The reinforcement of bias in our societal institutions is not always the result of active, conscious efforts. Often biases are reinforced passively and unconsciously simply as a result of certain exclusions that are so deeply embedded they are never questioned.
One setting where this occurs on a regular basis is in schools, and one of the most common types of biases reinforced in schools are gender identity and sexual orientation biases.
As an educational consultant and former school principal, I have witnessed firsthand the disruptions, tumult, and confusion that have beset schools across the country as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
At the same time, thanks to so many children being at home, I see unique opportunities as well, and while there is regional variation in the number of schools that have reopened, there are still many areas where students continue to rely on at-home or remote learning.
Within the relatively more controlled environment of home, there are things that proactive parents who wish to raise tolerant, prosocial children can do to help their kids unlearn some of the biases they learn in school. With a little creativity, teachers can also apply these same ideas whether they are teaching fully remote, in-class, or a combination of the two.
In these troubled times with so much hate and divisiveness out there, all of us—parents, teachers, and community—can and should contribute towards a more inclusive society even if the only way we’re able to do so during a pandemic is from a distance.
Prioritize Social-Emotional Learning
One of the best ways to help kids unlearn biases against LGBTQ people is through a mode of learning that would not only help them grow up into inclusive, tolerant adults but would also help them be more resilient during what are extraordinarily confusing and turbulent times for them.
This is why when it comes to remote learning, parents, teachers, and administrators should come together right now and agree to prioritize social-emotional learning (SEL) over academic content. SEL is a type of learning in which children learn skills and competencies that are invaluable for understanding and managing emotions.
At a time like now, the need for SEL is more urgent than ever and I do not say this lightly since, as a lifelong professional educator, I understand very well how important academic learning is too.
Apart from dismantling learned biases, there are other reasons why social-emotional learning should be prioritized over academic content right now.
The pandemic has been creating untold amounts of stress and anxiety for children. Before, it was estimated that nearly 67% of children have had at least one Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). Now, the pandemic is not only amplifying existing stresses and traumas, it is in itself a source of trauma.
We know that prolonged stress, anxiety, and trauma stunt the brain’s ability to study and learn. In such a milieu, focusing on academic content before social-emotional learning isn’t optimal because many children are not in an emotional and neurological state conducive to learning to begin with. Social-emotional learning, on the other hand, can help them get back to a place where they feel safer and, therefore, cognitively, emotionally, socially, and academically ready to learn again.
SEL can not only yield these broad educational benefits but it can also help specifically with unlearning the kinds of biases we have been talking about. For instance, in research SEL has been shown to reduce bullying, cyberbullying, sexual harassment, and homophobic behavior.
For these and many other reasons, social-emotional learning should be the bedrock of any effort to teach children to be less biased and more accepting of others, specifically, and to perform better academically in general.
Introduce LGBTQ Characters, Works, and Historical Figures
Robert McGarry, formerly of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), once wrote that the most basic form of bias in schools is the exclusion or avoidance of visible individuals who represent certain groups from the curriculum. The English curriculum, and the absence of LGBTQ literature in most schools’ curricula, is a prime example of this. History is another.
Exposing children to media used in alternative curriculums—videos, documentaries, and books—that contain LGBTQ characters, themes, and historical figures can help make up for this exclusion. What’s great about this is that if teachers and schools are not including these voices, it is reasonably easy for parents to do at home.
While it won’t topple the structures of bias overnight (and those, indeed, need to be dismantled), it can at least begin to chip away at the entrenched foundations. A quick Google search would bring up many lists of suitable works, and there are also educators in the field who have reviewed elementary school novels and young adult novels with LGBTQ characters and themes for teachers, educators, and parents to consider. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance initiative also provides plenty of free resources for LGBTQ-inclusive teaching and parenting.
Start Easy, Start Small
I have talked to many parents and teachers throughout the months of the pandemic, and a common motif is heightened stress, anxiety, and burnout many of them are experiencing. This is why what I am advocating here are not Herculean efforts but small, manageable things that can be integrated into existing structures and routines.
TV shows and movies with LGBTQ characters and themes, for instance, can be enjoyed together on movie night, and books such as the ones cited earlier can be read by students for their book reports in English class.
Dinner table conversations are another easy way to integrate inclusive (un)learning into daily life. Asking children about LBGTQ-themed books they have read or movies they have seen recently is a particularly simple way to get conversations going. As you talk, try to be as mindful as you can about the language you use and the assumptions you make out of habit. It’s not about being perfect or changing yourself and your child overnight but making gradual progress.
In my many years of working in education, one thing I have learned is that when it comes to bias and intolerance, children do not have innate problems; they are not born with bias. It is adults who create problems.
We are the ones who instill biases in children through our own biases, explicit or implicit.
Most likely, we learned those from someone else when we were children as well. But the cycle does not have to continue indefinitely. By becoming more conscious and by implementing small, feasible actions at home, we can help to dismantle the beliefs that underlie so many of the harmful, exclusionary behaviors that afflict our society.