The Safe Classrooms Blog explores how educators and parents can use social-emotional learning to create more accepting classrooms where young people feel empowered to prevent and interrupt bullying. Click one of the topics below to read more.

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February 2021

A Closer Look at Conflict Resolution

Bullying behaviors should always be interrupted and reported but we also need a clear process for conflict resolution. This requires a sincere apology, making amends, and forgiveness. Both the aggressor and the target should be willing to participate and take the process seriously. For the target. As a trusted adult, you can assure both individuals that, while the harm cannot be undone, this process will make your community stronger. 

Lessons Learned

As a 5th grade teacher, I wanted my students to learn conflict resolution on their own. I knew that they could do it if I gave them the tools they needed. In the weeks before school started up, I created a ‘peace corner’ in my classroom– a space where students who felt harmed could cool down, reflect, request an apology, and give forgiveness. I even bought a bean-bag chair, a few plants, and a box full of stress balls. If someone hurts you, I instructed my students, take some time to cool down, then ask the classmate who harmed you to “talk it out together” in the peace corner using sentence frames:

  • Student A- “When you did…it made me feel…”
  • Student B- “I am sorry for…” Student A- “I heard you say you are sorry for…”
  • Student B- “In the future, I will not…”
  • Student A- “In the future could you please not do…

The magical peace corner freed up time for me to focus more of my energy on student learning, and the routine worked wonders. It promoted emotional regulation, self-expression, and conflict resolution. That is until it stopped working altogether. A simple apology worked for “small” harms like an unreturned pencil or an inadvertent push in the recess line. But when a student felt deeply hurt by an action, “I’m sorry for…” rarely achieved mutual resolution. Deeper hurt was only superficially resolved and their feelings became resentment, retaliation, sadness, shame. Old wounds would re-open at the slightest provocation, or new wounds would open before the old ones could heal. My transformative project, it seemed, had failed miserably. Looking back, it was naive of me to think that conflict resolution would be so simple. C.S Lewis wrote, “We all agree that forgiveness is a beautiful idea until we have to practice it.” My classroom’s conflict resolution toolkit was obviously missing a very important piece: making amends. It was time to press the reset button on the peace corner.

Beyond Apologies

The sentence frames above provide a strong foundation by encouraging students to fully hear one another, however, the true resolution only happens when the individual who caused harm shows empathy and compassion for the impact of their actions. Effective conflict resolution requires deeper levels of emotional intelligence that take time to internalize. The person we’ve harmed is allowed to ask us to make amendsMaking amends means correcting our mistakes through actions that do not harm ourselves, them, or anyone else. As the person who hurt someone else, be it intentional or not, we need to know that a perfunctory “sorry” may not be enough to correct our mistake. Students can make amends by working together on a fun project, spending quality time together, or writing letters to one another.

Lessons for Conflict Resolution

1. It takes courage, humility, and compassion to seek and offer forgiveness. It is not an act of weakness. Share examples of forgiveness in literature and history that demonstrate how forgiveness of one’s enemies made an individual or a group stronger.

2. A true apology recognizes harm and humbly asks forgiveness, focusing on the harm caused, not the intent, with a goal to avoid making the same mistake again and a commitment to rebuilding trust. Making amends means rebuilding the trust to be stronger than before. Begin with compassion and empathy.

3. Discuss characters who have been hurt and examine how we think that person might feel. Explain that forgiveness requires us to understand how our actions affect others. Encourage students to ask the person they’ve harmed, “What would help?”

4. Suggest that students set compassionate boundaries for themselves. If they are repeatedly being harmed by one person, let them know that it could be acceptable not to choose this person as their close friend, as long as they are not excluding this person in order to cause harm.

5. Apologies, amends, and forgiveness aside, the process of healing from trauma is left to the person who experienced it. Apologies and amends might make you feel better but the act of healing is, in the end, up to you. This is where seeking support from others – a counselor, family member, or trusted friend- becomes important. Healing takes time but you will be stronger because of it.

Key Words: Empathy, Forgiveness, Apology, Impact, Healing, Harm, Intent, Personal Boundaries, Making Amends, Humility, Compassion.

The Philosophy of Kintsukuroi

Kintsukuroi (n.) (v. phr.) – “to repair with gold”; the art of repairing pottery with gold or silver lacquer and understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken.

This philosophy comes from Japanese artistry and provides a great metaphor for forgiveness. Kintsukuroi or Kintsugi (“golden repair”) is the ancient tradition of adding gold or silver to broken pottery with the philosophy that an item’s imperfections are part of its story, not something to be hidden or disguised.

KintsukuroiI know that I’ve heard about this concept before and maybe you have too but I thought it was worth sharing as a reminder to us all.  It struck me as having unique relevance for our deeper understanding of conflict resolution. Like a broken object, an apology does not magically return the object to its earlier form or hide the breaks. Instead, the breaks become a part of its own unique story. We can teach this imaginative metaphor to help others internalize important lessons about forgiveness and healing.

Just as humans are vulnerable to harming one another and feeling hurt, objects are vulnerable to breaking. Mistakes and harm can always be repaired while becoming a part of our unique story. As Kintsukuroi artisans believe, imperfections are a part of our story and do not need to be hidden. Repairing an object with gold or silver shows to the world that it has a story. Experiencing harm, making amends, and forgiving one another does not erase the mistake or the hurt. Instead, the process makes us stronger and increases our capacity to love and forgive in the future.

January 2021

Helping Young People Develop Resilience

As a kid, I thought that resilience was a superhuman ability belonging to comic book characters who could heal themselves while defeating evil villains. In school, I saw resilience embodied by Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr., who acted with unflagging courage, persistence, determination, and moral excellence in the face of adversity. I figured some individuals were simply born with resilience, bound for the pages of history and comic books.

When High School arrived, I decided I might have been born with some resilience. As a freshman, my track coach told us we needed mental toughness: the ability to overcome the doubts that prevent you from being successful. This became the Jedi mind trick that could quiet the self-doubting voice in my head. Mental toughness, however, couldn’t help me outrun the negative emotions from experiences with bullying and social struggle. Overcoming self-doubt, it seemed, was only one side of the coin.

While working on a family history for a school project, I wrote about how my grandfather died when my late father was only eighteen years old. Despite this hardship, he adapted with courage and determination. He did this by, as he said, “focusing on what I could control and what I still had,” which meant caring for siblings, beginning a career, and starting his own family. Those words always stuck with me. Resilience is not a magically bestowed superhuman ability, nor is it one’s ability to ignore pain. In fact, part of resilience is knowing when we need support from others. Adapting to life’s challenges requires acknowledging that life is full of events that we cannot control, and instead choosing to focus on and control what we can.

Tools for Students

Research suggests that skills like resilience cannot be learned through the traditional methods of teaching. Instead, students can develop the ability to be resilient by learning how to respond to stress. As parents and educators, it is our job to shape the classroom and home environment, giving students the tools to develop resilience.

Student Resilience Checklist

When challenging or stressful situations show up, I will…

  • Remember that life is full of challenges. Resilient people understand that challenges are a part of life. Say: “Everyone faces challenges in life. What matters is how I choose to respond.”
  • Use a growth mindset by choosing to learn and adapt from adversity. I will encourage my peers to have a growth mindset, too. Say: “Adversity helps me grow. Ask: “What can I learn from this experience?”
  • Reach out to trusted individuals for emotional support or encouragement. Asking for help takes courage and makes me strong. Say: “Part of being resilient is knowing when I need help. I can talk to someone about this negative feeling.”
  • Be kind to myself and avoid self-harm. Ask: “Is this thought helpful or harmful?” If it’s helpful, I will keep it. If it’s not, I will choose to ignore it for now and talk to someone later. This will help me stay in control. If someone says something hurtful to me, I won’t repeat it to myself. Instead, I will talk to someone about how it made me feel.
  • Notice the positive; celebrate what I already have. I can beat negative feelings by focusing on the positive. Ask: “What do I have to be thankful for?”
  • Stay focused on my big goals. As a resilient person, I stay focused on my big goals so that little hurdles don’t slow me down. Say: “If I keep working hard, I can accomplish anything. I won’t let this obstacle get in the way of my big goals.”
  • Use a strategy like deep breathing or counting to myself. Focus on my breathing until my body feels better and the negative thoughts go away.

Educator & Parent Actions that Foster Resilience

As educators and parents know, negative stress makes classroom learning nearly impossible. By providing an environment that helps students cope with stress, we can improve overall academic and social outcomes. Research suggests that students who believe they have the capacity to develop both intellectual abilities and social attributes (such as resilience) tend to exhibit lower stress responses to adversity, which can result in improved academic performance. Communicate to students and families that you will be focusing on developing effort, resilience, and perseverance as important life skills. Below are some suggestions for how to do this.

Educator/Parent Resilience Checklist

To foster resilience as an educator or parent, I can…

  • Build strong, supportive relationships with students; foster supportive relationships between students; make sure students know that you and others are always there for them.
  • Affirm and reward students for effort, not just academic achievement or “good grades”.
  • Teach and model a growth mindset by sharing how individuals learned from their mistakes or “failures” and went on to be successful.
  • Help children (and their parents) learn from their mistakes and communicate about the process.
  • Provide students plenty of opportunities to identify times when they and their family members have embodied the spirit of resilience.
  • Lead mindfulness practices such as noticing (but not dwelling on) negative thoughts.
  • Plan routines that allow students to reflect on how they have practiced resilience.

Resilience to Bullying, Harassment, and Humiliation

We shouldn’t need to ask students to develop resilience for bullying behaviors. They should always respectfully interrupt and report any bullying behaviors, and feel comfortable asking for help. That said, an attitude of resilience in regard to bullying can still be beneficial to students in the long run. For this reason, consider offering the following tips to your students.

To encourage resilience, educators can encourage young people to…

  • Address the Issue(s) – Teach proactive habits like standing up for yourself respectfully and safely, reporting the behavior, reaching out to friends, and seeking mental health services as needed.
  • Avoid Victim Mentality – Encourage young people to avoid thinking of themselves as a victim by reminding them that their experience came as a result of another individual’s actions.
  • Seek Acceptance – Provide spaces (including home) where young people are free to be themselves and feel accepted. Encourage them to try new things that they are passionate about.
  • Develop An Emotional Vocabulary – Encourage kids to name their emotions instead of acting on them. It’s OK to feel angry and discuss that feeling. Model and support young people’s development and use of their emotional vocabulary.
  • Question the Critic – Teach young people to notice, question, and ignore self-criticism. Instead, ask them to write down positive affirmations to replace self-criticism in the future.
  • Build a Narrative – Remind young people that they have a history of overcoming bullying behaviors. Remind them that the pain they felt then was only temporary.

December 2020

Teaching #Upstander Behavior

This article offers educators and parents tools they can use to create a community of #Upstanders. In my experience as a teacher, my students acted as Upstanders when they were empowered to be assertive about their values and felt supported by their classmates’ collective efforts to create and maintain the community. If my students asked for help with interpersonal conflict, they found it among their peers, who could empathize and offer assistance. Instead of the teacher (me) putting out fires of bullying or conflict, I wanted students to interrupt, report, support conflict resolutions, and check-in with both individuals after the event. This meant releasing control, talking less and listening more, and creating a space for everyone to be heard. In the sections below, I’ve shared some basic ideas about how to begin this work. 

Identify and Clarify Your Community Expectations

With your class or group, identify the kind of behaviors and interactions members expect from one another. Take note of specific actions or language that made individuals feel unsafe or threatened in the past. Ask students to consider their own experiences with bullying scenarios in all roles: aggressors, targets, bystanders, or Upstanders.

  • Begin by brainstorming important shared values that individuals consider to be important;
  • Use an anonymous pre-survey so that all students feel comfortable sharing;
  • Frame expectations positively;
  • If appropriate for age and context, consider creating expectations regarding real or perceived power dynamics, bias, stereotypes, and discrimination;
  • Guide the group to connect their expectations with shared values;
  • Explain that all students have a collective responsibility to intervene and respond; discuss ways for individuals to respond, including reporting the behavior to a person of authority. 

Example Community Expectation: We choose to reject stereotypes because they lead to prejudiced behavior; they are unfair and harmful. 

Example Shared Value: We collectively value diversity, equality, justice, and social awareness.

Example Collective Responsibility: It is our responsibility as a community to call out and correct stereotypes, bias, prejudice, and discrimination. We will intervene when we feel safe to do so, report the behavior when necessary, and check-in with the targeted individual.

Develop a Collective Responsibility Mindset

Community meetings should promote a collective responsibility, which means that everyone acts in the interest of all other individuals while respectfully holding transgressors responsible. Community meetings offer opportunities for individuals to anonymously discuss bullying or harassment. Community leaders should hold these meetings even if bullying is not being reported because they provide a safe space to discuss the conflict. Holding these meetings is a proactive way to prevent bullying, harassment, and humiliation before it begins. 

As a facilitator, you can encourage discussion of ways to support both the target and the aggressor while also holding their peers accountable for being kind to one another. If a student is bullying, harassing, or humiliating their peers, hold a group meeting that directly addresses the issue without calling out the aggressor by name, however, leave the problem solving up to the students. As a facilitator you might say: I want everyone to know that in this space we do not use names. Instead, we will focus on how behaviors or actions have impacted our community. Then we can work together to come up with solutions to these issues.

Below is one potential process for groups to use when taking collective responsibility for interpersonal conflict and bullying:

  1. Individuals report out to the community about specific behaviors or words anonymously and objectively. For example, “In the past week, I have heard individuals using racial/ethnic slurs that I know to be offensive and harmful to others.” (They should also separately report inappropriate or harmful behaviors and actions directly to a person of authority when it is safe to do so.) Members of the group may also choose to share how this behavior or action has impacted them. 
  2. The group takes collective responsibility by discussing ways to act as Upstanders– holding the aggressors accountable and ensuring that they interrupt in similar scenarios if they happen to occur in the future.
  3. If individuals violated community expectations, the group can discuss appropriate ways for the aggressor to make amends, which can then be taken under consideration by a person of authority. 

What it Means to Create an Upstander Community

Being a community of Upstanders means that individuals act with both self-awareness. Educators should promote the development of self-awareness by encouraging individuals to honestly know and accept themselves, including their goals and values, as well as the obstacles that they often face.

Social awareness, on the other hand, is the ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others. One way to support social awareness is to facilitate effective communication such as active listening skills. Group members should practice sharing their own values, as well as listening to the values of their peers. Combining the teaching of these skills will help your community members communicate and solve an interpersonal conflict.

As an educator, parent, student, or colleague, we believe that you have the ability to transform your community into space where #Upstander behavior is the norm. This is possible when everyone has clear expectations that are tied to their values, and a clear sense of how to respond to transgressions. As a group, you can maintain these expectations by checking-in regularly and building rituals that enable group members to communicate about their experiences. In promoting community Upstander behavior, it is your job to help the group arrive at an agreeable solution that meets the needs of all individuals. By doing this, you can empower others to be Upstanders who support and protect one another in an effort to end bullying in all forms. 

November 2020

LGBTQ+ Inclusion

New Jersey recently passed a mandate for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ content in textbooks and social studies curricula in schools throughout the state. Since then, Colorado, Oregon, Illinois, and Maryland have added similar laws. Utah, Arizona, and Alabama recently lifted restrictions on LGBTQ+ issues being taught in schools, however, seven states still have restrictions in place. The remaining 35 states have no specific inclusion laws, which means that many students still do not have access to LGBTQ+ history in their classrooms. 

All children deserve to learn from inclusive representations of history in the classroom. Refusing to include LGBTQ+ content in the classroom may signal to young people that these important stories do not matter and for LGBTQ+ students: that they themselves do not belong. At the Tyler Clementi Foundation, we believe that schools have a responsibility to help all students feel safe, included, and accepted. Stories of individuals overcoming discrimination and fighting for equality teach children that America is great because of its diversity, not in spite of it. In New Jersey, a parent of a transgender child argued that the recent legislation is essential for LGBTQ+ children, “This bill is so important for our young people…they need to see examples of themselves in the history being taught and in classes, they are going to each day. We know representation matters.” 

There is evidence that inclusive curricula improve the school experience for all students. Research suggests that when LGBTQ+ content is included in a school, bullying decreases and the campus climate improves for all students, LGBTQ+ students feel increased levels of safety and school engagement. Inclusion efforts can also increase social awareness, which is the ability to empathize with others from diverse backgrounds. According to a survey conducted by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, some of the most in-demand job skills can be linked to social awareness. As more states adopt the LGBTQ+ curriculum, administrators and educators will need to commit themselves to the work of creating fully inclusive schools.

What is LGBTQ+ Curriculum? 

The One Archives Foundation offers a series of free, standards-based lesson plans on LGBTQ history. These plans are appropriate for high school students and some upper-middle school classrooms depending on student maturity level. Teachers of younger students can adapt these lessons or seek out inclusive books about LGBTQ, transgender, non-binary, or gender-expansive children. Below are a few lessons from the One Archives website:

  • Students can explore the AIDS crisis timeline of events leading up to the second March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in order to consider how LGBT activists responded to government policies regarding AIDS, including their protests for affordable drug prices. They can reflect on how the battle against AIDS influenced the broader movement for LGBTQ+ rights and analyze artwork by Keith Haring and photographs from ACT UP/LA protests. They can watch a short documentary by Scott Calonico about the Reagan Administration’s lack of response to the epidemic. (Full lesson plan here)
  • Students can learn about California’s 2012 FAIR Education Act, which requires schools to include fair, accurate, inclusive representations of LGBTQ+ people in social studies classrooms. They can explore the language of the bill to determine what is meant by fairness, accuracy, inclusivity, and representation in this context. Students can consider both sides of the debate including arguments from organizations that opposed this legislation and watch testimony from Senate Judiciary hearings as LGBTQ+ community members testified on the importance of the law. (Full lesson plan here)
  • Students can explore the life of Bayard Rustin, the gay man who was responsible for planning the March on Washington. Along with Dr. King, Rustin was one of the pioneers of peaceful protest within the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout his career as a Civil Rights Activist, Rustin was forced to keep his sexual orientation hidden from the public and was eventually forced to stop working for Dr. King due to accusations surrounding his sexual orientation. Students will have an opportunity to reflect on the difficult choices that Rustin was forced to make due to his sexuality. (Full lesson plan here)
  • Students can explore how The Ladder magazine offered lesbian women support in the 1950s. They can discuss the fearful reality of living as a Lesbian in the 1950s while learning from the lives of Lesbian activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian-centered organization in the United States. They can discuss why belonging to LGBT communities was important to LGBT individuals in this time period. (Full lesson plan here)

Teachers Can Affirm Children’s Identity & Support Inclusion

Curriculum inclusion is an important step, however, true inclusion and acceptance are just as important. Teachers, Administrators, and Parents should model acceptance and affirmation of children who identify as LGBTQ+, transgender, non-binary, or gender expansive. Doing so will set a clear tone of acceptance in your classroom, workplace, or faith community. In general, LGBTQ+ inclusive spaces support and affirm all gender identities and sexual orientations.

Educators should begin the practice of asking students to introduce themselves along with their gender pronouns in order to be trans and non-binary inclusive. In a survey, 56% of Gen-Z said that they knew someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns. Many individuals have a preferred pronoun to be used when referring to them in the third person, including he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/them/their, ze/hir/hirs, and other gender-neutral pronouns. New York University suggests that instructors give a questionnaire before the start of classes that includes an opportunity for students to indicate their preferred pronouns. Consider using a Gender Inclusivity Workbook like Creating Authentic Spaces, find a list of gender pronouns, or check out these videos about gender pronouns and why gender pronouns matter. Remind students that it’s okay to make mistakes but that they should apologize and correct themselves.

In order to affirm students and addressing bullying in the classroom: “Teachers can be tremendous allies both in their role as educators and also as affirming adults in the lives of children. For every slur that goes unchecked, an LGBTQ person may be emotionally injured…Using the name and pronouns of a transgender or gender-expansive student is the easiest way to show support and inclusion as well as creating an environment of safety (Accredited Schools Online).” This work of inclusion is an important part of the social-emotional skill of social acceptance.

Raise Awareness for LGBTQ+ Representation

Teachers can also discuss and call attention to representation. This means talking to students about how LGBTQ+ individuals are portrayed in the media and in history, as well as instances of misrepresentation and unequal representation. The documentary Disclosure explores how trans depictions in film and television have not reflected the reality of living as a trans person; the film Miss Representation discusses the lack of representation in the media of women in leadership roles.

Students deserve to see positive reflections of themselves when they turn on the television, read a magazine, or go online. As an educator, you can hold up a mirror by pointing out accurate representations of LGBTQ+ people in the media. You can introduce young people to the recently elected transgender, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming leaders at the state level or discuss the Rainbow Wave that made the U.S. Congress more diverse than ever before.

Find ways to lift up LGBTQ+ individuals, women, and people of color in leadership roles. Although the population of LGBTQ+ individuals has increased, representation continues to lag behind. More than half of Generation Z (age 13 to 20) choose not to identify as strictly heterosexual. There has been an overall increase in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender identification, most of which can be attributed to Millennials. According to GLAAD, between 2008 and 2015, the number of American adults who know or work with a transgender person increased from 8% to 16%. Nick Adams of GLAAD writes, “… it’s crucial that the media increase and improve the coverage…and that transgender people have the opportunity to tell their own stories about our lives and the issues we face.”

Educators Committed to True Equality  

LGBTQ+ individuals are still fighting for true equality in their homes, schools, workplaces, faith communities. In order to teach LGBTQ+ history, we need to imagine a more just and equal future for our children. It takes courage to teach counter-narratives when many of us were raised with one story of American History.

Whether you are an educator or an ally, you should consider yourself part of the movement for inclusion and true equality. Teaching inclusive history is a way of standing in solidarity with all LGBTQ+ individuals. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire describes the mindset of one who is truly committed to the liberation of all people: “This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.”

October 2020

Support Children Experiencing Loneliness

I struggled academically and socially in high school and nobody (myself included) understood why. Teachers described me as creative, friendly, and intelligent, yet I struggled to complete assignments that should have been easy for me and rarely felt like I fit in socially. I attended good schools, had plenty of friends, and received good grades nearly all my life, so my failure to thrive was confusing. I just felt different. A mental health diagnosis could not describe the feeling that a therapist would eventually help me name: loneliness. Although I appeared to be fine, my internal world was a cycle of loneliness and stress. I can see now that I was experiencing social isolation and an unmet need for connectedness and belonging.

As our social lives are interrupted by pandemic, we need to acknowledge the loneliness and stress sometimes caused by social isolation among both adults and children. At the Tyler Clementi Foundation, embracing and accepting all individuals is at the heart of our work. And being an Upstander means reaching out and listening to individuals who need support, checking-in regularly, being open to their experiences and encouraging them to seek mental health support when appropriate. In this time of increased social isolation, how can we better understand loneliness in order to support young people’s need for connectedness and belonging?

What is Loneliness? Who Experiences It? 

Loneliness is essentially an unmet need for connection that can cause discomfort and stress in the body and interfere with our daily lives; it is more common than one might guess and is experienced by children and adults alike. A 2018 study found that loneliness afflicted roughly 60 million (22%) of American adults (this was before the Covid-19 pandemic increased our rates of social isolation). A meta-analysis of several studies suggests that loneliness is associated with harmful effects on physical health (Vox).  Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy explains that people who experience loneliness are often in a constant state of hyper-vigilance, which can lead to increased stress levels. 

Children and young adults who experience loneliness or social isolation may actually have plenty of friends, which means that their struggle is often hard to identify. As author Kate Kelly writes on understood.org, young people who learn and think differently are more likely to experience loneliness. These young people may struggle with traits like self-control, social skills, making conversation, or self-esteem. Kelly also writes that feeling lonely is not the same as being alone or wanting solitude. Students who struggle with socializing do not necessarily experience loneliness or social isolation, however, it is an issue that often goes unnoticed or misunderstood.

The Negative Effects of Social Isolation On Learning and Health 

Social isolation can create patterns that have negative effects on both health and learning. Beyond Differences, an organization that works to end social isolation issued a review of existing scientific literature entitled, “It Hurts More Than You Think.” They define social isolation as, “the absence or perceived absence of satisfying social relationships; [perceiving] a discrepancy between the desired and achieved patterns of social interaction.” In their research, Dabney Ingram and Rebecca London suggest that social isolation can cause numerous negative mental and physical health effects including depression, anxiety, higher blood pressure, increased risk of substance abuse, and obesity in young adulthood. The studies cited in their report also suggest that social isolation in school can lead to lower classroom engagement, decreased attendance rates, and worsened performance on measures of student achievement and high school exams.

Social Isolation

In order to target and prevent loneliness, we must seek out ways to increase feelings of student connectedness and belonging, which is considered the inverse of social isolation. Social isolation prevention, Dabney and London suggest, is one critical step that schools can take in order to meet the needs of all students. A school-wide intervention approach targeting childhood loneliness, that doesn’t single out lonely children but instead changes social practices has been shown to be effective. These interventions could include altering environmental factors or teaching students about the importance of helping those who feel isolated. Some of the authors’ recommendations inspired our ideas in the section below.

Ideas For Parents

  • Help your child cultivate identity and seek affinity among classmates and friends by encouraging hobbies that may help children connect with others.
  • Talk to your children about their culture and traditions including nationality, race/ethnicity, religion; create safe spaces for them to discuss culture among friends.
  • Help young people define their identity more acutely. For example, teach young people to notice that an academic interest like marine biology or theater is an opportunity to connect with a community of like-minded individuals.
  • Consider forming a learning pod during the pandemic, or seek other options for learning and socializing outside of the virtual classroom. Consider planning safe, socially distanced social activities that follow CDC guidelines.
  • Offer opportunities to connect through shared activities. Set safe boundaries for age-appropriate video game and social media use (e.g. avoid posting anonymously). Download our cybersafety guide here for more information on creating family guidelines.
  • Consider encouraging children to join online groups formed around a specific area of interest. Age-appropriate video Games can actually be a source of connection for some children, so consider giving them a chance.
  • Discuss your own need for belonging and connectedness and practice compassion for yourself and others.
  • Develop mindfulness routines that address stress in the body.
  • Be open to your child having mentors and developmentally appropriate friendships across gender identity, age group, and cultural identity.
  • Encourage children to reach out to friends whom they haven’t heard from in a while. As Dr. Vivek Murthy writes:  

“Another thing we can do is service. This is a time where so many people are struggling. So service in a time of Covid-19 doesn’t have to look like going to a soup kitchen or spending a month with Habitat for Humanity. It can look like calling a friend to see how they’re doing. It can be checking on a neighbor who might be older to make sure that they have groceries. It can be FaceTiming with your friends’ children to virtually babysit them for 10 or 15 minutes so their parents have time to sit and breathe.” 

– Dr. Vivek Murthy, Former Surgeon General and Author of Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World

Ideas For Educators

  • If possible, provide opportunities for students to continue participating in affinity groups, student groups, or clubs that encourage students to share their experience with one another. Some virtual conference platforms include options for creating smaller conference rooms, which can facilitate student sharing
  • Set aside virtual class time for students to socialize. If your school is 100% virtual, make a plan for returning to in-person classes that provide opportunities for students to connect with one another socially.
  • Discuss the importance of social inclusion and helping others feel a sense of belonging.
  • Create student mentorship programs that allow young people to connect with others outside of their grade level or classroom.
  • Implement a school-wide loneliness intervention plan for when your students return from virtual learning. Visit beyonddifferences.org to find out how their resources can help you create a culture of belonging.

Upstanders Act with Compassion & Empathy

Young people often take their social cues from adults, which is why we should all strive to act with compassion and empathy. Fostering connectedness and belonging requires us to practice compassion and empathy– qualities that we should all model for young people. Acting with compassion and empathy signals that you want others to feel connectedness and belonging. It’s not always easy, but in this time of social distancing and political division, it certainly feels necessary. On behalf of the Tyler Clementi Foundation, thank you for continuing to be an Upstander!

Article References and Resources

Understood.Org -Loneliness Can Impact Kids Who Learn and Think Differently

Beyond Differences – Consequences of Social Isolation

Vox – America’s Loneliness Epidemic and Coronavirus Pandemic Together

New York Times – Learning Pods

CDC.Gov – Parent Checklist

Tyler Clementi Foundation’s Cybersafety Guide

Connecticut Children’s – Mindfulness Exercises for Kids

September 2020

Embracing Classroom Diversity

In my early days as a classroom teacher, I would often interrupt conflict between students with a simple refrain like, “You don’t have to like them but you’re going to need to tolerate them.” This no-nonsense message often resonated with my 5th and 6th graders, and it helped me maintain peace in the classroom. I said this because I wanted to create a safe, orderly classroom environment where all students could learn and achieve academic success, however, I’ve come to believe that we must aspire for more nuanced understandings that move beyond tolerance. In the words of our CEO Jane Clementi, “schools must not merely “tolerate” children who identify as LGBTQ+ but embrace them.” This need to embrace diversity extends to any difference including race/ethnicity, ability, nationality, or religion. Together, adults and teachers need to push young people toward a deeper understanding of differences.Safe Space

Safe classrooms are spaces in which children can understand their own truth and seek understandings of truth that may be different. By consciously embracing diversity, students can develop curiosity, self-awareness, listening skills, and respect.

This work takes time and commitment. It requires that both teachers and students travel outside their comfort zones, abandon stereotypes, and notice their own bias.

 

Learning Through Mirrors and Windows

mirrorsAdults have a responsibility to encourage children to see their own uniqueness and the diversity that surrounds them, ask questions with genuine curiosity and respect, and embrace what makes them and others unique. Young people need adults who can help them understand their truth while guiding them to understand the truth of others.

Educator Emily Style suggests that education should consist of children learning to look through both mirrors and windows.

A mirror allows children to see their own truth; a window provides them with a chance to see and understand someone else’s truth. Students can see through someone else’s window only if they are listening to their words with an open heart and a willingness to understand; they can find their own truth in a mirror only if they acknowledge how they are different from others. 

Shifting Away from a Normalized Perspective

As a teacher, I would sometimes hear students say, “That’s so gay!”  Why is this phrase still being used to express disbelief or disapproval? As teachers, we have a responsibility to ask, “What do you mean by that?” and to listen with an open mind. We should correct their use of slurs or hurtful language, but we should also guide them to understand why they may have used those words.

fishMany children develop a “normalized perspective” through learned behavior and exposure to external messaging. They are told to behave and speak based on a presumption of heterosexuality and a gender binary, therefore, using the word gay is their response to a behavior that does not fit into this perspective. In other words, “gay” is viewed as “not normal” and students may reflect that view into their world. What they perceive as “not normal” could also be any other kind of difference, including disability, religion, or political view that does not fit into their view of normal. This same scenario can be applied to any difference that challenges children’s preconceived notions and we should be careful not to “shut-down” these conversations.

Teachers should address the comment in the moment and then check-in individually with the student after. Let them know that you notice their willingness to learn about and understand diversity and that you are excited to learn more about their thoughts in the future. Remind them that saying “that’s so gay” can make others feel hurt, alienated either because it challenges their own identity or the identity of their loved ones. Finally, let them know that “difference” goes both ways. While they may see others as different from themselves, that person also perceives them as different. By helping them learn how they themselves might be seen as different, we encourage self-awareness and acceptance of others.

Guiding Children to Embrace Diversity

Seeking to understand our individual truth might be the easy part. The difficulty lies in seeking to understand and listen to and seek to understand the truth of others. Below are some ideas for guiding children to embrace diversity.

 

Model a sincere desire to understand diversity

Say: “This is a kind of diversity that I have less personal experience with (as a cis-gendered/heterosexual/female), so I plan to keep an open mind.” 

Notice when students express a curiosity to learn about diversity

Say: “I noticed that you asked, “What kind of guy would ever want to dress up as a woman?” It’s great that you are curious about transgender individuals. I’m wondering, do you know any?”

Create genuine opportunities for students to practice reconsidering their socialized beliefs by sharing examples in literature, history, or your own experiences

Say: “This experience may seem different to us but let’s try to imagine what it might be like. Can anyone share a related experience? Even though it may seem uncommon, this person sees our normative perspective as different.”

Exercise compassion by acknowledging that everyone is in a different place

Say: “In this classroom, we all have lived experiences that shape and inform our mirrors and windows. Let’s be open to learning new things from ourselves and others.

In closing, whether you are a classroom teacher, youth group leader, or parent, this work can be incredibly challenging. At the Tyler Clementi Foundation, we believe that the reward is worth it.

The good news is that we are not alone. Many, many great educators are already doing it. Below is a list of resources that can help you develop these skills in your classroom. 

Resources

Beyond Tolerance

Teaching Tolerance

National Seed Project Curriculum

Everyday Feminism: What is Heteronormativity?

https://www.weareteachers.com/mirrors-and-windows/ 

Article References

https://nationalseedproject.org/Key-SEED-Texts/curriculum-as-window-and-mirror

https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/07/what-is-heteronormativity/

For more information on implementing these ideas in your classroom, or to share your feedback, e-mail Ryan@tylerclementi.org.