2020 was a tumultuous year that challenged us all to consider the inequitable systems in place in our society, from policing to health care. In a recent report I created for The Education Trust, I highlighted how racial inequities show up in our education system—and what we can do about it.

Today, the most popular approach to supporting student well-being are social-emotional learning programs, which focus on teaching students competencies like recognizing and managing emotions and behavior, adopting positive mindsets, and learning to build, maintain, and repair relationships. Unfortunately, in too many places, these programs focus narrowly on changing student behavior. This is especially true in schools and districts that serve large populations of students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, leading to concerns that these approaches are really about policing students rather than holistic support.

When adults and systems haven’t first interrogated and addressed their own biases, this approach encourages them to see something wrong with their students that needs to be “fixed.” But in many cases, students aren’t the ones that need “fixing”; systems are.

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Our Ed Trust report offers six recommendations to help schools and districts change those systems—to help students build relationships with other students and adults in schools, and create equitable learning environments that support social, emotional, and academic growth for all students. These recommendations are based on interviews conducted with students and families of color across the country, as well as existing research.

1. Engage students, families, and communities as full partners

While there’s no real order to these recommendations, engaging students, families, and communities as partners in schooling and decision making is foundational, because they know their context best. Their experiences should lead conversations on what changes and improvements are needed to best support student well-being.

Students, families, and communities should contribute to decisions in a wide range of issues, including how each of the policies discussed below are developed and implemented. This can be done in town hall meetings where school board members, school and district leaders, educators, and staff come together with students and families to discuss policy and practice decisions, and how they affect everyone involved.

As one Latina mother we interviewed said, “There should be a communication between teachers and parents. Teachers can get involved no matter how small the problem is.”

Ensuring a strong connection between educators and those they serve increases their understanding of students’ backgrounds and circumstances, which ultimately improves their ability to support their students.

2. Diversify the educator workforce

One topic that’s not often discussed alongside issues of belonging and social-emotional well-being is the makeup of the educator workforce, but research suggests this is critical. Educators of color are not only more likely to understand students of color because of a common culture, but also tend to have higher expectations of their students and better support their students’ social and emotional needs. Research also suggests that Black students who have at least one Black teacher are more likely to enroll in college. 

Students and families of color also brought up this issue in many of our interviews. “Having a teacher that looks like you is very important,” one Black mother stated.

She went on to discuss the mismatch in cultural and social norms when she witnessed white teachers getting frustrated by a class of mostly Black students being “rowdy.” When educators apply the norms of their own culture to all students, they may believe students of color have behavioral issues where none actually exist.

3. Provide meaningful professional development and supports

Sizeable shifts in the demographics of the educator workforce will take time, but in the meantime, schools and districts can more immediately address the mindsets and skills of the educators currently teaching students through professional development and supports. One Black mother said, “If you can’t have folks that look like you, at least have the ones in the place [be] culturally competent so that they understand, and they don’t just make assumptions.”

Professional learning opportunities that create space for open conversations about bias can support adults in continuously interrogating their own biases, as well as developing more inclusive lesson plans, discipline strategies, and other ways to infuse self-awareness and cultural competence into the practices they use with their students.

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For example, this could include anti-bias training, professional learning communities where educators can discuss how to create inclusive environments, and training in restorative practices.

4. Develop inclusive discipline and dress code policies

While addressing bias and skills in adults is critical, it is insufficient without also addressing systemic discrimination.

We see this play out particularly clearly with school discipline policies like zero tolerance, which result in disproportionate punishments for students of color (like being sent to the principal, sent home, suspended, or expelled) for subjective and minor offenses, like being “defiant” or “distracting.” Other policies prohibit hairstyles that are common among students of color, such as braids or locs.

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These send messages to students of color that they don’t belong and aren’t welcome in their own schools. But, as one Black parent said, “School should be a safe zone for a kid to be able to come and really be their self.”

When students can bring their full and authentic selves into the classroom rather than being asked to check pieces of themselves at the door, it creates a sense of emotional safety that supports positive identity development, positive social and emotional development, and academic engagement. Not to mention the diversity of students’ backgrounds benefits all students in learning from one another.

5. Ensure equitable access to rigorous, culturally sustaining curricula

Another way bias often shows up in systems is through artificial barriers that prevent students of color and students from low-income backgrounds access to rigorous and culturally sustaining curricula. Culturally sustaining curricula offers a balanced, non-stereotypical representation of diverse students and their histories and cultures.

Regardless of academic track, students should be provided with challenging material that does not provide a shallow and repetitive overview of diverse perspectives and histories, shaped by the upper-middle-class white norms and narratives that dominate our society. Lessons should truly provide opportunities for students to see themselves reflected in the material and develop their racial and cultural identities.

A Black girl we interviewed expressed her frustration: “I think that we should talk about other people other than just Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King because I’ve been learning about that since I was in first grade. I had to read myself about people like Malcolm X and things like that. Why can’t we talk about other people?”

Experiences like this send messages to students that their backgrounds and histories are not valued. Not offering rigorous material communicates to students they’re being underestimated, which can harm students’ sense of belonging. Consider this Black girl’s experience: “I took two AP classes my senior year, and in both of those classes, I was the only Black person. And I think that’s happened throughout my entire high school career.”

These experiences can be addressed through policy, such as what materials and curricula are used in schools. Access to advanced courses such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate should be based on objective factors like GPA, rather than the subjective decisions of adults that can be subject to bias.

6. Provide access to integrated services and supports

While what happens in schools is critical, students’ circumstances outside of school are often the leading factors in their well-being and success. And this is why schools must do what they can to holistically support students through the integration of supports and resources.

Many of the students I spoke with emphasized the need for mental health supports. One student explained, “If we don’t address that well-being aspect, then there’s no way we can progress.”

Schools should provide what supports they can, such as school counselors and school psychologists, but many families we interviewed also recognized that schools can’t do everything on their own. This means partnering with other agencies, organizations, and families to collectively find and provide the right combination of supports for students.

For example, school districts can develop “Handle with Care” programs, in which they partner with hospitals, police departments, and other social services to alert school personnel when students may have experienced an emergency situation. While the details of incidents are kept confidential, educators will still know that a student may have experienced something that could influence their wellness and engagement in school that day. This, in many ways, brings us full circle to the first recommendation of partnering with students, families, and communities to figure out the best ways to support student well-being.

A call to action

Social-emotional skill-building programs are insufficient if the learning environments in schools are not also addressed. As one Black Latino student said, “The way schools are structured now, and the way education is structured, it’s not set up for students to succeed in those environments.”

So, before school leaders reach for that off-the-shelf program aimed at changing student behavior, take inventory of the policies and practices currently in place. Ask yourself, is this creating an equitable learning environment? Have we addressed adult biases so that these skill-building programs won’t cause further harm? Only then will you be truly supporting the social, emotional, and academic development of all students.

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