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Supporting a Restorative Opening of U.S. Schools


This post is part of LPI's Learning in the Time of COVID-19 blog series, which explores evidence-based and equity-focused strategies and investments to address the current crisis and build long-term systems capacity.

The events of 2020 have deeply shaken U.S. society. The murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks, among others, have elicited rightful displays of pain and anger, spawning unprecedented uprisings across the nation as justice seekers call for an end to punitive policing and for the acknowledgement of the humanity of Black lives. These killings and the ongoing use of excessive force have put systemic racism on clear display and reignited the collective, individual, and intergenerational trauma that U.S. citizens, particularly Black Americans, bear as a result of our nation’s embedded systems of power and oppression.

The pain resulting from the most recent and overt manifestations of racism has been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic—another unprecedented event that has upended nearly all aspects of daily life. In addition to the necessary shelter-in-place and social distancing protocols that have created social and economic upheaval, the nation continues to grapple with the gravity of losing nearly 156,000 individuals to COVID-19 and resurging infection rates that compel many to question when there might be relief and an end in sight. These COVID-related impacts and concerns are particularly felt by those in low-income communities, especially Black and Latinx residents, who have greater infection and mortality rates, higher unemployment, more housing and food instability, and less access to technology and the web.

The events of the day are contributing to a collective and individual trauma that has deep implications for youth learning and wellness. They are also causing many to reflect on our traditional way of “doing school”—holding a mirror to how educational systems have contributed to the inequities and problems facing our society. While the current moment is wrought with crises and difficult reflection, it also presents significant opportunities for schools to redesign their structures and practices so as to pave a more equitable path forward.

The events of the day are contributing to a collective and individual trauma that has deep implications for youth learning and wellness.

As school and district leaders prepare to start school—whether in person or virtually—their work should be grounded in two essential questions: How can we address the acute needs of young people, who continue to grapple with the dual impacts of COVID-19 and systemic racism? And how can we use this crisis as an opportunity to transform schools into nurturing communities that are committed to equity, diversity, and anti-racism?

A Restorative Approach to School Reopening

Creating safe, supportive learning environments—where students feel a sense of belonging and where relational trust prevails—must be at the center of school reopenings in the fall. Research emerging from the science of learning and development shows positive, supportive relationships build strong brain structure and buffer against adverse experiences. Stable, caring relationships with teachers and other adults are also linked to better school performance and engagement. Even one stable relationship with a committed adult can help buffer a child from the effects of serious adversity. Being in a supportive community—including a virtual one—has even stronger effects on healing.

Authentic relationship building requires dedicated time and space at the beginning of the school year to listen to students and learn about their unique experiences away from school. Structures such as advisory systems support community building and provide a solid touch point for teachers to check in on students’ academic, social-emotional, and mental health needs and connect them to appropriate supports. Staff development is also essential to creating learning environments that are physically and psychologically safe and that challenge the biases and discriminatory policies that hold students back.

A Closer Look at Advisories

Edutopia has curated a collection of short video documentaries and articles that demonstrate  how schools are using advisories to deepen relationships and provide a consistent structure for supporting students. Explore these resources >

Building Safe, Inclusive School Environments

With the disruption of an already dysfunctional system, we have the opportunity to rebuild in ways that create long-lasting transformation, enabling all students to learn in safe, inclusive, and supportive environments. To achieve this, we must:

Invest in adult capacity building to develop culturally responsive pedagogy and create identity-safe learning environments. To build strong relationships and safe, supportive learning environments, teachers must understand, respect, value, and build upon the cultures, identities, and experiences of their students. This includes confronting biases that may negatively affect how teachers view and treat their students based on race, ethnicity, language background, gender, sexual orientation, or income. On average, teachers have lower expectations of Black and Latinx students, interact with them less positively than white students, and are more likely to label them “troublemakers.”

Though many teachers enter the profession with the best intentions, holding these implicit biases can lead to social-identity threat, in which students feel stigmatized and attacked based on their race, ethnicity, gender, economic background, or other traits. Students experiencing stereotype threat may feel less capable or worthy, which can lead to negative self-perceptions and impaired performance. Professional development on culturally responsive teaching can support teachers and school leaders to recognize the conscious and unconscious biases that can be expressed in many aspects of school life and student treatment, including tracking systems, disproportionate disciplinary actions, and inequitable access to extracurricular opportunities. Educators who are aware of stereotype threats can affirm and convey confidence in their students, hold high expectations, and provide them with needed supports.

Culturally responsive educators also view student experiences through an asset-based lens: elevating students’ voices in the classroom and providing materials and activities that draw upon students’ knowledge and cultures; building upon on students’ experiences; and promoting equity. Such teachers learn about their students’ communities and develop strong connections with students’ families and larger social networks. These ties can be sustained through check-ins and class meetings, conferencing, journaling, close observations of students, and consistent, positive communication with students’ families.

Building Trust Through Home Visits

Parent Teacher Home Visits represent an evidence-based approach to building trusting and respectful relationships between teachers and parents/caregivers. Since COVID-19, teachers are receiving training and support in conducting “virtual” home visits with families. Learn more >

Replace discriminatory discipline policies with restorative and social-emotional approaches. Disproportionalities in suspension and expulsion rates between students of color and their white peers appear as early as preschool and continue throughout the grades. These punitive, exclusionary punishments are particularly inflicted on Black youth, who often receive harsher punishments for minor offenses and are more than twice as likely as white students to receive a referral to law enforcement or be subject to a school-related arrest. Students of color are also more likely to attend schools employing law enforcement officers but no school counselor. Majority Black middle and high schools are also more likely to have security staff than mental health providers. For many Black students and other students of color, the presence of police officers in their schools pose a physical and psychological threat in a place that should be supportive and welcoming. The long-standing racial disparities in school discipline and lack of available supports for students have been at the core of calls for police-free schools that have gained momentum in the wake of protests against police killings. In the past few weeks, several school districts across the country have voted to remove police from school campuses, and many others have taken the issue under consideration.

Restorative Practices

Restorative practices recognize students’ behavior as a demonstration of a developmental need or trauma. They replace punitive, coercive, and exclusionary disciplinary approaches with proactive development of self-regulation and conflict-resolution skills and help students develop empathy and understanding of their behaviors.

As schools and districts move away from punitive discipline policies and practices, it is critical that those funds are invested in restorative practices and social and emotional learning that can eliminate racial discipline disparities and provide teachers and students more proactive, evidence-based solutions. Restorative practices result in fewer and less racially disparate suspensions and expulsions, fewer disciplinary referrals, improved school climate, higher-quality teacher-student relationships, and improved academic achievement across elementary and secondary class­rooms. Social and emotional learning in schools has also shown results in supporting positive student behaviors and self-perception. It is important to note, however, that social and emotional learning programming must be culturally affirmative and not another form of policing Black and Brown students.

Provide tools and personnel to understand and support the diverse needs of students. Alongside transitions to restorative practices and social and emotional learning supports, educators must have tools to understand students’ social-emotional and mental health and well-being. Many states and districts already use evidence-based school climate surveys to evaluate student, family, and teacher experiences within a school community—an important first step.

To understand students’ unique situations and better meet their needs, climate surveys and other measures of students’ experiences in school should be disaggregated by race, gender, English learner status, economic background, and other traits. This allows staff to understand if disparate treatment or experiences are occurring and to take steps to address what may be the result of implicit bias and flag the need for particular strategies to support students in various circumstances.

Student Voice

In May and June 2020, YouthTruth surveyed more than 20,000 students in grades 5–12 to understand their learning experiences, social-emotional development, and well-being during school closures. Read the findings >

Assessments of students’ social and emotional competencies can also be used to understand the effectiveness of social and emotional learning programs and to learn more about the social and emotional assets students bring with them to the classroom. Investments should also be directed toward integrated student support counselors and mental health personnel that are trained to work with young people and respond to the root cause of behavior. Teachers can be trained to recognize the signs of trauma and mental illness, but they alone cannot provide the counseling and interventions students may need. Integrated student support counselors can help connect students and families to the appropriate services and serve as an essential link between schools, families, and communities.

Meeting the Challenge and Moving to Whole-Child Education

The science of learning and development reveals that U.S. schools and districts can implement structures and approaches such as those discussed here that help mitigate the impact of adverse circumstances while supporting students in developing their voices and full identities. The whole-child educational vision at the foundation of these approaches will be even more essential in the face of the trauma and disconnection caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the heightened attention to racial injustice. These approaches can support students through these challenging times while tapping into the resilience and agency that many young people have developed in this moment, as they persist through difficulties and make their voices and leadership heard in calls and demonstrations for racial justice. It is up to state and local education leaders to meet this challenge to ensure that every young person receives the benefits of a supportive learning environment when school restarts—regardless of what it looks like.

Jennifer DePaoli and Laura E. Hernández are Senior Researchers at the Learning Policy Institute. Linda Darling-Hammond is the President and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute.