Create a free Diverse: Issues In Higher Education account to continue reading

Do You Hear Me Now?

As Black History Month comes to a close, we want to recognize Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who began what is now an historical yet monumental event. Woodson discussed how we can create an educational system that would best serve Black students based on their circumstances, gifts, talents, and historical and contemporary contexts (e.g., lived experiences). In this spirit, we discuss some practices by which educators and helping professionals can best assist Black students in being academically successful as well as improve their mental health and wellness.

Dr. Erik HinesDr. Erik HinesWe will not extensively cover the issues Black students encounter as the research literature is replete with it. However, we will highlight that Black students are more likely to be suspended or expelled, experience adultification, underrepresented in rigorous courses, overrepresented in special education, and tend to disengage from school due to the feeling of being unwelcomed and/or not culturally connected with the curriculum. Moreover, Black students may not succinctly communicate their needs and the issues that they encounter, thus their behaviors may be misinterpreted by educators. For example, a Black boy in kindergarten may talk or move around in the classroom when the teacher is lecturing or not stand still in the lunch line. Some educators may see this as the student being off task or not adhering to the rules or norms rather than seeing the child through a development and cultural lens. In other words, boys tend to be more active than girls. Equally noteworthy is that Black people are often movement oriented and full of verve. Relative to Black girls, many are honest — blunt and direct. This can result in referrals to the office for being ‘talkative, rude, and disrespectful’ when, culturally, the oral tradition is operating. Unfortunately, the layer of race may bring a multitude of negative biases such as misperceiving this culturally different Black boy and girl as defiant and not engaged in class work when really they may be exceptionally smart and not challenged by the school work. These same educators may see these behaviors as antithetical to their beliefs of a ‘typical’ or ‘normal’ student’s disposition (e.g., quiet, obedient, and docile). As a result, Black students are often disciplined, misdiagnosed related to receiving an unwarranted deficit-based label.

We urge and challenge educators to truly understand what their minoritized students are communicating through their behaviors. Thus, the first half of the title — ‘Do You Hear Me Now?’ — questions whether educators are really listening to what students are saying or trying to say through their actions, behaviors, and responses. Do educators really want to understand Black students in a way that will affirm their existence and acknowledge their humanity in order to address their needs? How do educators adapt to their Black students' learning styles, dispositions, and academic needs rather than having students try to adapt to the educator? Doing so can and does bring biases, misperceptions, and different cultural characteristics and values to the learning process. The colossal result is a mismatch with student communication and engagement.

As it pertains to assisting Black students, educators should use an ethical, cultural, and equitable decision-making model to identify their concerns, problems, issues, and misinterpretations. The proactive and culturally responsive model should preclude educators from making decisions rooted in biases and beliefs that result in stereotypical caricatures of students and anti-Black racism. Given our backgrounds in school counseling and educational psychology, we will use the ethical decisionmaking model of the American School Counseling Association with a specific application to Black students. In this model, educators must:

1. Determine the problem(s);

2. Recognize and understand the factors that contribute to the problem (e.g., cultural mismatch, historical context of school or personnel, power dynamics, worldview, beliefs, biases, over-or underrepresentation in certain school contexts, etc.);

3. Apply ethical standards of one’s profession; Recognize the role of students’ developmental level and age to eliminate adultification;

4. Examine student and parent/family policies to understand their rights;

5. Use the ethical principles of ‘do no harm,’ caring for every student, and honoring the commitment to help all students;

6. Implement a course of action;

7. Review the outcomes; and

8. Advocate for school/district policies to support the success of Black students.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words: Recommendations for Hearing Black Students

The ethical-decision model can be a tool used to recognize the needs of our Black students of all ages. Rather than coming to simple/simplistic conclusions based on immediate student behavior, we must understand what our students, especially Black students, are saying to us. Mattering matters (Noonan, 2023). In other words, we are taking the time to show Black students how important their feelings, behaviors, and voices are to us, and, accordingly, we take equitable and culturally grounded strides to provide the resources and supports needed to improve their achievement and mental health and wellness. We provide a few recommendations below to hear, and to understand, what Black students are communicating through their feelings, actions, decisions, and voices.

Dr. Donna Y. FordDr. Donna Y. Ford1. Check biases and beliefs about Black students to determine if this has impeded the ability to assist them. As Ford (second author) states: ‘The LESS we know about others, the MORE we make up’ which is deficit thinking. Dynamic thinking. ‘The MORE we know about others, the LESS we make up;’

2. Verbally express your feelings of caring and empathy because Black students want to authentically know that you have their best interests in mind;

3. Be an upstander. Speak out against any words, policies, actions, and procedures that are anti-Black;

4. Collaborate with the school counselor to do periodical check-ins with Black students to determine their level of socio-emotional well-being and mental health and wellness;

5. Understand why students  are engaging in certain actions and behaviors (i.e., ethical decision making) rather than proceeding to consequences that are punitive and negatively impact Black students’ racial identity, aspirations, engagement, and grades;

6. Attend professional development workshops, conferences, and webinars focused on becoming anti-racist and culturally responsive professionals. Likewise, enroll in university courses with this same foci;

7. Spend time learning from cultural toolkits and materials; many are created by professional organizations such as but not limited to the Urban League, Anti-Defamation League; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and Learning for Justice;

8. Attend book talks by prominent anti-racist and Black scholars; and

9. Read journals that specifically focus on minoritized groups (e.g., Journal of Negro Education; Education and Urban Society, Urban Review, Journal of Black Psychology, Journal for Multicultural Education; Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development; Journal of African American Males and Education; Journal of African American Females and Girls in Education, Multiple Voices, Journal of African American History; Journal of Minority Achievement, Creativity, and Leadership; and

recognize that reading is essential but not enough — get involved (immersed) in the community of Black students to become more informed and connected with students, families, and community members (e.g., places of worship; community centers, sporting events).

In this brief commentary, we have intentionally focused on non-verbal more than verbal communication, recognizing the powerful and potent impact of behaviors and actions, accounting for over half of communication, as summarized in the illustration. 

Therefore, through face-to-face communication, the non-verbal communication becomes the most powerful mode of communication when conveying feelings or attitudes.

In summary, Woodson advocated for the understanding of the gifts, talents, and skills of Black Americans, particularly students. In order to execute the aforementioned, we must take the time and do our due diligence to understand what our students are communicating to us. In other words, Do You Hear Me Now?   


Noonan, S.J. (2023, June 27). Why Mattering Matters. Psychology Today.

Dr. Erik M. Hines is a Professor in the Division of Child, Family, and Community Engagement at George Mason University.

Dr. Donna Y. Ford is Distinguished Professor of Education and Human Ecology in the Department of Educational Studies at The Ohio State University.

A New Track: Fostering Diversity and Equity in Athletics
American sport has always served as a platform for resistance and has been measured and critiqued by how it responds in critical moments of racial and social crises.
Read More
A New Track: Fostering Diversity and Equity in Athletics