Imagine this: You’re a high school student sitting in your classroom when one of your peers brings up a hotly contested social issue. How do you engage? Do you join the conversation? Pick a side? Or do you slouch down in your seat, hoping no one will notice you because conflict makes you uncomfortable?

Group of six kids sitting on desks having a conversation at school

If you’re the teacher, how do you navigate a discussion in which students feel safe to share and respond to ideas, and perhaps even change their minds? And, if the topic is something you feel strongly about, how do you make sure your own emotions don’t take over as you listen to views that go against your own?

Bridging differences is challenging because humans have a tendency to split the world into “us” and “them,” which grows stronger when we feel stressed or threatened. When we are anxious about our own safety—whether physical or emotional—we’re more likely to treat members of our “ingroup” with kindness and those of the “outgroup” with judgment and stereotyping.

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But with that challenge comes an opportunity to help students develop the capacities to understand and live with those who appear different from them—and perhaps, one day, to be able to transcend those differences and work together for the common good. 

To that end, in partnership with Harvard’s Making Caring Common and Generation Citizen, we’ve created 15 new, research-based practices that educators and parents can use to help middle and high school students to bridge differences at school, in their homes, and throughout their community.

  • Building Collaborative Classroom Norms

    Whether tackling a sensitive topic or engaging with general class material, establishing a set of norms to guide student discussion is a great learning opportunity. This practice invites students to co-create norms that foster a welcoming, psychologically safe class environment.

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  • Facilitating Bridging Discussions

    This practice invites educators to reflect on how to best engage in “bridging differences” discussions around justice and equity in the classroom. What are your motivations for engaging in practices that encourage bridging differences and understanding and pursuing justice? Why is this work important to you?

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  • Just Because (Broaden Your Sense of What’s Comfortable and Familiar)

    This practice invites students to explore the assumptions we may make about other people and that others may make about us, as well as explore the identities they hold, such as gender, race, ethnicity, language, age, hobbies, politics, and religion.

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  • Listening With Compassion

    The heart of bridging work lies in trying to understand someone else’s perspective, even if it’s not your own. This practice invites students to explore active listening and how we might listen to others with more compassion and understanding.

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  • Take-Home Skill: Talk With Teens About Equity and Justice

    This practice contains a list of questions for parents and caregivers to explore with teens to recognize inequities and become agents of change.

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We hope you will explore these practices with the students or youth in your life and help share them far and wide as we support our communities to bridge differences and social and political divides, pursue justice, and foster a sense of common humanity among us all.

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