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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Creating an Identity-Safe Classroom

Becki Cohn-Vargas Ed.d and Dorothy M. Steele Ed.d

In their book, “Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn” (2013) Steele and Cohn-Vargas describe an evidence-based approach that leads to improved student sense of identity safety and higher levels of achievement.
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Though teachers across the nation share the goals of successfully educating all students, disproportionate numbers of low-income students and students of color are pushed out and fail to graduate. So what prevents us from meeting each student's educational needs? We propose that one barrier is educators who often don't recognize the link between students' social and cognitive development, and that without addressing each student's needs for belonging and value, we cannot successfully teach them.

Our thinking is based on the assumption that teachers want the best for students and seek to be fair. Often they try to be colorblind, inadvertently creating an unsafe environment. When teachers don't pay attention to who each student is by failing to address his or her particular experiences and background, they unintentionally convey that what students know and can do, and how they feel, doesn't matter. Without environmental cues that value their lives and interests, these students become, in the terms of Ralph Ellison (1952), invisible. Yet efforts not to see difference can actually magnify the impact of differences.

An Alternative to Colorblindness

Learning is a social process that depends on fostering positive relationships so that students feel safe to engage fully in school. We would even argue that cognitive development cannot occur unless the social nature of learning is addressed in every aspect of school, because a negative social environment distracts from learning as students worry about their competence and belonging.

Our research revealed that teachers can create identity-safe classrooms, defined as places that foster belonging and value for students of all backgrounds. This assumes that schooling is a social process that depends on trust, a process in which their social identity is an asset to school success. Because of our racialized American history, some social identities are linked to school success while others are not. These social identities continuously affect students' experiences. With identity-safe teaching, students become successful learners.

In the Stanford Integrated Schools Project, a year-long study of 84 elementary classrooms, we went beyond the colorblind approach to document the relationships, arrangement of materials, questions directed toward students, evidence of cooperation, approaches to misbehavior, and use of diverse materials and activities as a resource for teaching rather than a colorblind approach.

From our data we found that, in higher identity-safe classrooms, students had higher scores on standardized tests, wanted challenging work, felt a greater sense of belonging, and felt more positive about school compared to students from less identity-safe classrooms. Our research revealed a constellation of things that educators can do.

Domains of Identity Safety

We discovered four domains that work together to create trust, autonomy, belonging, and competence -- and create a sense that each child's interests and skills matter. With each domain, we include a few suggested practices.

1. Student-Centered Teaching

This domain promotes autonomy, cooperation, and student voice. Student-centered teaching forms the foundation of a classroom by helping students learn self-efficacy and cooperation with ways to contribute ideas, thoughts, and feelings.

  • Have students set social and academic goals, reflect on how they are working together, and propose ways to improve.
  • Encourage students to help one another.

2. Cultivating Diversity as a Resource

This domain includes using diversity as a resource for learning while demonstrating high expectations through academic rigor and challenging curriculum. Diversity is not an add-on, but an integral part of having students co-create an exciting curriculum by drawing on their unique backgrounds.

  • Every day (not restricted to a specific month or holiday), include diverse music, art, games, stories, and activities that reflect the backgrounds of each student.
  • Convey high expectations through positive presuppositions, phrases that assume a student's best intention and effort.

3. Classroom Relationships

This domain includes teacher warmth and availability for learning and positive student relationships as foundational for trust. Teachers achieve this through caring, attentiveness, and ensuring that students treat one another kindly and fairly. Genuine warmth and friendliness go a long way toward creating a sense of belonging.

  • Blend humor and lightheartedness with meaningful academic content.
  • Ensure that nobody is humiliated or criticized, but rather that everyone is learning together from mistakes.

4. Caring Classroom Environments

This domain focuses on students' emotional and physical comfort and attention to prosocial development in the classroom environment. The emotional tone of a classroom determines whether or not the students feel physically and psychologically safe and comfortable. Attention to their prosocial development along with academic growth will support development in both areas. This practice comes with built-in management because the teacher communicates clear expectations and students feel able to manage themselves in a classroom that doesn't feel chaotic.

  • Put every student's work on the wall, whether or not it's perfect.
  • Include posters and displays that include other people who look like your students.
  • Incorporate both social skill building and practice into academic and nonacademic moments.
  • Imagine the classroom from the point of view of different students. One approach is sitting in their seats to imagine how they feel in class.

Putting It All Together

Identity safety is more than the sum of its parts. While many aspects may be familiar, it is nuanced and challenging because it is not a program, but rather a constellation of components. Yet, by taking the time to intentionally work on creating an identity-safe classroom, the effort will be rewarding as you see your students thrive.

In the comments section below, please share your own thoughts on and experiences with identity safety.

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Bullying Prevention
This series offers strategies to prevent bullying at your school.

Becki Cohn-Vargas Ed.d and Dorothy M. Steele Ed.d

In their book, “Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn” (2013) Steele and Cohn-Vargas describe an evidence-based approach that leads to improved student sense of identity safety and higher levels of achievement.

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Lessia Bonn's picture
Lessia Bonn
I am Bullyproof Music

I am currently co-creating with a teacher across the country from me whose classroom sounds exactly like what you're describing! I'm going to send Retta here to read your article. From us both; we concur! Her classroom is called Rainbow City Learning. She runs it by your rules. I am honored that my material supports her ELA lessons and classroom dynamics.
"Imagine the classroom from the point of view of different students." I LOVE that! I have a song all about that. Main idea: We are all special and we are all different. And YAY for that :-) Your ideas rock.

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