As most educators know, the effects of historical and continued inequities have a pervasive influence on our ability to create equitable schools. There is one area where these inequities can impact African-​American (or other racially profiled) students that often gets overlooked. As students make sense of the world, they are growing up experiencing discrimination and inequity, which can bring some degree of skepticism as they wonder whether the outcomes of their actions are a result of their efforts or their skin color.

This doubt and mistrust can undermine the effort that schools invest and affect how these students value school; it may be harder for them to find optimism for future success. These factors may undermine their ability to learn; can lead to defiant and disrespectful behavior; and may weaken learning behaviors such as persistence, resilience, curiosity, and willingness to ask questions or make mistakes. If educators are not sensitive to this and assume unconditional trust and respect from students who have grown up experiencing prejudice, teachers are likely to become frustrated with some of the attitudes and behaviors students may use as coping mechanisms. Creating a school climate that can repair cultural mistrust and engage students who have experienced discrimination requires a greater investment in building a learning community.

Communicating High Expectations

One of the most difficult parts of working in high-poverty urban schools is balancing empathy for the challenges many students face with high expectations. Is it fair to expect students who lack basic essentials to have completed their research paper? Unfortunately, in many instances we mistakenly lower our expectations, withhold critical feedback, or heap excess praise on students in the hopes of boosting their confidence and easing their burdens. In fact, overpraising students for putting forth sub-par work or completing menial tasks can communicate low expectations. However, when students are not putting forth much effort, sending messages like, “I know you can do better,” or asking, “Is this your best effort?” can signal to struggling students that you recognize their skills, expect their best, and care about them as individuals.

Many underserved and minority students may wonder whether they are being viewed through the lens of a stereotype, rather than judged on their own merits and recognized for their full potential. Researchers have shown that educators can combat these stereotypes by communicating high expectations and encouraging students to have a growth mindset. Psychologists have been able to elicit important changes in the motivation and behavior of African-American students by explicitly communicating high expectations to them. For example, researchers had teachers attach the statement to an assignment: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them.” Attaching this simple statement doubled the number of teacher-suggested edits the students incorporated, improved the quality of their final drafts, and slowed a growing sense of mistrust in the African-American students. This brief intervention had long-term impacts; those receiving the “high expectations” message received fewer discipline referrals and were more likely to attend a four-year college.

In order to repair the mistrust that undermines the students’ ability to learn, school communities will want to communicate to all students—and to students of color in particular—that they believe in their ability, and if they continue to put forth effort, they will grow, learn, and achieve. This type of feedback combines the messages that lead to a growth mindset with the additional assurance of the student’s individual skills.

The image on the right shows different ways to combine the growth mindset with high expectations. When practicing how to deliver this type of feedback, it is important to use your judgment and expertise as an educator. Balancing empathy for the challenges students face with maintaining high expectations is a critical part of our practice. However, asking someone to do something they aren’t capable of will only undermine confidence and motivation.

Belonging Is the Foundation of Community

Perceptions of mistrust and unequal treatment in school lead some students to feel acutely sensitive to cues of belonging. When students enter a classroom, subconsciously most will ask themselves questions such as, “Do I belong here?”, “Are these people like me?”, “Do I share similar values and experiences with my classmates?” Unfortunately, for many African-American students, the combined impact of cultural differences, experiences of repeated inequity, rejection, low expectations, and disproportionate discipline mean the answer is often “no.”

One significant hurdle to learning in highly public social situations is the natural desire to manage the impressions of others (see Table 1 below). Like all students, if students of color don’t feel a sense of belonging in the classroom, they will not engage in learning behaviors such as asking questions, making mistakes and accepting feedback. In order to close the achievement gap, culturally responsive educators will want to shift the minds of students from focusing on “impression management” to executive function skills such as curiosity, self-control, reflection, and problem solving. This shift begins by helping students feel a sense of belonging to the learning community, which is accomplished by focusing on similarities and shared experiences.

Often, cultural diversity conversations tend to focus on how various groups are different. However, relationships are based on shared experiences and similarities. In the best-selling book Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explain that “even the barest suggestions of a shared identity can trigger an esprit de corps.” Finding out you and a difficult student share the same birthday, favorite basketball team, or comic hero may increase the student’s motivation and can cause the student to adopt your goals. Similarly, by creating a shared purpose, educators can bring divergent groups of students together for the greater good. As NYU professor Jonathan Haidt explains, “You can make people care less about race by drowning race differences in a sea of similarities, shared goals, and mutual interdependencies.”

With many students, especially those who have been victims of discrimination, trust has to be earned. Creating a social connection with students who have been victims of discrimination requires effort and planning. In education, the value of relationships is widely recognized. However, how much time, planning, resources, or energy is invested into this practice? Educators who understand the role of relationships in learning, achievement, and behavior will want to make relationship building a part of staff, leadership, and grade-level meetings.

Culturally Responsive Schools

A natural instinct when working with students experiencing adversity or victims of discrimination and trauma is often to “lighten the load.” However, if we are not careful, this can lead to placing the student in the back corner of the room, with lowered expectations and attempts to ignore misbehavior. This may be why research encourages a teaching style based on creating a sense of belonging and maintaining high expectations for even our most hard-to-reach students. Author Lisa Delpit described this teaching style as being a “warm demander.” As she explains, “Warm demanders expect a great deal of their students, convince them of their own brilliance, and help them to reach their potential in a disciplined and structured environment.”

Creating a culturally responsive school challenges leaders to become sensitive to the often subtle and overlooked messages being sent to students. In particular, researchers are finding that in order to engage some of our most hard-to-reach students and student groups, we need to consider how they will answer three questions: Do I belong here? Does this matter to me? Is there something I can do about this?

How students answer these questions is going to influence their willingness to engage in learning behaviors such as asking questions, making mistakes, curiosity, persistence, or resilience. If there are particular students or groups of students that are consistently underachieving and overrepresented in discipline, use these questions to examine ways to re-engage these students with your school’s vision.

Dustin Bindreiff, EdD, is a special education coordinator and Nevada County Superintendent of Schools in Grass Valley, CA.

Want to chat about this topic? Tweet Dustin @drdustybx.