Having a space where our youth feel seen and uplifted is essential to effectively compensate for societal stereotypes and all the other ways they’re excluded

3 ways educators can embrace and enable inclusive programming

Having a space where our youth feel seen and uplifted is essential to effectively compensate for societal stereotypes and all the other ways they’re excluded

Adjacent to the challenges that the pandemic posed, youth who represent as lesbian, gay, bisexual or Black are consistently battling mental, emotional, and cultural obstacles and barriers associated with understanding their identity within institutional and social constructs that constantly tell them they’re not “normal” or “not enough.” There are constant implicit messages telling LGBTQIA+, female, and BIPOC youth how they “should” be, and the way youth internalize these messages can lead to mental and emotional conflicts.

This is a call to action. We all have a role – big and small – when it comes to our community’s health, and sometimes the small things have the greatest impact. For educators and program designers, the time that students spend in their classrooms is an opportunity to create a container where students feel truly seen, find attunement, forge community, and connect with their peers and trusted adults. Time and time again, relationship and connection prove to be important to healing.

Inclusive programs and curriculum design are inherently structured to elevate and make space for all the unique identities and experiences that youth bring into the classroom. This creates a safe, positive, and affirming environment for all and directly destabilizes the power hierarchies and social constructs that have exacerbated mental health challenges for youth.

For educators, youth development workers, program facilitators, mentors, and program designers alike, here are three steps you can take today to create a more inclusive space for youth:

  1. Do some personal work. We are all products of the world we grew up in, and even though everyone has implicit bias, we don’t have to be agents of it. Ask yourself, what implicit messages am I imparting? What unintended impact did I have on a person or situation? Put aside your good intentions and justifications, and answer this honestly. What role do you want to play in subverting existing stereotypes? Know when to admit when you’re wrong and course correct your behavior. Assess how you can be a role model for openness and a growth mindset.

  2. Get to know your students. It sounds so simple, but if you do your personal work, you’ll see how often the message of “you’re not normal” is imparted to young people. Invite youth to share their pronouns; ask students how to pronounce their names and then say it correctly; learn more about what is important to them and pay attention to how it shows up in the classroom.

  3. Be intentional in centering student voice, choice, and experience. Ask open-ended questions to understand where youth are coming from. Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues that indicate what they need to thrive. Support youth who are navigating difficult identity moments, and let them know that being their authentic selves is their right. Integrate social and emotional learning. Build in opportunities for all learners – auditory, visual, kinesthetic, reading/writing and experiential – and allow fluidity for students to demonstrate understanding. Create opportunities for youth voice and choice. Seek feedback; check in; ask, “How was that for you?”; and role-model openness and active listening so youth feel comfortable being real with you.

For our youth, especially those who identify as LGBTQIA+, female, and BIPOC, having a space where they feel seen and uplifted is essential to effectively compensate for societal stereotypes and all the other ways they’re excluded. This is mission critical to successfully identify, assess, address, and remedy the alarming rise in youth mental health issues, both in the immediate term and in the future.

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