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How to Help All Students Feel Safe to Be Themselves

Each year, roughly 30 percent of California students in middle and high school report being bullied or harassed, many because of race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, sexual identity, or some other aspect of their social identity.

Research advances in neuroscience, social science, and education are showing us how these threats affect the health, learning, and educational outcomes of students. When we feel endangered, the body reacts by producing a flood of adrenaline and cortisol, provoking the fight-or-flight reaction. When the feeling of threat is constant, the resulting toxic stress affects physical health, brain development, and learning.

The feeling of threat can result from explicit racism or sexism or xenophobia coming from other students, teachers, the administration, or the society that surrounds the school. It can also result from smaller “microaggressions”—subtle insults that manifest as brief, everyday exchanges—that send negative messages to students about their identities. For example, female students may be told that “girls don’t do computer science,” which communicates a lack of aptitude that is tied to their gender; or students of color may be asked, “Where were you born?” indicating their perceived status as outsiders.

Researchers have a name for this experience: “social identity threat.” Social identity threat occurs when children know that others hold negative views about one or more of the groups they are associated with. Social identity threats make students—especially students of color, LGBTQ students, immigrant students, and students from low-income families—feel as if they don’t belong and aren’t seen or valued for who they actually are.

So, what can we do about social identity threat? According to research, one key is a positive school climate characterized in part by the presence of strong, trust-based relationships that help facilitate a sense of belonging among students. This improves learning, development, and wellness among students, especially for those who are at higher risk for poorer outcomes. A positive school climate, built upon a foundation that includes identity-safe classrooms that enable every student to belong, is one of several elements in the whole child approach to education—a powerful strategy for creating learning environments that work well for students of all backgrounds.

Schools across the country are working to create these types of learning environments. Social Justice Humanitas Academy (SJHA) in Los Angeles is one such school—and its experience can provide lessons for all of us.

Excerpted from “How to Help All Students Feel Safe to Be Themselves” published online in Greater Good Magazine. Read the full article to learn how SJHA teachers and staff:

  • Create trusting relationships. Teachers recognize that creating a sense of trust and belonging involves hundreds of affirming interactions. They strive to ensure that each student feels seen and cared about through the use of small gestures, such as asking how things are going, paying attention to their students’ comments, and expressing sincere appreciation for their efforts and accomplishments (“You’ve really been working hard, and it’s paying off”). They also regularly reaffirm their faith in their students’ ability to learn.
  • Are attuned to students’ cultural backgrounds. By being aware of students’ cultures, as well as their learning and developmental needs, the teachers promote a sense of belonging and safety for each student.
  • Model critical social skills. These include sharing and showing empathy. Teachers also guide norm-setting by defining and modeling concepts like respect and compassion.
Source: Greater Good Magazine | How to Help All Students Feel Safe to Be Themselves, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_help_all_students_feel_safe_to_be_themselves | © 2020 The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley

To schedule an evaluation or to get advice about your child’s challenges, call or email a CHC Care Coordinator at 650.688.3625 or careteam@chconline.org

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