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Creating Identity-Safe Schools and Classrooms

Two elementary girls reading Spanish language books.

Neuroscience and research on learning make it clear that social, emotional, and cognitive experiences are intertwined and influence how we learn. Having trusting relationships and experiencing positive emotions, such as interest and excitement, open the mind to learning. Negative emotions, such as anxiety or self-doubt, reduce the brain’s capacity to learn when left unmitigated. A young person’s performance under conditions of high support and low threat differs substantially from how they perform without such support or when feeling threatened.

A young person’s performance under conditions of high support and low threat differs substantially from how they perform without such support or when feeling threatened.

Unfortunately, schools are not emotionally or psychologically safe for many students. For example, one in five students between the ages of 12 and 18 report having been bullied, often as a function of their background characteristics, ranging from racial or ethnic group membership to gender identity, appearance, or disability status. Researchers have also long found that some teachers hold inaccurate characterizations of students based on race and ethnicity, have lower expectations of Black and Latinx students, and interact with them less positively.

The negative societal or school-delivered messages that students can receive in relation to their race, ethnicity, gender or gender identity, language, immigration status, disability, age, or any other feature that is associated with social stigma can trigger social identity or stereotype threat. Such threat occurs when people feel they are at risk of being negatively judged in a situation because others associate their identity with undesirable characteristics. When social identity or stereotype threat has been triggered, it induces stress and impedes working memory and focus, leading to impaired performance on tests and other school tasks. In addition, students experiencing these threats often have a heightened assumption that they are uncared for or unwelcomed, causing many to disengage or disidentify with school settings.

This research report addresses the ways in which practitioners can build inclusive and affirming school environments with keen attention to identity safety that can support all students in feeling safe, protected, and valued in school environments. A growing body of research points to effective school-based practices and structures, described below, that educators can use to foster the identity safety that nurtures student achievement, positive attachments to school, and a genuine sense of belonging and membership for each student.

Promoting Trust and Interpersonal Connection

Practices that create trusting relationships and interpersonal connection between educators and students are central to cultivating identity safety. Finding ways to build empathy is foundational in this work, as it can transform educators’ relationships with students and generate tangible outcomes. Connection-building tools, or those that allow educators and students to identify what they have in common, are also powerful for the similarities they surface and for their role in mitigating bias that can affect relationships. Finally, values affirmation interventions, which ask students to reflect on things important to them, are also effective relationship-building strategies, as they tell students that teachers want to learn about them and provide educators with important information about students that enriches their teaching ability.

Creating Purposeful Communities of Care and Consistency

Identity-safe classrooms cultivate a community of care, enabling educators and youth to build productive attachments that allow young people to be seen, valued, and known. Schools can foster communities of care with structures that create the conditions for positive connections to flourish, including advisory systems, looping, and block scheduling. Implementing consistent routines, such as regular community meetings and norms for positive greetings and dialogue, can support students in managing stress while empowering them to have a greater sense of inclusion. Finally, identity-affirming forums, like affinity clubs, can build a sense of belonging for students, particularly those who identify with minoritized groups.

Creating Trusting Relationships Using Restorative Practices

Using restorative approaches is also critical to building trusting relationships and identity safety. Restorative practices “proactively build healthy relationships and a sense of community to prevent and address conflict and wrongdoing.” Relationships and trust are supported through universal interventions, such as community-building activities and classroom meetings. These strategies are supplemented with restorative conferences, often mediated by trained staff or peers, when a difficult event occurs. Central to a restorative approach is the belief that all people have worth and that it is important to build and maintain relationships within a community, thus contributing to the goal of creating an inclusive, identity-safe school environment.

Promoting Understanding, Voice, and Responsibility

Engaging students in intellectually demanding inquiries in which students have choice, voice, and growing responsibility for their own learning can also foster identity safety. Students feel connected to and confident in learning when teachers organize challenging tasks that are relevant to students’ lives and support them in learning through those opportunities. This includes teaching students strategies they can use to manage their own learning and building on their individual and cultural resources through engaging and relevant experiences, such as community-based projects. As students tackle challenging work, educators can support their efforts with affirming attitudes that acknowledge student competence and reflect the teacher’s high standards and a conviction that the student can reach them. Approaches like these can minimize stereotype threat and create an identity-safe and engaging atmosphere for learning to take place.

Elevating Diversity as a Resource for Learning

Educators seeking to cultivate identity-safe classrooms celebrate the unique identities of students while building on them to support rich and inclusive learning. Practices such as conversations with parents and students, community walks, and consistent classroom meetings are critical in surfacing what students already know, in what areas they already demonstrate competence, and how they can bring that knowledge into the classroom. Learning experiences that enable young people to explore their own identities or engage with culturally responsive content and materials can also help build bridges between students’ experiences and disciplinary learning. In designing learning opportunities like these, educators are responsive to students—both by validating and reflecting the diverse backgrounds and experiences young people bring and by building upon their unique knowledge to propel learning and critical thinking.

Creating Identity-Safe Schools and Classrooms by Laura E. Hernández and Linda Darling-Hammond is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This research was supported by The California Endowment and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Core operating support for LPI is provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Sandler Foundation, and MacKenzie Scott. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages