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Creating Equitable Classroom Environments

As the majority of the nation’s children return to in-person learning, many will be reunited with their classmates and friends. Others will meet new classmates and friends, and their teachers for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in closing schools and the surge of virtual and remote online P-12 learning environments. The decision to pivot to remote learning brought its own set of challenges for countless children and families across diverse communities. Foremost, were the ongoing efforts to create, establish, and maintain a caring and equitable classroom environment with actively engaged children and their families.

While many children and their families are eager to return to school, for others, the transition back to in-person learning is anxiety-producing because, before virtual classrooms, their experiences inside schools were culturally assaultive — their identities (cultural and personal) were devalued, their dignity denied, and their bodies policed. This is especially the case for children of color, Black children in particular, who are not excluded and protected from the experiences of undeniable individual and systemic racism that sadly, pathetically, and regrettably is a lifelong phenomenon in the lives of Black families and, by extension, their children. There is far too much psychological, physiological, and emotional damage resulting from racism and discrimination in the lives of Black children of all ages.

Trauma in Schools

Dr. Donna Y. FordDr. Donna Y. Ford

Evidence of this reality of trauma from educators is well-documented in countless video footage of Black families and their children in school settings.  Disproportionate discipline that is tantamount to policing/over-policing the Black bodies of children barely out of diapers and training pants is all too prevalent in educational settings and even before Black children enter formal schooling — in child care centers and preschool.

The impetus for our writing this article is an incident in Roswell, Georgia, involving a Black father who decided to check in on his two-year-old via live stream video. In doing so, he observed that the White children were eating lunch while the Black children were not. The toddler’s family immediately returned to the child care center to share what they viewed with the director. Despite describing the incident as “disturbing and discriminatory,” the center’s director, who stated she was not in the classroom, was quick to offer a possible explanation of a potential “dietary thing” that did not digest well with the family. #RealityCheck. It is highly unlikely that all and only the Black children had the same dietary issues. Further, if dietary issues are known by these caregivers, why were no accommodations made to feed these Black children — young children (toddlers) who rely on caring and competent educational professionals to meet their basic needs? Children — students — cannot learn when they are hungry when their stomachs are grumbling. We know this from personal and professional experiences guided by our preparation with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Where is the humanity? #BlackLivesMatter. We believe the regard for Black humanity is missing in action among these ‘caregivers’ who give the term and profession a bad name. This disturbing incident and gaslighting explanation do little to improve the longstanding rift and lack of trust that many Black families have with schools in their diligent efforts to protect their children.

Seeing these defenseless Black children being neglected triggered negative memories for me (Ford). I vividly and painfully recall my own son being starved in one childcare center almost 40 years ago. When I picked him up from school, he would rip through the fast-food I brought with me. Being so famished, he would eat not only the sandwich but also the wrappings and containers. It took me three days to realize that he was being starved by the childcare center providers. When I confronted them, the director responded, “Since he won’t eat his vegetables, he gets no food. This is our policy.” (Translation: like it or leave.) At that time, neither my son nor I were fond of vegetables. This is an understatement. But more importantly, such a policy, then and now, is beyond unethical and inhumane. Consequently, my mother babysat him until I could find a new center, with no such policy. It would be18 years before my son enjoyed vegetables. My son was traumatized, as we suspect is the case for the Black children in this 2021 story. This horrific experience still raises questions of food preferences, food insecurity, and equity for me.  And the feeling of guilt for enrolling him in that childcare center does not ease much after all of these years/decades. #PostTraumaticStress #PresentTraumaticStress. A disturbing fact is that most Black children today, like my son, lack access to high-quality childcare. Unfortunately, all early childhood programs are not equal. Studies show that some children of color, particularly Black preschoolers, are the least likely to gain access to high-quality early care and education. Using results from the National Center for Education Statistics study of observational ratings of preschool settings, Barnett, Carolan, and Johns (2013) reported that 40% of Hispanic and 36% of White children were enrolled in center-based classrooms rated as “high” compared to only 25% of Black children. Furthermore, 15% of Black children who attended childcare centers ranked as “low” is almost two times the percentage of Hispanic and White children. Hispanic and Black children in home-based settings were even worse off, with more than 50% in settings rated as “low” compared with only 30% for White children (Dobbins et al., 2016). The implications for these racial disparities are that Black children attend programs not characterized by credentialed providers, small child-teacher ratios, rigorous curriculum, cleanliness, and healthy/nutritious meals, thereby exacerbating issues of inequity.

Dr. Brian L. WrightDr. Brian L. Wright

Food and Equity

When we look at food through an equity lens, it is clear that we cannot talk about food without referencing the vast or massive inequalities in our society. Despite the fact that the United States, with 5% of the world’s population, consumes 40% of its resources, more than 29 million children in the United States live in low-income families and more than 13 million live in families in abject poverty, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty. For many of these children, the school lunches and breakfasts (as inadequate as they may seem) are their main source of nutrition. According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture, on average, more than 17 million children participated in the free- and reduced-lunch program annually. With these data in mind and the incident involving the Rosewell, Georgia, childcare center, along with my son many years ago, withholding food (nutrition) from any child, but especially those living in poverty is criminal, inhumane. There is no explanation to justify the longstanding harm done to children and families when adults who have been entrusted with the education and care of “other people’s” children fail them. This incident, along with the others, is an example of how schools (re)traumatize children and their families, yet little attention is given to this widespread issue.

Challenging Adverse Childhood Experiences

Increasingly, research and scholarship (e.g., Adverse Childhood Experiences-ACE) have emerged, focused squarely and polemically on trauma in the lives of children and families outside of school. However, little to no attention in ACEs is given to how schools exacerbate and even cause racial trauma in the lives of Black students. For this reason, we do so herein by highlighting trauma in the curriculum, policies, and practices (e.g., poorly chosen readings, activities, assignments). A recent example of a traumatizing curriculum is when several Wisconsin teachers asked students how they would “punish a slave”. Another example of trauma in the lives of Black children is that of a California teacher who engaged in a racist rant about one of her Black male students and his “poor” parenting. The teacher stated, “… you’ve taught him to make excuses that nothing is his fault. This is what Black people do. White people do it, too, but Black people do it way more.” Much like the trauma found in the curriculum, school policies that regulate the behaviors of some/certain children through rigid behavioral (e.g., walking in a straight line, no talking in the hallways) and/or disciplinary policies (e.g., zero-tolerance policies) are yet additional ways in which schools (re)traumatize students of color, Black students in particular, who are marginalized in the larger society. To further explore trauma in the lives of Black students and their families, see Ford’s article.

What Families Can Do: Suggestions and Recommendations to Protect Black Children in School

As Black children return to in-person learning, how can families prepare them for schools and classrooms in which they cannot ensure that the adults will treat them well or keep them safe? This reality is a source of psychological stress and anxiety when families cannot promise the kind of safety and protection their children might expect from them. For this reason, we offer some ways that Black families can teach their children to describe and explain their school day beyond the superficial “okay” or “good” response. We offer sample questions families can ask their children (e.g., What book did your teacher read? What did you have for lunch? What happened during recess?).

In addition to the normal tasks of raising children, Black families are unnecessarily and unjustly burdened with having to be hyper-vigilant in seeking and securing childcare and education that is truly ‘caring’ — anti-racist and culturally responsive. In order to determine the climate and responsiveness of such places, we offer a few suggested and recommended questions to ask children that probes beyond the classic “How was school today?”:

  1. What did you like about school today?
  2. What did you do today in school that was fun?
  3. Is there anything you did not like about school today?
  4. Did anyone make you feel sad? Tell me about this.
  5. Is there anything you’re worried about at school?
  6. Do you feel safe in your school/classroom?
  7. What did you eat for breakfast and lunch?
  8. What did you drink?

It is important that families understand that these questions should not be asked all at once, nor should they dominate conversations with children about school. Over time, families will determine the suggested/recommended questions that elicit the most information. To ensure that conversations are positive and meaningful, avoid interrupting; when necessary, ask for more information (“Can you tell me more about that…”). Be sure to ask children to describe their feelings in the moment, and then validate their emotions.

#TheTalk. The reality of parenting a Black child is that families will have to tell their son or daughter that it is not okay/acceptable for teachers or other children to be unkind or mean to them. Always validate their feelings and thank them for sharing the experiences of their day. Because Black families cannot trust that schools will treat their children well (humanize them), they must be acutely aware of signs and behaviors that demonstrate mistreatment.

#RealTalk. There is no escaping racial discrimination. Students should not be at war, contending with racial battle fatigue (coined by William Smith) in the schoolhouse walls. Schools ought to be a safe haven, a complement to homes and communities. When they are not, Black families must do double duty, building an armor of resilience and self-sufficiency in their children. This may consist of nurturing an “I got this” attitude and persona. We do this so that our children can take care of themselves when educators and other professionals don’t or won’t, as in the stories shared herein. We must equip and shield our children with the armor of racial pride to prevent them from internalizing all forms of hatred spewed at them in the curriculum and social media. In far too many schools (and one is too many), our Black children are starving, literally and figuratively. We need educators who will help us to feed the stomachs, potential, and cultural souls of our Black children so they can thrive not merely survive.

Dr. Donna Y. Ford is a Distinguished Professor of Education and Human Ecology and Kirwan Institute Faculty Affiliate at The Ohio State University’s College of Education and Human Ecology.

Dr. Brian L. Wright is an associate professor and program coordinator of Early Childhood Education in the Department of Instruction and Curriculum Leadership in the College of Education and coordinator of the Middle School Cohort of the African American Male Academy at the University of Memphis.

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