A group of students sitting at desks focus on a teacher in the front of the classroom.

There has been a clarion call for leaders to use this time of chaos to restructure systems that have failed many of our children. While the logistical challenge of a total overhaul seems out of reach, we are depending on school boards to make changes and lead beyond political turmoil. Many of these changes can come from shifting the way we co-create within already existing systems.

As we move towards definitions of equity that are authentic and sustainable, let’s invite partnerships with parents, administrators, and staff, treating everyone with grace during the challenges of our present moment.

The movement toward equity reform requires innovation as well as back-to-basic understandings of what human beings need to become the best versions of themselves.

In addition to acquiring skills, students need to be seen and to belong. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a staple of child development. While his theories have been adjusted and argued, they remain a helpful tool for understanding human motivation toward success. It is not enough to have robust academic curriculums if we do not attend to the emotional story beneath the surface.

According to Maslow, every child must receive certain essentials in order to reach self-actualization. At its foundation is the legitimate need for physical and emotional safety. Children cannot focus on academics when experiencing a chaotic home life or sensing teachers have prejudged them as hopeless. While educators cannot solve all the messy issues of society, schools can provide emotionally safe environments.

We know that parents of all backgrounds want their children to succeed. Often overwhelmed, they waver between giving up, threatening, and punishing. Parents from underserved populations, including immigrant, non-English-speaking families of color, feel enormous pressure to have their children succeed in school as a way out of poverty.

Educators have an opportunity to support parents into becoming eager partners by honoring their diverse backgrounds with sensitivity and respect. A commitment by teachers and parents to conflict resolution and relationship building is crucial to student academic success. When adults listen, rather than punish students, when they see the student needs being expressed through outrageous behavior, when student inner struggles can be expressed through honest dialogue, the entire system moves in a positive direction.

This concept of relationship building takes us back to Maslow’s hierarchy. The psychologist suggests students must be shown they are valued and respected, encouraging teachers to give high priority to creating supportive, inclusive environments. According to Maslow, students with low self-esteem will struggle to progress academically until their sense of self is strengthened.

Building self-esteem, especially for a child who is struggling, can be challenging for overstressed parents and teachers. The traumas related to COVID have exacerbated existing inequities, and more than ever, children need conscientious support. Organized mentor programs can be key to supporting overwhelmed adults in meeting these needs of our students.

The value of mentorship was highlighted during my recent interview with Anthony Price Jr., director of equity and inclusion for California’s Temecula Valley School District.

Price grew up in an impoverished neighborhood, with a family that had no role models to light the way toward higher education. He did have a sports coach who helped him see past his neighborhood and beyond his limited definition of success. “I was given the viewpoint that my life was bigger than what was around me.”

He overcame the challenges of his surroundings to become an educational leader, and he was the first in his family to attend college. “There are children,” he said, “that never think about going to college because in the air that they breathe, they do not see themselves going to college.”

As a high school principal in Arlington, Texas, he was expected to mentor children in his district. He played basketball with fifth and sixth graders during lunch and partnered with community leaders, creating a mentorship program for children identified at risk.

“We planted seeds. We listened to the kids. We are relationship people. Empathy, love, passion, and grace is what is needed,” he emphasized.

Imagine the possibilities if school board members, superintendents, and local business and civic leaders routinely hung out with students during lunch breaks. Having powerful role models that look like them, sharing stories, and caring about their opinions, could change their worldview.

When I was a young, idealistic teacher, my mentor introduced me to the writings of Haim Ginott. I was shaken to my core when I read the following: “I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

It’s a time for courageous leaders, willing to challenge conventional norms, to examine unconscious bias, rethink remediation strategies, and create innovative partnerships. Above all, we can start treating children as though they are already the person they are capable of becoming.

Sandi Schwartz (www.leadingedgeparenting.com) is the founder of Leading Edge Parenting. She is an educator, speaker, and author of Authentic Parenting Power.

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