe, supportive and experiential learning environment for at risk youth. However, the concept of a safe space can mean different things for at risk youth:

  • For young people lacking social skills, a safe space is somewhere they can learn and practise new skills and receive constructive feedback.
  • For young people who may be subject to bullying, abuse, harassment or negative and unsupportive peer and adult influences, a safe space equates to a type of refuge where they can be assured of physical and psychological safety.
  • For young people who are fearful of accessing mainstream support services, e.g. a GP or school counselor, a safe space is somewhere they can access information and support without fear of being judged or having to face the consequences of disclosure. This fear may be based on their own or others’ negative experiences or inaccurate perceptions and beliefs of what they may encounter.1

To ensure that a safe space is promoted a variety of contextual factors and program activities need to be given attention to when providing community services for young people at risk of developing poor mental health outcomes.2

The Evaluation Framework for Youth Peer Programs identifies a range of factors that have been identified in the literature as well as by our own research as important characteristics of a safe space within a youth community program. Due to the limited research base existing in this area these factors are seen as a provisional list that is not necessarily complete but encourages further exploration. It is also noteworthy that the implementation of these factors may vary according to programs’ differing target groups, resources, constraints and goals.

Features that have been identified to likely promote a safe space in youth community programs include physical and psychological safety, clear and consistent structure and appropriate supervision, supportive relationships, opportunities to belong, positive social norms, opportunities for skill building,2 ethical practice, anonymity, and behaviour management processes.1 In addition, particular features of participants and staff have a significant effect on the maintenance of a safe space.

Physical and psychological safety

  • Safe and health-promoting neighbourhood and facilities
  • Supervision and maintenance of property
  • Safe out of school and community settings and virtual spaces
  • Practices that increase safe peer group interaction and decrease unsafe or confrontational peer interactions
  • Mental and physical safety from e.g. harassment, bullying, violence

Clear and consistent structure and appropriate supervision

  • Limit setting
  • Clear and consistent rules and expectations
  • Boundary management: guidelines for managing emotional, physical or professional boundaries: between peers, between staff/volunteers, between peers and staff/volunteers
  • Firm-enough control
  • Continuity and predictability
  • Age-appropriate monitoring

Supportive relationships

  • Warmth, closeness, connectedness, secure attachment, caring
  • Good communication
  • Support and guidance
  • Responsiveness

Opportunities to belong

  • Opportunities for meaningful inclusion (i.e. regardless of a person’s gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disabilities etc.)
  • Social inclusion, social engagement and integration
  • Opportunities for sociocultural identity formation
  • Support for cultural and bicultural competence

Positive social norms

  • Group behaviour rules: respect for others, constructive feedback, inclusivity, culturally sensitivity, recognition of ethnicity, non-judgmental
  • Values and morals
  • Ownership of services

Opportunities for skill building

  • Opportunities for physical, intellectual, psychological, emotional, and social skills building
  • Provision of intentional learning experiences
  • Opportunities to learn communication, conflict management, and coping skills
  • Opportunities to prepare for future employment and continued education

Ethical practice

  • Youth participation approach that supports autonomy and increases empowerment
  • Identification of needs for other support services
  • Duty of care policies exist and are enforced
  • Confidentiality of personal data


  • No requirement to disclose personal data to online community
  • May be particularly important for small communities/diverse groups
  • May encourage youth to talk about sensitive or embarrassing issues

Behaviour management processes

  • Expectations of behaviour are communicated and reinforced, e.g. through signage, handouts, discussion
  • Recognition of unacceptable behaviours and enforcement of sanctions/consequences


  • Screening of participants’ mental health status
  • Monitoring/moderation of participant input to ensure the space remains positive and safe


  • Trained staff/facilitators/moderators/volunteers
  • Supervision at all levels
  • Stringent at all levels
  • Clear expectations both inside and outside programs

Check out the Safe Space Tools


  1. Lobo, R., G. Brown, B. Maycock., A. McManus. 2010. Development of an evaluation framework and evaluation approaches for peer-based youth programs – Interim Report. Perth: Western Australian Centre for Health Promotion Research, Curtin Health Innovation Research Institute.
  2. National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. 2002. Community Programs to Promote Youth Development, Committee on Community – Level Programs for Youth, Eccles and Appleton Gootman (Eds.), Board on Children, Youth, and Families, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, National Academy Press, Washington, DC.