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Student Well-Being Q&A

Q&A: Meeting the Needs of Students of Color in a Time of Collective Trauma

By Evie Blad — March 31, 2021 10 min read
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The experience of living through a pandemic, and the immediate and long-term mental health needs resulting from the last year, may be quite different for some students of color than for their white peers, educators say.

For one thing, in communities across the country, Black, Latino, and Native American populations have had significantly higher death rates than white populations due to COVID-19.

Even as many haven’t stepped foot in a classroom for months, students also have participated in emotional protests over racial injustice in policing and witnessed a divisive presidential election. And Asian students, in particular, have seen surging reports of hate-related incidents in their communities in recent months.

Janine Jones, a professor of school psychology at the University of Washington.

As schools predict an increased need for mental health supports for all students, they should incorporate a cultural lens into their responses, said Janine Jones, a professor of school psychology at the University of Washington.

Students may be more likely to engage with supports, like counseling, if they feel a sense of belonging at school. And subtle signals, like microaggressions, can have the opposite effect for students of color, who may not feel like their experiences and identities are recognized at school, Jones said.

Jones’ work focuses on culturally responsive school psychology and supporting resilience in children of color. She spoke with Education Week about how schools can support students from all communities after an unprecedented year of disruption and upheaval.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What are some ways schools have fallen short in supporting the emotional well-being of students of color?

Oftentimes, students of color have been left out of the true understanding of what students need to feel a sense of belonging in their school environment. And there are elements of emotional well-being that students of color experience challenges around that schools have historically not noticed.

Culturally responsive practices honor and value the cultural and racial identities of youth in schools. These practices pay attention to those well-being indicators [like whether or not students have trusting relationships with teachers] that need to be addressed that often get overlooked or missed when we do kind of a universal approach to supporting students.

Q: What are some examples of some ways that schools could be more intentional about noticing these things?

So many times, we do things where we establish curricula, like social-emotional learning curricula, that have been developed and normed based on mostly white populations. And they are steeped in values that include individualistic kind of approaches or beliefs of, “If you practice this skill by yourself, you’re likely to achieve better outcomes.”

These things that are developed or established based on the values and beliefs of the majority population, which has historically been white, are very individualized, and they’re very focused on kind of the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” kind of approach. But most communities of color are people that are collectivist, meaning they don’t think about themselves individually, they think of themselves as a representative or part of a community of people.

So when we have interventions, or social emotional-learning curricula, that are solely focused on practicing an individual skill or technique, but not in relationship with other people, we miss a lot. So many of the challenges that students of color experience are typically in relation to other people, because students of color are often racialized and they are treated differently based on their appearance or their race. And there are additional layers of stress, and lack of belonging, and mistrust that result from being treated differently.

Q: It almost sounds like schools are speaking a different language than their students sometimes.

We have what we often refer to as “colorblind approaches,” [where adults in schools might say], “We see people as humans, and we describe what they need based on what everybody needs.”

And there are some needs that many people that have not been racialized or minoritized, they don’t see because they’ve never had the experience.

Q: Can you explain a bit more about microaggressions and racialized treatment?

I have this graphic that explains it. A Black student walks into the classroom and the teacher tells them, “Oh, you should be on time because you need all the time we have to learn the material.”

And in that, there’s not only a microaggression, but also stereotype threat, which is this concept where a student of color knows and has awareness of stereotypes, and they fear meeting the stereotype. ... And so then the student says, “My gosh, they probably think all Black people are late now.” And they’re concerned about fulfilling that.

But then I talk about that same student going and sitting down and then hearing the, “You need all the time we have to learn the material.” And that is leaning into the stereotype of Black people and not being as smart.

Q: For students of color who have more direct mental health needs—or who might want to access some of those more-intensive supports at school—how does that collective mindset play out in how they choose to engage with services?

In some places, they’re going to seek [counseling and support services] more likely in community environments. It might be through their church, or through their community mental health center outside of a school setting, because those are places where they might see someone who looks like them, or who markets themselves as somebody who offers services that address racism and difference and experiences with microaggressions or stereotype challenges.

There are practitioners who help people cope with those things. And so, families with youth of color that are experiencing racism in their school settings, … they’re going to look for practitioners that say that that’s what they offer.

Q: Students of color sometimes talk about being viewed through a deficit lens, that even well-intentioned adults can sometimes focus on their concerns about what students need rather than the strengths they bring to the classroom.

How does that framing affect students when they need to access services or supports at school?

I think we need to flip all of our practice for school psychologists. For one, much of what happens with school psychologists is they get referrals for treatment, or intervention or placement, because of a problem. So identifying that problem is part of the established practice, rather than taking a perspective of, “What are their strengths? And how can we ensure that we’re building upon the strengths before addressing any weaknesses in a student’s experience?”

So as we’re coming back from the pandemic, educators need to come from the recognition that all of us have experienced a trauma—and it’s been a chronic and enduring trauma over this past year—and that we all need love, and care, and support, and encouragement, and less pressure.

We should return [to school] by having every day start with some positive affirmation. Every day should start with practicing some mindfulness or some social-emotional learning skill, like breathing exercises, and using it in relationship with one another. So, not just doing it yourself, but doing it in community and making it a part of being able to center yourself before you begin engaging in any learning activity.

Q: What are some ways students of color have experienced the pandemic and protests over racial justice differently than their white peers? And how might schools be mindful of that?

This is a harsh statement to say, but I do believe that, for many students of color, they’ve gotten a break [while learning remotely] from the historical microaggressions that they’ve been experiencing. And, you know, those who didn’t feel a sense of belonging or didn’t feel a sense of community ... didn’t have to fake or pretend to be something else.

I have watched my own 17-year-old and her friends. Over the course of the year, since George Floyd’s [death in police custody], they got a voice in a different way. And they were able to feel a sense of not only internalized empowerment, but also community empowerment. They were able to witness not just Black youth standing for Black Lives Matter, but also white youth and their friends and the people that were pretty much quiet before.

So they want to go back, but they also want to go back better. They want to go back to a place where they feel like they belong and where people are listening.

But there are also ways [some students of color have] dealt with remote learning. Some teachers had these expectations of students being on video and participating in the same ways that they would in the classroom. That affected a lot of youth of color who are in environments that may not be optimal for learning, and they didn’t want to expose their homes, and they didn’t want to have people see their living conditions and things like that. ... There was a lack of awareness of that.

Q: For many students of color, their communities were hit harder by the pandemic. They’ve seen higher rates of fatalities and virus cases that many officials have tied back to systemic inequality. How should schools engage with that grief in a culturally responsive way?

I feel like having the space and opportunity to talk about it, about the losses, and then be able to honor the people that are gone, is a really important way to bring something special into the classroom, so that students’ whole selves are met. ... For example, for Mexican students, the Day of the Dead is a day where you honor ancestors and people that have passed on. … Giving kids the voice to be able to say, “This is how I’m living my life in respect of my ancestors’ life, or my great-uncle, or my cousin who just died from COVID.”

To [have these discussions] would be just a really powerful way to honor the experience and how painful this is. I keep hearing about people [getting sick] every single day. The circle is closing in.

Q: In some cities, we’ve seen that parents of color have a lot of distrust in schools, and that’s made them reluctant to send their children back to in-person learning. How does trust play into families’ willingness to engage with these kinds of emotional supports at schools?

Trust has to be earned. And we’ve had decades and decades and decades of not being able to trust fully unless that was the norm or the culture of the school already.

So the family engagement practices, those need to be tripled. And I would recommend that the parents have voice in those efforts, ... [that schools] create opportunities for them to share how they would like to be engaged.

There’s a long history of efforts that have been thwarted by school personnel saying that families are “just not responding” or they’re “just not available.” And that has often been done to Black families and Black parents more than anyone. It has to do a lot with [schools’] behavior and misinterpreting behavior of parents and of their children.

It’s not pleasant to be a parent getting only calls from a school or emails from a school when your child is misbehaving, but nothing positive. And so all those practices have to be flipped—start with the positives, the strengths, connecting on a real personal level.

Q: When you talk about misinterpreting children’s behavior, do you mean seeing behavior as defiance when a kid is really maybe distracted or emotional?

Yes. And what we know about trauma behaviors is that oftentimes children who have experienced trauma, or are experiencing trauma, behave in ways that are less predictable.

And for teachers who have not had related experiences … they will interpret the behavior in a way that needs to be disciplined, rather than a way of calling in a student and finding out what’s the root source of the problem. The root source is often pain, not intending to be disrespectful. … Kids can show depression through anger and irritability. And we miss that

Q: If you were to give a pep talk to a school counselor or psychologist who’s going to start their first year next year—when we’re still kind of figuring out how to recover from all of this— what would you tell them?

I would say, if we take care of the adults, we will be able to take care of the children. Recognize that much of adverse childhood experiences come from adult behaviors, adult decisions, and adult misinterpretation. And so if we not only pay attention to the social-emotional needs of the kids, but also of our teachers ... that will help the whole community.

We all have elevated anxiety. It’s not just the pathology of an anxiety disorder. Everybody has more anxiety. So let’s treat it as if everybody needs support.

Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2021 edition of Education Week as Meeting the Needs of Students of Color in a Time of Collective Trauma

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