How school staff, parents and caregivers can help kids of color feel safe in the classroom

A student walks down a hallway.
A student walks between classes at Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kan., on the first day of in-person learning, March 30.
Charlie Riedel | AP 2021

Kids are settling back into a school routine and, for some, that’s great. For others, it’s tough.

There are a lot of reasons kids don’t feel good in school. For some BIPOC students, it’s because they don’t feel included, they don’t feel treated fairly and they don’t feel safe to be themselves.

That’s tough emotionally and physically and can lead to academic struggles, too. So what can school staff and parents or caregivers do about that? We ask early childhood expert Dianne Haulcy.

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Audio transcript

MELISSA: Well, it's that time of year that kids are settling back into a school routine. And for some, that's great. But for others, it's pretty tough, and there are a lot of reasons that kids don't feel good in school. For some BIPOC students, it's because they don't feel included. They don't feel treated fairly, and they don't feel safe to be themselves. That's tough emotionally and physically, and it can lead to academic struggles, of course.

So what can school staff and parents and caregivers do about that? That's a question I want to ask Dianne Haulcy. She's an early childhood expert. She hosts the podcast Early Risers, which is all about how to talk about race and racism with young children. She's also the President and CEO of the Minneapolis-based organization The Family Partnership. She's pretty busy.

Welcome back to Minnesota Now, Dianne.

DIANNE HAULCY: Thank you, Melissa. I'm so glad to be here.

MELISSA: So let's talk about what's happening in schools--

DIANNE HAULCY: Yes.

MELISSA: --that makes BIPOC young people feel unsafe. Tell me about an example maybe you've experienced yourself-- I know you're a mom-- or maybe you've heard about on the show.

DIANNE HAULCY: So I grew up in Minnesota, and I've raised my children in Minnesota. So this is something I know a lot about from a very personal perspective. When I was growing up-- it's different now, but when I was growing up, I could count on one hand the number of children of color that I was usually in school, not in the classroom with, but in the whole entire school with.

And one of the things that I think can be very helpful if you encounter children in that situation is number one, to see and recognize them. A lot of times, in Minnesota, there's a lot of parents, caregivers, schools that really subscribe to this colorblind mentality. A colorblind mentality will not address anything related to color because the thought is that if we talk about it, then that's going to prompt issues of racism.

And actually, the opposite is true. If you recognize my color, if you recognize who I am, celebrate my culture, that pulls me in. When I was in-- I think I was in fifth grade, we were making puppets. And the day finally came where we were putting the skin on our puppets.

And I remember the teacher saying, OK, now you can go into this certain room and go and get the flesh-tone material to make your puppets. And so I went into the room, and I was actually excited because I was proud of my puppet. And I looked for the flesh tone, and I couldn't find it. And so the teacher said, well, here it is here. And I said, that's not the color of my flesh.

And I just remember the teacher just looking dumbfounded, like, well, that's flesh tone. There was no comprehension of what I was actually saying. And finally, I was like, that's not the color of my flesh. My flesh is brown.

And somehow they had to go dig around-- I mean, it wasn't even laid out. They had to go dig around and find-- finally, they found something. I think they-- I couldn't even do it that day. I had to come back another day to do it. I clearly was not seen for who I was in that instance.

MELISSA: How old were you?

DIANNE HAULCY: I was probably 10.

MELISSA: And there you are standing up for yourself.

DIANNE HAULCY: Yes.

MELISSA: Excuse me, that is not the color of my flesh.

DIANNE HAULCY: Right. Right.

MELISSA: That's powerful. And you carry that with you. I mean, you still remember that how many years later.

DIANNE HAULCY: I do. Yeah, right. Exactly.

MELISSA: Yeah. When it comes to teachers like that teacher who just laid out certain colors of fabric, there's this implicit bias-- I know you talk about that a lot on your show-- almost a blindness to their own sensibilities that may translate in the classroom as racism, right?

DIANNE HAULCY: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

MELISSA: You talked to Sheila Williams Ridge. Now, she's the director of the University of Minnesota Lab School. And I want to play just a little clip from that conversation you had. Here's an example of something that she noticed in a classroom in her school.

SHEILA WILLIAMS RIDGE: There was a class that I was observing, and I was watching their large group activity. And I noticed that there are a couple of children being disruptive, and the teacher called both of the children and told them to stop. And I was like, OK. And then it happened a little bit later.

And it was the same two children, but the teacher said it in the same way, and then got up and removed the child of color and moved them to a different spot after they had been disruptive. And I thought-- so that raised a pretty big red flag for me that that was the person that she chose to move. So I watched another day, and I noticed a pattern.

MELISSA: So she notices a pattern of this teacher treating the Black student different than the white student even though they're doing the same thing.

DIANNE HAULCY: Yes.

MELISSA: And what I understand from your show, from some of the research, is that happens in a lot of different situations.

DIANNE HAULCY: It does.

MELISSA: So tell me more about that. Why is that happening?

DIANNE HAULCY: Yes. Well, there's a lot of reasons why that happens. But the main reason why is that Black children in the classroom, especially Black boys, but it happens often to Black girls too, are often looked at as the one that's causing the problem. So there are implicit biases that we hold in our-- in our minds that the Black child is the bad one.

And also, there's some cultural things that are going on here. Culturally, the Black child may be more active. They may be a little bit more boisterous. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they're doing something wrong or bad, it's just part of the culture perhaps that they are raised in, where they interact in a more boisterous way and maybe a little louder way. Also, the other thing is that Black children are often-- and studies have shown this-- viewed as being older than they really are.

MELISSA: Oh, that's interesting. Really?

DIANNE HAULCY: Yes. And so if you have a child that's, let's say, five years old, they may be viewed by people, especially white people, as at least two years older than that. And so there's this perception, probably, that this older child maybe should know better, and so all of that goes into that action when you're looking at a situation.

And oftentimes, these are situations where you're going to have to make a quick decision. You're not able to do a whole lot of introspection in that moment. And so you're going to have to act on whatever is right there. And so what is right there, oftentimes, includes a lot of our biases.

INTERVIEWER: That is interesting. So for me, always the question is, like, so what do you do about that? So let's go back to Sheila Williams Ridge here for a second, and let's hear about what she did.

SHEILA WILLIAMS RIDGE: I pulled the teacher aside, and I said, so this is a learning environment. This is what the space is for. I need to tell you that I've noticed a pattern in how you're addressing children. I counted the number of times that you said this child's name during the day.

I counted the number of times that you singled out this child's behavior in large group even though these behaviors are normative. I need you to just reflect on that for a little while, and then tomorrow we'll meet and sit down and talk about it. And so having that as a space where we can say this is a learning environment, I expect you to try things and to--

DIANNE HAULCY: Yes.

INTERVIEWER: --and to make mistakes. And this is not punitive. This is about your growth as a teacher. I believe that you can still be a really amazing teacher if you have all the information. And I bet this is something that you didn't notice. I noticed it. This feels really bad in the moment. It's going to make you a better teacher.

MELISSA: In the spirit of not being colorblind, Sheila Williams Ridge is a Black woman. And I'm sure the teacher was white, given the conversation. And I'm just struck by how much compassion and just sticks to the facts here, you know what I mean?

DIANNE HAULCY: Yes. And you are correct. I've heard Sheila tell that story a few times. And the person she was talking to was a student teacher, and she was white. You asked the question what can we do about it? And this exactly is what we can do about it.

Number one, become aware of our implicit biases. Everybody has implicit biases. And so it's not something to be ashamed about. But it is important for us to recognize when we do have them because that's the first step in actually being able to do anything about it.

MELISSA: Yeah. That's interesting. I like to be positive and, like, here's something we can do about it, but we're in a situation where so many schools are understaffed. We know that there is-- my own children are in schools where they're still looking for four or five teachers in each of those institutions. What happens when there's nobody just compassionately observing what's happening in a classroom?

DIANNE HAULCY: That's an excellent question. And that's when I think we, as parents and caregivers, need to become vigilant and become allies as well. There is nothing wrong-- especially if you are a white parent and you see something wrong and you see something that doesn't look right that might look like some implicit bias is at play, there's nothing wrong with you standing up for what is happening in the classroom.

Because let's be honest, all children are affected by implicit bias, including white children. And if you don't want your child to be learning those implicit biases, it is absolutely your responsibility to stand up when you see those things in action.

MELISSA: Mm-hmm. You pointed to white parents can be allies if they see something in a classroom and they can say something. But this all certainly seems like a setup for Black parents and Indigenous parents, parents of color having to go into that classroom and call people out.

DIANNE HAULCY: Yeah.

MELISSA: And that's a setup to be called the squeaky wheel, at best, and some other things at worst, right?

DIANNE HAULCY: Absolutely, yeah.

MELISSA: And what's your advice to BIPOC parents about how to handle that?

DIANNE HAULCY: Well, I would say you are correct. There is always a cost to calling something out often. But when you're a parent of color, that is just part of the process of being an advocate for your children is knowing that-- and I do say this-- it's not an if but a when because at some point in time there will be an opportunity for you to have to be an advocate like this. It's good to have support around it. You're not the only one in this situation.

MELISSA: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. There was this one interview you did with Christina Gonzales. She is a counselor in the Richfield School District. And she talked about how parents can also help their children deal with all the feelings that come up when these kind of dynamics are happening in the classroom. Let's listen to a little cut of that interview.

CHRISTINA GONZALEZ: I've been working in my own therapy to allow my young man of color, my son, to let off steam with me in the house because I know it's the only place he can. OK, let them spout off for a minute. They're not going to cross a line. But I want-- they need a place to decompress.

MELISSA: And I thought that was so interesting to have that perspective of my child is going to go through this at school, and they're going to need a place to let it out.

DIANNE HAULCY: Yes. Yes. So true. And I have experienced the same thing with my children as well. From early on, both my husband and I opened up conversation with our children about this. And so they have a place to come and talk about what happens at school in regards to race and to be able to have that space to decompress because there is a certain amount of anger that develops-- or could develop for a BIPOC child when they are continually seeing these racist acts or this implicit bias happen.

And so you don't want them to be consumed by that. And even more importantly, you don't want them to internalize the racist messages that they are seeing and hearing. And so you want them to be able to have that space, number one, to recognize that something is racist and it's not them, and to be able to, as Christina said, decompress so that you don't allow the frustration and the anger to get a hold of you.

MELISSA: I want to ask you 100 more questions, but we don't have any time. They're going to have to listen to your podcast.

DIANNE HAULCY: Right.

MELISSA: Well, thank you, Dianne. I really appreciate you being on the show and sharing your expertise with us.

DIANNE HAULCY: Thank you, Melissa. I'm so happy to be here.

MELISSA: Dianne Haulcy is the host of Early Risers, and she's also President and CEO of The Family Partnership. You can listen to the first three seasons of the podcast Early Risers wherever you get your podcasts, and the fourth season is scheduled to launch later this fall.

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