Creating Supportive Learning Environments

As young people continue to experience and hear news of ongoing racism and violence against Black, Brown, Asian American, and Indigenous communities, supportive learning environments that center on SEL and equity can help young people and adults to process, heal, and work together to promote collective well-being.

As educators, family members and caregivers, and community partners, we can support young people in working through big questions, processing their emotions, understanding their viewpoints and their relation to broader sociocultural and historical contexts, and taking collective action. We offer guidance and curated resources to help cultivate a supportive environment by: 1) preparing the space for SEL, 2) opening space for sharing and listening, and 3) expanding the space to promote collective well-being.

Preparing the space for SEL

Ensure the learning environment is one where all people feel safe, connected, and accepted

  • Reflect on how your own identities and experiences shape your perspectives. Before engaging others in conversation, reflect on your own emotions and how you’ve been impacted. Consider how your identities and experiences shape the way you view people and events and the way you’re seen by others. Also consider how others’ identities and experiences influence their perspectives and emotions.
  • Ensure all young people feel emotionally safe and a sense of belonging. Engage in individual check-ins ahead of time, review any previous data on the classroom climate, and/or reflect on whether interactions in your learning space have promoted inclusion and antiracism. If anyone feels uncomfortable or disconnected, focus on addressing root causes before diving into discussions. Give space for those most affected – Black students and young people who’ve been harmed by discriminatory policies and practices — to direct when and how they want to discuss issues of racism and police violence.  
  • Co-create shared agreements or ground rules about how all members of the learning community will interact with empathy and care for one another. Establish that it is good to share different perspectives, but views that are hateful, dehumanizing, or disrespectful to others’ history, identity, or experience are not acceptable.
  • Recognize the role of race and racism. Discussing police violence and systemic racism can be deeply painful, particularly for Black students and those who have personal experiences around these issues. Create a supportive space for group members to choose to discuss their emotions and experiences with racism, and model listening and empathy. Do not allow others to minimize or debate someone’s feelings or experiences, and intervene immediately if there are expressions or acts of racism and bias.
  • Allow for independent processing. Give time for people to think and write independently and/or practice a calming strategy before and after a group discussion.

Resources to get started:

Opening space for sharing and listening

Provide opportunities to share and listen to how members of the group are feeling and experiencing what’s happening

  • Use structured discussions to promote equity of voice and allow different views to be expressed. Begin with lower-risk prompts, small-group discussion, or anonymous sharing and affirmation to build trust. Consider using restorative prompts like these in a circle, small group, or writing:

When you hear or read about this event, what do you think and how does it make you feel?
How have you been/how do you expect to be impacted by this event?
What has been the hardest thing for you? 
What can you commit to doing to move forward? 
Who is one person you can share your thoughts and feelings with comfortably? (based on the work of IIRP

  • Investigate the social, cultural, and historical influences behind a single event or news storyHelp young people recognize their location within broader social, cultural and historical contexts. Ground conversations about current events in the historical and systemic roots of racism and oppression.
  • Debrief the discussion to process emotions, summarize insights, and get feedback about how to improve.

Resources to get started:

  • Teaching About Race, Racism, and Police Violence (Learning for Justice). Periodically updated page to address current events around implicit bias and systemic racism, and empower students to enact the changes that will create a more just society.

Expanding the space to promote collective well-being

Help people channel their energy and ideas productively and make their voices heard beyond the classroom or workplace

  • Identify ways to heal and take action. Make time to acknowledge trauma experienced at a community level and discuss and show examples of ways to support each other, learn more, speak out, demonstrate, and hold elected officials accountable.
  • Promote collective well-being. Ask group members to write and/or share about something they can do for their personal well-being and for the well-being of the larger community.

Resources to get started:

  • Digital Civics Toolkit (MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics). A five-part process that begins with exploring identity and issues, and then moves into analyzing information, perspective-taking and exchanging ideas, and generating solutions. Easy to use virtually. 
  • Standing Up Against Discrimination (Greater Good in Education). In this high school level jigsaw activity, students explore real-world examples to identify peaceful ways of responding to discrimination when they see it