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Adapted with permission from School Mental Health Ontario

In recent years, we’ve seen deaths and injuries to many Black children and youth at the hands of police officers and White people. Seen across media channels, this has ignited important protests around the world.

This has reaffirmed the need to acknowledge and take action to end anti-Black racism. Racism is a lived reality for Black Canadians, with devastating consequences for students, families, and communities. It is systemic in nature, as certain systems are put in place to create and perpetuate racial injustice and inequality in the lives of Black people.

Systemic racism is also a lived reality for Indigenous peoples and racialized people in Canada and around the world. It makes daily life, and moving through the world, an unequal, more dangerous and more stressful experience. It destroys individual and community comfort and trust in places, organizations and institutions that should be safe and should equally serve all people.

In all its forms, racism is unjust, and it is wrong. We all have a role to play in confronting these inequities and working to build more equitable and inclusive school communities.

A commitment to positive change requires us to acknowledge and take action to end systemic racism. At the same time, it requires us to continually look inward at our own biases and understand our own positionality. We must recognize the complexity and deep-seated nature of this problem, which itself requires multiple voices and perspectives. Educators are well positioned to collaborate and recognize the importance of engaging with students sincerely about the realities in the world. And we need to act in concrete ways.

When done in a thoughtful, informed and intentional way, engaging students in discussions about anti-Black racism acknowledges and addresses systemic racial injustice. This can help a school community begin to move forward toward greater understanding, mutual support and, ultimately, healing.

When we create opportunities to talk about race and anti-Black racism, it provides students and educators with space to:

Share factual information and reduce the spread of rumours.

Using accurate information about people, events, reactions and feelings is empowering. Use language that is developmentally appropriate for students, and ensure the information is based on facts. It is especially important to correct negative statements made or heard in the media about any specific group. Invite students to correct you too.

Express feelings, honour lived experiences and offer validation.

Model honest, respectful, and supportive dialogue. Believe when a Black, Indigenous or racialized student shares that they’ve experienced racism, and validate their feelings. Establish a sense of safety and trust within the classroom, so that students can express their own perspectives and respectfully listen to others who may have differing ideas or perspectives.

Acknowledge that students represent intersecting social and cultural identities.

Recognize that each student represents their own set of intersecting identities. Allow students to learn more about what this means and how this can shape beliefs, biases, and experiences and may provide power and privilege. Focus on respecting differences, and how a positive connection to identity builds strength and resilience in individuals and communities. Help White students to recognize privileges granted to them solely because of their skin colour, and how they can use this power to help to dismantle anti-Black racism.

Address needs, and concerns and support a call to action.

Engage students to reflect critically on their own classroom environment, school and community. Learn what microaggressions, microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations are. Identify and counter them with affirmations, and build an understanding of their impacts and empathy for those who experience them. Use these moments as learning opportunities to build on student strengths and move forward toward a call to action.

Introduce healthy coping responses and encourage positive social connections.

Share resources with students that focus on positive mental health strategies, such as the COVID-19 Youth Mental Health Resource Hub created by Jack.org

Share supports that are available to students and notice when some students may be struggling emotionally.

Share resources with students and highlight the importance of supporting each other. Recognize when students are struggling. Know your school’s school mental health professionals and referral pathways.

Before, during and after the classroom discussion

Conversations about race and anti-Black racism with students may be pre-planned or spontaneously ignited by current events, a classroom subject matter or as part of casual conversations amongst students. Regardless of how the conversations begin, educators need to be prepared to facilitate mentally healthy conversations. Consider the following before, during and after the classroom discussion.

Before a discussion with your class

Emotional readiness to facilitate the discussion:

Ensure that you are emotionally ready to deliver the message. If you are unable to facilitate the discussion or will require additional support, you may engage with appropriate board and community resources and partners to help. It is important to reflect on your own intersecting identities, lived experiences and knowledge. How will this help support the conversation? Consider what might be missing.

Set up the space:

If meeting in person, consider arranging the class in a circle where staff and students are seated on the same level and can see each other. A talking piece (e.g., talking stick, stuffed animal) may bring comfort and may help with taking turns. If meeting remotely, follow your school board’s guidelines. Check with students about how they would like to proceed, e.g., cameras on/off, or using the hand-up feature to indicate that they would like to contribute to the conversation. Inform students how to reach out for support by sharing a contact number on the screen. Carefully plan who will offer the additional virtual support so that you can focus on facilitating the conversation.

Strategic seating:

Consider whether you need a strategic seating plan e.g., proximity to provide additional emotional support (with safety considerations and following social distancing rules).

Alternative space:

Consider alternative locations or spaces for smaller group discussions and individual supports. Think about your students for whom this may be a difficult discussion (e.g., special education needs, prior trauma concerns, language barriers). Provide them with options such as, staying in the classroom, staying in the classroom with supports, participating in the discussion with a smaller group of students in an alternative location, etc.

Prepare yourself for speaking with your class:

Practice a strategy that may help you feel and remain calm (e.g., deep breathing, visualization, rehearsing).

During the classroom discussion

As a facilitator for this conversation, you can play an important role in creating a safe and comforting environment.

Click here to access the Supporting Mentally Healthy Conversations About Anti-Black Racism with Students: A Resource for Educators document, created by School Mental Health Ontario. 

Consider those and the following tips to help guide and foster mentally healthy discussions with your students.

  • Model calmness (e.g., body language, tone of voice, non-verbal communication).
  • Use straightforward, simple language. In stressful times, processing information can be more difficult.
  • Be mindful of words or comments that may trigger difficult emotions in students who have lived experiences with racism. Respond with care and compassion and consider revisiting the classroom norms to guide the conversation forward.
  • Be mindful of the needs of the students in the class (e.g., English Language Learners, special education).
  • Allow adequate time for discussion.
  • Allow for pauses and silence.
  • Focus on the facts. It is okay to say, “l don’t know”.
  • Reserve judgement and personal opinions. If you feel defensive, stop, and ask yourself why.
  • Present objective and credible information with respect and sensitivity.
  • Provide students with the option to take a break from the conversation should they feel overwhelmed.
  • Monitor students’ responses, both verbal and non- verbal. Allow students who may be struggling to seek more in-depth support with additional mental health support staff. Provide the option to the student of being accompanied by a supportive friend.
  • Call for additional support, if needed. It’s good practice to know the support people available to you before having the discussion.

After the classroom discussion

  • Be observant and check in with students who may need additional support.
  • Connect students who may need additional support to school mental health professionals. See ONECALL Desk Reference, No Problem Too Big or Too Small, COVID-19 Youth Mental Health Resource Hub, Kids Help Phone, the Black Youth Helpline, and other local, culturally-responsive supports, and services.
  • Following classroom discussions, it may be helpful to allow students to take time for personal reflection in a manner that is meaningful for them, e.g., journaling, listening to music, drawing, speaking with a friend or a small group of friends. Examples: Journaling helps students process their emotions on their own terms and at their own pace. Decide whether journals will be kept private or serve as a space for you to dialogue with students by writing back and forth.
  • Drawing can provide younger students with a valuable opportunity for personal reflection and emotional processing. Drawings can be shared or kept private.
  • Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings and try to allow yourself time to care for your own wellness in whatever ways you find most helpful. Learn to recognize when you need additional support. Help is available through your employee assistance program.

Click here to access more resources from School Mental Health Ontario, created for educators and student support staff.

listen believe act

Visit the School Mental Health Ontario website at https://smho-smso.ca/to access more resources.