Identity Safe Classrooms: How To Create Them

Our identities cannot be separated from who we are, how we see the world, how we feel and how we act. Students’ identities greatly influence how they experience school and how they learn – educators’ identities influence how we teach.

Throughout history, humans have asked: “Who am I?” Our answers change every day as new experiences accumulate. Each of us is made up of many social identities. Some are visible to others: our skin color, our gender expression, our appearance, the languages we speak. Others lie beneath the surface: our sense of competence, our passions, our beliefs about the world.

Social scientists have discovered that our sense of belonging and inclusion is deeply linked to how we perceive ourselves and others. To feel safe in our identities, we need to feel valued and that our identities are an asset and not a barrier to our success in the world. That is the meaning of identity safety.

As educators, examining our own sense of identity safety gives us perspective on the best way to encourage and support the identity safety of students. Educators can take a “field trip into our lives” and consider what matters to us, our beliefs. We can explore aspects of our social identities that are visible to others and those which hide below the surface. We can examine our racial identity, how we experience and express our gender identity and all the influences in our lives. We can also look for biases, both conscious and unconscious and stereotypes that affect the way we see and treat others who are like us and those whose backgrounds are different from ours.

The stereotype threat

As we seek to validate our students’ identities, we choose to examine some of the stereotypes that cloud our view. Like fish swimming in murky water, we sometimes miss the many stereotypes that swirl around us— stereotypes that consider some ethnic groups smarter than others, that view one gender as stronger and more capable, that treat language differences as a liability rather than a tremendous resource. We can work to intentionally address and change our perspectives and biased behaviors.

Research on stereotype threat, that has been carried out with many different stereotypes, has shown that when people feel they are being judged by a negative stereotype, their performance diminishes. Whether it is a student impacted by the stereotype that some ethnicities are less intelligent than others, or women considered weaker or less competent than men – meta-studies  have found a consistent pattern – even when a person does not believe the stereotype to be true, it hampers their performance.

identity safe student

Claude Steele, renowned stereotype threat researcher and his wife Dorothy Steele set out to find an antidote to this phenomenon and coined the term identity safety. The Stanford Integrated Schools Project  was carried out in 84 elementary classrooms where observers gathered data on teaching practices multiple times over the course of a year. They documented strategies, contrasting them with student grades, test scores and surveys. Their research yielded important results.

In the study, students felt more identity safe, liked school more and achieved at higher levels when their educators:

  • validated and did not ignore differences;
  • treated diversity as a valuable resource for learning;
  • created belonging and inclusion;
  • attended to positive relationships with their students and among students;
  • gave students a voice, encouraged cooperation and fostered developed autonomy;
  • ensured a deep understanding of the curriculum. 

Identity safe teaching is not a program or set of prescribed steps. Rather it is an approach to teaching with innumerable possible strategies that, taken together, create a sense of identity safety in students. The books, Identity Safe Classrooms K-5 and Identity Safe classrooms 6-12 offer many examples based on the research and the following seven guiding principles.

Identity Safety Guiding Principles

1. Colorblind teaching that ignores differences is a barrier to inclusion in the classroom.

This principle highlights that when we seek to ignore the very real differences we all have; students often feel invisible or worry that they are viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype – and that causes them to feel othered and less valued than their peers.

2. To feel a sense of belonging and acceptance requires creating positive relationships between teacher and students and among students with equal status for different social identities.

Relationships are at the heart of our experiences in school. Educators can work to build positive relationships with students, whether in person or online. We can help students build healthy relationships with each other. By monitoring interactions in class and on the school yard, we seek to ensure students are not teased, bullied or excluded. Positive relationships are fostered through learning activities where students collaborate, and each one can grow and shine.

3. Cultivating diversity as a resource for learning and expressing high expectations for students promotes learning, competence, and achievement.

We validate the social identities of every student by designing opportunities for them to share from their lives, their families and their cultures in authentic ways, free from stereotypes. We can work to ensure that every interaction, the content of the curriculum, the ways students are assessed and how feedback is offered all contribute to their identity safety. By paying careful attention, we can avoid undermining a student’s sense of competence. High expectations are communicated to each child along with our commitment to help them achieve which leads to a strong academic identity.

4. Educators examine their own social identities to feel a sense of identity safety and convey that feeling to students, creating an identity safe environment for them.

Self-reflection helps educators better serve their students. As part of our self-exploration, we can challenge ourselves to address implicit and explicit biases. We can be intentional with every word we speak and consider how our language is perceived by our students. This is an ongoing growth process that along with identity safe teaching is highly rewarding for educators.

5. Social and emotional safety is created by supporting students in defining their identities, refuting negative stereotypes, countering stereotype threat, giving them a voice in the classroom while using SEL strategies.

A climate of social and emotional safety is a continual effort across the school day in all lessons and classroom activities at all grade levels. Social and emotional learning strategies help students develop prosocial skills and can be integrated into academic lessons as well as skill-building sessions. We always recommend having an emotional intelligence test if needed. Giving students a voice strengthens their sense of competence and ability to contribute thoughts and ideas in school and later in their life. When mistakes are treated as learning opportunities, students are more willing to take risks.

6. Student learning is enhanced in diverse classrooms by teaching for understanding, creating opportunities for shared inquiry and dialogue, and offering a challenging, rigorous curriculum.

Identity safety is a holistic model that helps students gain competence and become excited about learning. Methodologies that lead to higher levels of thinking, teach students to gather evidence to formulate their own ideas, and challenge themselves, leading to a strong academic identity.

7. Schoolwide Equity:Identity safety flourishes for everyone in schools where the climate, the structures, practices and attitudes prioritize equity, inclusion and academic growth for students from all backgrounds. Leaders demonstrate emotional intelligence, attend to student needs, address racism, bias, and privilege, and serve as the architects of ongoing change. 

A schoolwide approach to identity safe teaching ensures that in every classroom, child-centered teaching combines with a focus on positive relationships. Across the school, diversity is viewed as a resource for learning and a caring environment is fostered for students, staff, parents and the larger community. A schoolwide effort serves to exponentially extend the benefits of identity safe teaching to everyone.

If we have learned anything from the COVID crisis during 2020 and 2021, it is that we must teach and attend to the whole child: mind, heart and body, as we endeavor to create belonging and inclusion for students of all backgrounds. We can teach in ways that nurture each child’s unique identity and allow them to thrive academically, socially and emotionally. 

Becki Cohn-Vargas, Ed.D. is the co-author, with Dorothy Steele of Identity Safe Classrooms K-5: Places to Belong and Learn and Identity Safe classrooms 6-12: Pathways to Belonging and Learning.  In 2020, she co-authored Identity Safe Classrooms Grades 6-12: Pathways to Belonging and Learning. Belonging and Inclusion in Identity Safe Schools, a Guide for Leaders will be released in August. She designs curriculum, publishes articles, coaches educators and produces films for Edutopia, Not In Our Town and other organizations. She presents internationally at conferences and provides professional development in schools and districts.

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Dr. Cohn-Vargas began her career in early childhood education in Sonoma County, California. She lived abroad for five years where she did earthquake relief at a hospital in the Guatemalan Highlands and produced educational films for the Nicaraguan Ministry of Education. She returned to California and worked as a bilingual teacher, principal, curriculum director and superintendent in the San Francisco Bay Area. She also served as an adjunct professor at University of San Diego, Mills College and Cal State University, East. Bay. In each setting, she focused on educational equity and effective strategies for diverse populations. Dr. Cohn-Vargas and her husband own a rain forest preserve in southern Nicaragua where they do environmental education for local students and international student groups. They live in the SF Bay Area and have three adult children and one grandchild.


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