A couple of years ago, during a lesson, one of my students said, “not to be racist, but she was white.” It wasn’t the first time a student had mistakenly thought that naming race was being racist, but it was still one of the bigger wake ups I had about the need to talk more directly to my students about identity, diversity, and social justice. And it wasn’t just about ensuring my students had the understanding and language to discuss these very real issues. Social justice lessons with elementary students are also about developing empathy, perspective-taking, and bullying prevention.
Start With Identity and Diversity
Students must have an awareness of their own identities and be able to understand and respect the identities of others before they can move on to justice. The skills and attitudes related to identity and diversity provide a needed foundation for perspective-taking and empathy. It’s possible that your students might already have a great sense of their identity and respect for diversity from their caregivers and their classroom teacher, but you may need to help lay some of this groundwork as well. When students are proud of their own identities and recognize the ways they are unique individuals, they are better able to care about the identities and experiences of others. Identifying commonalities, valuing diversity, and developing a respectful curiosity for differences helps children to feel connected to people who are different from them. It also helps children develop a sense of concern and desire to help.
Keep Your Stakeholders in the Loop
One of the biggest concerns counselors have is about parent complaints and push back – and rightfully so. There has been more than one story in the news about teachers who take a lot of heat for trying to talk to students about these issues. Something I noticed missing in those stories, though, was any mention of keeping the grownups in the loop. What if you proactively shared information about the lesson with students’ caregivers before or after the lesson(s) that gives some more information about what the lesson was about? This would make it clearer to them about exactly what you talked about and what your objectives were. Below is an example from a lesson on identity and from a lesson on justice/injustices where the main ideas of the lesson, activities, and any books read are listed:
If you still end up with some parent pushback, you need your bosses to have your back. Of course, this is in part a function of your relationship with them, but it can also be easier for them if you let your admin know about your plans ahead of time. Maybe they don’t want to look at your lesson plans, but having something written up that maps out your lessons and objectives, and ties them to your standards, can show them what you’re planning and explain your rationale. The American School Counseling Association’s ethical standards, position statements (the equity and cultural diversity ones in particular), and student mindsets & behaviors all support you doing social justice work within the school, including delivering social justice lessons with elementary students.
Elementary students need repetition and reinforcement for anything we are trying to teach them. That includes understanding identity, valuing diversity, identifying injustices, and standing up for others. Even the best lesson might just be planting seeds. One way to continue the growth, though, is through teacher extensions. Even a daily follow-up question for a week after the lesson can help to expand and cement the learning. Of course, if we actually want teachers to do this, we need to make it quick and easy for them by providing them with the prompts. Below is an example from a lesson on understanding justice and identifying injustices.
Read Children’s Books
Just like with any other big topic we want to tackle with our students, books can help us make an impact and help our students connect with the lesson. Sometimes, talking about the author of a book and their story can also be powerful, like with Sonya Sotomayer’s Just Ask!. The books you choose will likely be specific to the demographics and needs of your students. There are a million and one lists out there, and googling can be overwhelming. Here are my favorite curated lists on these topics:
Include Relevant Examples
Besides having a positive relationship with your students, making learning relevant to them is the most powerful strategy for student engagement. Teaching Tolerance talks about the importance of students understanding the history and historical impacts of injustices. I totally agree, however, counselors have limited time and often can’t incorporate both historical and modern-day relevant examples for things. Focusing your social justice lessons with elementary students on examples that your students can connect with makes it more powerful for them.
For example (pun not intended!), most students are already aware (or becoming aware) of stereotypes related to types of dogs, like a pitbull versus a golden retriever. This non-threatening example provides scaffolding before moving on to gender and age, other identities students can relate to hearing (or having) stereotypes about.
Most schools host at least one fun evening event where parents are invited. And most students have at least one friend whose father isn’t able to be super involved. Examples of injustices like a “Daddy Daughter Dance” are thus examples they can connect with. Or, examples where a student with academic struggles (and maybe a disability) is excluded. This doesn’t mean you can only use super relevant examples. You can definitely expose them to situations they are less familiar with, too. It just helps to include at least a few that they will “get” right away as you scaffold their learning.
One note or possible caveat: your examples need to be relevant without being triggering or isolating. If a student in a class has a parent who was deported, an example with that might not be the best fit. You also don’t want an example that seems to single someone out. For example, a scenario about an accent if there’s only one student in the room that has one. Of course, you know your students and what is best for them – those are just some things to think about.
Teach Them Skills
A lot of the learning within identity, diversity, justice, and action is about self-awareness and knowledge acquisition. And that is super important! But it is also important that students learn some specific social skills they can apply in order to make their classrooms, schools, and communities better places. One important skill is learning how and when to respectfully talk and ask about differences. Provide them with sentence stems and then different scenarios to practice with! Another skill to explicitly teach and model is being an upstander; speaking up when they see or hear discrimination/unfair treatment. You can practice different statements together and then role play using them in relevant situations.
What is going to be your first step in helping your students better understand their own identities, respect diversity, identify injustices, and take action? Let us know how you are incorporating these ideas into your guidance lessons below!
Quick concluding note: Delivering classroom guidance lessons related to social justice is just one part of our work as counselors. There is more to developing anti-bias schools and helping our students develop critical and compassionate thinking. I highly recommend exploring the Teaching Tolerance website and continuing to do your own learning to unpack your biases and better understand systemic injustices (Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? is one great place to start).
Other Confident Counselors blog posts you might find helpful: