When you hear the words identity safety, you might immediately think it has something to do with “identity theft.” Identity theft refers to when someone steals your name and financial identity, so you can no longer use your credit cards or fully function as yourself. How would it affect you psychologically to have your identity stolen? Uncertain, defensive, afraid to trust?
That is exactly what happens when individuals must function in an environment where their identities are not respectfully acknowledged—when negative stereotypes are used to define them or when they must give up or hide parts of themselves to be accepted. By understanding the concept of identity safety, educators can help students feel secure in their identities and free to be who they are and thrive at school.
Many teachers have seen the film The Eye of the Storm (called A Class Divided on the PBS website) about an Iowa teacher who conducted a “blue eyes, brown eyes” classroom experiment. Although this experiment reflects outdated research methods and violates modern human-subjects protocols, the impact of stereotype threat comes into plain view. The teacher told her students that having blue eyes meant they were inferior. She had them wear collars in class. The next day she told students that she made a mistake; the brown-eyed children were inferior, and she had them wear collars. And the brown-eyed children wearing the collars performed worse on a spelling test than they had the day before.
When asked why, one student said, “It’s those collars.” The immediate power of stigma was made visible. Because of a long history of race and racism in this country, the social identities of some racial and ethnic groups are linked to academic success while others are linked to school failure. Identity-safe teaching serves as an antidote to that stereotype threat and stigma.
An identity-safe environment values diversity by creating belonging and validating each person’s background and the multiple components of social identity (age, race, gender, culture, language). It’s an evidence-based model; researchers from the Stanford Integrated Schools Project observed 84 elementary classrooms and have found a link between identity-safe teaching and enhanced student performance. Students in identity-safe classrooms performed at higher levels on standardized tests and felt a greater sense of belonging and inclusion.
Identity-safe teaching includes a whole constellation of practices: the arrangement of students and materials, the nature of the relationships, the types of questions directed toward students, cooperative learning activities, student autonomy and non-punitive approaches to dealing with misbehavior. Diverse materials and activities are used as resources for teaching, rather than the colorblind approach that ignores student differences. Research has found that these components, woven together, create the sense of identity safety in students.
To build identity safety in classrooms and schools, educators can draw on the practices spelled out below, organized into four domains:
1. Child-centered Teaching
Such instruction promotes autonomy, cooperation and student voice.
- Listening for student voices ensures that each student can contribute to and shape classroom life.
- Teaching for understanding assures students learn new knowledge and incorporate it into what they know.
- Focusing on cooperation rather than competition encourages students to learn from and help others.
- Classroom autonomy promotes responsibility and belonging in each student.
2. Cultivating Diversity as a Resource
Approaching diversity in this way provides challenging curriculum and high expectations for all students in the context of the regular and authentic use of diverse materials, ideas and teaching activities.
- Using diversity as a resource for teaching draws from all students’ lives as part of the curriculum and daily life in the classroom.
- High expectations and academic rigor support all students in learning to analyze, synthesize, evaluate and strive to grow intellectually at every academic level.
- Challenging curriculum motivates students with meaningful, purposeful learning as opposed to rote teaching and remediation.
3. Classroom Relationships
Classroom relationships are based on trusting, positive interactions with the teacher and among the students.
- Teacher warmth and availability to support learning builds a trusting, encouraging relationship with each student based on belief that he or she can succeed and achieve at high levels.
- Positive student relationships promote interpersonal understanding and caring among students in a climate free of bullying and social cruelty.
4. Caring classroom environments
In caring classroom environments, social skills are taught and practiced, and they help students care for one another in an emotionally and physically safe space.
- Teacher skill is the capacity to establish an orderly, purposeful classroom that facilitates student learning.
- Emotional and physical comfort are crucial so that each student feels safe and attached to school and to other students.
- Attention to prosocial development incorporates social and emotional learning (SEL) into all aspects of daily life, teaching students how to live with one another, feel empathy for one another and solve problems with respect and care for others.
Identity safety is an approach that works not only for children but also for educators and society at large. As we come to create not only identity-safe classrooms but also identity-safe schools and communities, we will all feel a greater sense of belonging and compassion and ultimately reduce the prejudice, implicit bias and stereotype threat that causes so much harm and hurt in our world.
Cohn-Vargas is director of Not in Our School and coauthor of Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn.
 Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn, Cohn-Vargas and Steele. (This book offers an array of ways educators can create identity safety in their classrooms and schools.)