Emmy is a 6-year-old Black girl who knows she’s beautiful and smart. Yet, she doesn’t know how others see her and, more broadly, what it means to be a Black girl in the United States. As we reflect on the injustice involved in anti-Black police violence, we acknowledge how such events can add traumatic stress for Black girls. Perhaps like other Black girls who hear their families lamenting over national race issues and worrying for their children, Emmy, too, was saddened, anxious and concerned when she heard that police officers shot and killed Breonna Taylor and, more recently, 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant. To better support Black girls who may experience heightened levels of psychosocial stress inside and outside of schools, we urge educators to authentically engage with Black girls and their families and caregivers.
In our work together at Rowan University, we—Latino professor Adam Alvarez and Black woman doctoral student Eshe Price—often share our collective observations, experiences and ideas for improving conditions for youth of color. Being parents of color and former K-12 teachers, we approach the intersection of race, trauma and education with a sense of intimacy. We have witnessed firsthand the racialized wounds that occur in school settings, particularly for Black girls like Emmy, Eshe’s daughter.
For Black girls, who are often viewed as less innocent than their white peers, common trauma-based responses like withdrawal, isolation, depression, irritability, aggression or risky behaviors tend to be criminalized. Consequently, their responses to social and economic issues over which they have no control are more harshly punished. In the process, many of their bodies are violated by agents of the state. Many Black girls are pushed out of school, funneled into the justice system and struggle with high levels of cascading stress. This is why the combined support of educators, families and caregivers is crucial.
Doing More for Black Girls
There are certainly major systemic changes that need to occur, yet individual educators, staff members and administrators can intentionally support Black girls in school settings. They can learn to become authentically engaged and nurture Black girls, rather than rely on trauma resources that may not offer critical insight. We share seven recommendations collated from Black parents we have spoken with in our work and everyday lives.
Center empathy and love.
Engaging with Black girls’ families and caregivers inside and outside of school will require more empathy. Empathy is essential for sharing hurts and joys with Black people. We also need more love. Love must be foundational for bridging the us/them mentality we see in many schools and throughout society. Demonstrating love and empathy will mean centering Black girls’ feelings of belongingness and success in school. Engaging in collective struggles with school faculty around issues of justice from a place of love and empathy may be the most essential way to support Black girls.
Do some introspective work.
Building the kind of school culture that will prioritize Black girls’ perspectives and sense of well-being requires educators and administrators to do some introspective work. What could you do to better honor the lived experiences and wealth of knowledge that your Black girl students bring with them into the classroom? Exploring aspects of identity, culture and privilege are vital for understanding the nature of conflicts inside and outside of school settings. These reflective steps may be important to develop more progressive movements and quality support for Black girls. After doing introspective work, educators can better understand what drives some Black girls’ high levels of stress and even traumatic experiences within school.
Listen to Black girls.
Emmy’s parents suggest that educators and administrators simply listen to Black girls. They encourage cultivating brave spaces where Black girls can share, process, develop a critique of the world and explore ways to resist structural oppression in their lives, schools and communities. This is vital because, sadly, there are too many stories of Black girls being the targets of race-based school bullying. As students return to school, Black girls may continue to be harassed virtually. Listening to Black girls is an important start and can lay a foundation for powerful anti-racist work.
Invite Black parents and caregivers to share.
Schools can invite Black parents and caregivers to share their ideas and experiences within the school and community to better understand how to improve school connectedness. When youth feel connected to caregivers and their schools, they experience significantly fewer reports of trauma and depressive symptoms. If schools can learn from families and caregivers how best to connect, they can enhance their effectiveness in supporting Black girls. Schools should vary their approaches to connecting with Black families. Think about what you do to involve your students’ families. A survey may be fine in some cases; whereas, in other cases, panel discussions or town hall meetings could be more insightful.
Engage with Black families and caregivers beyond school walls.
Engaging with Black families and caregivers outside of school goes a long way. In Emmy’s school district, the superintendent attended a peaceful protest led by several Black girls. This act of engagement with Black youth and families fostered a dialogue that generated a change in the curriculum to include African American history and social justice content. For school faculty and staff, the work of supporting Black girls extends beyond school days and school walls.
Diversify school faculty and staff.
Diversifying school faculty and staff can serve as another way to support Black girls. So much literature shows the benefit of a diverse staff and especially how Black educators can improve achievement for Black students. Black girls and their families want to see themselves represented among school staff who may share similar cultural experiences and ways of knowing. Supporting Black girls means surrounding them, in school, with caring Black people who can identify with and work through their racialized and gendered school experiences. Think of ways you can support more diverse hiring practices. What work needs to be done to ensure that your school and your school district are places that would welcome and support Black teachers and other teachers of color?
Reimagine school policies on discipline.
Reimagining school policies on discipline, zero-tolerance and student codes of conduct will be a critical support for Black girls. Emmy’s parents want school policies to protect instead of punish. If Black girls break school rules, it’s important that educators investigate the fullness of the context and situation. Policies should not further marginalize Black girls; rather, policies should support them. Find out about model policies that other schools are using that support all students. When you look at your current discipline policy, what policy changes will ensure that all students, especially Black girls, are supported instead of pushed out? Then you can advocate for updating your school’s discipline policy.
More is needed from educators and school leaders. With these recommendations, we imagine that Black girls will know that they matter—academically, culturally, socially and emotionally. Girls like Emmy, then, will have the necessary support to resist, heal and learn because of the conditions in their schools, not in spite of them.
Questions for ReflectionUse these reflective questions to think more deeply about how you can do more for Black girls:
- How do I feel about supporting my Black girl students’ sense of belonging and joy in the classroom?
- How can I support and nurture my Black girl students inside and outside of school?
- What is my emotional reaction to the systemic oppressions many Black girls face in schools and society?
- Who am I as a cultural being and what systemic privileges do I have?
- How do cultural conflicts, inside and outside my classroom, impact Black girls’ schooling experiences?
- How can I provide a safe space for Black girls to feel comfortable talking to me?
- How can I build trust with the Black girls in my classroom?
- What Black women scholars can help me better understand Black girlhood?
- Have I considered the historical relationship between schools and many Black families and caregivers?
- What strategies have I used to connect and build trust with Black families and caregivers?
- What opportunities do I have to connect with Black families and caregivers outside of school?
- How can I connect with community programs and organizations that support Black families and caregivers?
- How can I support efforts to recruit and retain Black women educators and administrators?
- How can I contribute to a school climate and culture that is welcoming to Black women educators and administrators?
- What do school-level data (e.g., achievement, discipline and stakeholder surveys) show about Black girls in my school?
- How do we thoughtfully analyze and understand this data?
- How might my school’s policies restore Black girls’ sense of belonging and humanity?