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Helping Students With Identity Secrets

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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Hidden Selves

Jake's hands were clenched and he had a weak smile on his face when he told me the joke his friends were laughing about. "I laughed, too," he said, "but inside I was filled with fear, fear that they might find out." Jake, a tall, slender high school junior, was referring to a gay joke that while not malicious, was a degrading word play. Jake is not alone.

Sarah was a fifth grade Muslim girl whose family is from the country of Georgia. Her parents were afraid that she would be insulted and shunned if it became known what her religion was, due to strong negative feelings about Muslims in her community. They said, "Just the way some people talk about President Obama being called a Muslim, as if it was a terrible thing, scares us." They changed her name to Sarah and forbade her to wear a hijab in school, even though she was very proud of her heritage. Like Jake, she was afraid that others might find out. One obvious solution for her was a private Muslim school, but there were none close enough for her to attend.

Billy was a very light-skinned African American who tried to pretend he was white. The wonderful Denzel Washington movie, Devil in a Blue Dress, uses a black woman "getting over" as white person as its central theme. While no longer a common goal for black folk, it still happens often enough to raise issues for some students.

In these three true examples, the students also felt afraid that their parents would find out as well as their classmates. Jake was afraid to tell his parents that he was gay. Sarah and Billy didn’t want to embarrass their parents by letting their secrets out.

Other identity secrets include certain forms of physical disabilities or perceived ugly birthmarks.

Most, if not all, children have secrets, including family members at home with drug and alcohol problems, poverty, abuse or even something as simple as having a secret crush for another student. But these secrets are different. Identity secrets reflect a fear of discovery about who they are, not the circumstances they are in.

No one can learn when living with a daily fear of being "found out, not only by other students, but by teachers." Can schools do anything to help students with secrets like these?

3 Steps Toward a Culture of Acceptance

Because we are professionals, the nature of these identity secrets is totally irrelevant to us, regardless of our feelings about sexual orientation, religion or race. We must ensure an emotionally safe environment for all students regardless of who they are. Of course, we must intervene when a student's secret is an illegal act like selling drugs or attacking other students online, but those secrets are not based on identity.

It is a cliché to say that all schools should encourage a culture of acceptance and safety, because all schools already promote this attitude, although some are better at it than others. But this issue is far more complicated. Whether or not a student chooses to reveal his or her identity secret is beyond the scope of the school. The consequences of "coming out" are severe for these students, well beyond the walls of school. Our goal is not to help them reveal, but to feel safe in keeping their secrets, unless they decide it is in their best interest to tell others. Here are three suggestions that can help.

1. Remain Confidential and Professional

If a student with such a secret decides to trust an adult in the school and reveal it, the adult has the responsibility to keep the information private for as long as the student requests it. The adult also has the responsibility to be a safe harbor for that student and to communicate respect and acceptance. At the same time, all professionals must inform students that if they reveal any illegal activity, they are obligated to tell the police, and if students reveal any abuse, even self-abuse, that they must report it to social services.

2. Teach Trust and Self-Knowledge

The school can teach all students not to feel guilty for having a secret, that all people have information that they have a right to keep private. Dr. Sidney B. Simon taught a strategy of extended circles starting with self, followed by intimates, friends, acquaintances and strangers. His students then decided what kinds of information about themselves belonged in each circle. Using strategies like this can help students reduce the guilt of withholding their secrets from others.

Extended Circles Model

Credit: Dr. Sidney B. Simon

We can teach students that it is usually better to move information in the self category to the intimate category, because secrets are a burden and sharing them can be a way of getting help. Problems like eating disorders or online addiction, for example, can be helped when shared with the right person. We can also teach students that the best time to share is when they are ready and have someone they trust. Additionally, they need to learn both the positive and negative consequences of sharing. The most important point of this lesson is that everyone has limits on what and with whom they can share. It is healthy to understand the nature of secrets and how to make the best decisions concerning them.

3. Teach Respect and Inclusion

Adjust the school policy and culture to remove or severely reduce jokes, slander, insults, hurtful comments and other destructive expressions about others. It should be included in the rules, but that is not enough. Use student groups to post announcements of this policy and belief system online and on walls throughout the school. Practice with students how to say, "That comment has no place in this school." Each class can have a rotating leader whose job it is to monitor hurtful comments about "the other." English and history classes can focus some stories about how society treats "the other," and the consequences of doing so.

Great teachers, counselors and schools support and protect students that fit in and fit out equally, because school is for all students at all times.

Have you experienced these issues in your school? How have you approached them?

Was this useful? (1)

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Comments (8) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Dr. Allen Mendler's picture
Dr. Allen Mendler
Author, speaker, educator

Good post Rick. I especially find your comment about making kids feel safe without revealing their secrets enlightening. So important for all kids to feel accepted for who they are at their core and for adults to model that by embracing each other despite different beliefs and practices. If only we could all just let each other be without needing to proclaim our way as the best or only way!

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist

One of your best Rick. You got it all right. I've posted this on my Facebook site. Every teacher should read this one!

Jennifer Gonzalez's picture
Jennifer Gonzalez
Blogger at Cult of Pedagogy

Fantastic piece. Such an important issue!

Apart from our general concern for our students as human beings, paying attention to these underlying issues has pragmatic value as well: A student consumed with fear of being found out will not be able to concentrate on academics.

I think another way we can nudge our school culture toward more openness is to start very, very small. For many students, even having a slightly different shoe or eating a slightly different food makes them feel like oddballs. My own kids hate that I won't buy them Lunchables for lunch, but instead send regular cheese and crackers from home. I'm certainly not trying to equate cold cuts to something as serious as sexual identity, but the more we can encourage students to be themselves in those less-intense areas, the closer we'll get to having all individual differences respected.

And the first step toward doing this is with our own behavior. We can share some of our less conventional tastes with students by talking about music, art, food, or movies, tell stories about times when we were kids and felt embarrassed about something different in our families, and show genuine curiosity about the aspects of our students' lives that make them unique. If we can convey the message to our students that we're all "strange" in our own way, we'll be taking small steps toward a school culture that's accepting of more significant differences.

Jenni Wright's picture
Jenni Wright
International speaker on changing brains without the need for surgery

I overhead a student the other day saying 'I'd like to go to something like that, but no-one else in my class is interested'. The feeing of belonging is very strong, particularly in young people.

In every one of my classes, the students write a reflection before they leave. It can be anything, words, pictures, lyrics - anything they like. They can share anything with me and it's just between us. I write a response to what they have written. I've shared some amazing things with the students (fortunately nothing illegal) and it develops rapport between us.

The idea was from the movie 'Freedom Writers' which I absolutely love!

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Thanks for sharing this. We often forget what that our kids are carrying secrets- and what impact those secrets have on their social, emotional, and academic development.

Can I also suggest, for teachers, the School Reform Initiative? ( They do some great work in helping teachers uncover their own hidden biases and the ways those biases can change the way we serve our students. Worth checking out.

I am Bullyproof -Lessia Bonn's picture

Sometimes a student just needs to tell one person so they don't feel alone. I seem to often be that person. I'm guessing it's because I don't judge, and I absolutely won't tell. Even if all we do is listen, we can be quietly helpful in those situations. This is very thoughtful piece.

Becky Fisher's picture
Becky Fisher
Education Consultant

As we know, teachers are not just there to deliver curriculum. We assist in the raising of and caring for generations of kids. And helping students through difficult issues is often part of the job description. This is a great post because it highlights the need to be sensitive to students who may feel burdened by a secret. Teachers can help alleviate that burden in some ways by listening to and accepting the secret with no judgement.

It is also part of our role to teach our students trust, respect, and inclusion. However, this should be a consistent part of our classroom and not just pop up when a situation occurs. Teaching students to be better citizens should happen everyday in both formal and informal ways. My opinion is that this is one of the most important jobs of a teacher. What do you think?

Thanks for a great post, Rick!

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

I think this applies equally to kids with learning disabilities, ranging from ADHD, to Dyslexia to Spectrum disorders. Not everyone wants their abilities/disabilities "outed" to the public, but handling them in such a way that it can help understanding and create a more tolerant and comfortable place for the affected child and classmates is important.
For example, starting to understand that the quiet "quirky" kid actually has Asperger's can be touchy, but often, once kids understand why someone is different, they are a lot more accepting and understanding.

We all need a little more of that :)


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