School Based Microaggressions: Implications for Socially Just School Psychology Practice
By Jennifer Durham-Fowler
Microaggressions have been defined as “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs or insults whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages to target persons based on their marginalized group membership” (Sue, 2007). Although many may view microaggressions as minor annoyances, there is research indicating that they have a profound impact on the psychological functioning of marginalized groups (Brandolo et al., 2003; Swim, Hyers, Cohen & Ferguson, 2001; Szymanski, Kashubeck- West & Meyer, 2008) and create disparities with respect to education (Bell, 2002). Such negative impacts include hostile educational environments, deteriorating social group identities, endorsing stereotypes, and diminishing overall mental health of certain individuals (Sue, 2007). Microaggressive acts are not uncommon in schools. During the 2011- 2012 academic year, several incidents related to microaggressions emerged within the national discourse about education. In an elementary school in Georgia, it was reported that a teacher regularly incorporated references to slavery in math word problems. One question allegedly read, “If Frederick received two beatings per day, how many did he get per week?” (Golgowski, 2012). In Falls Church Virginia, a fourteenyear- old African American boy who was reading aloud in class was reportedly told by his teacher, using a derogatory and insulting tone, to read a Langston Hughes poem, “blacker” (Taylor, 2012). It was also reported that a teacher in Connecticut called an African American student the wrong name. When he pointed out her mistake she responded, “How about Black boy? Go sit down Black boy” (Yablonski, 2012). All of these incidents are being investigated, and whether they happened exactly as reported is not germane to this article. What is noteworthy is that as race and difference continue to present challenges within our society. Similar incidents could be happening in schools where a few or many students are members of marginalized identity groups. School psychologists can play an important role in addressing school based microaggressive acts.
Impact of Microaggressions and Social Justice
There is significant research documenting the negative impact of microaggressions on the psychological well-being and academic functioning of members of marginalized groups (Brandolo et al., 2003; Swim, Hyers, Cohen & Ferguson, 2001; Szymanski, Kashubeck- West & Meyer 2008). Research revealed that exposure to racial microaggressions resulted in poorer mental health in African American adolescents (Sellars, Copeland-Linder, Martin & L'Heureux Lewis, 2006). Another example is a study that examined the influence of subtle prejudicial statements. Salvatore and Shelton (2007) found that there was significant interference with the task performance, attention, and concentration of participants. These findings on microaggressions suggest that students who are exposed to them in school experience an altered disparate learning environment. Microaggressions create a socially unjust environment and can negatively impact student performance. Although much has been written about the nature of social justice within the profession of school psychology (Nastasi, 2007; Rogers, 2005; Shriberg, Bonner, Sarr, Marks, Hyland & Ring, 2008), many practitioners still may find it an elusive aspiration that is hard to conceptualize with respect to their daily roles within schools. As upheld by the American Psychological Association code of ethics (APA, 2010), such unjust practices present an ethical obligation for practitioners to protect and advocate for every individual's rights, dignity, and sense of integrity.
School based social justice is rooted in the concepts of fairness, equity and respect for groups that may be marginalized due to some aspects of their identity (North, 2006; Shriberg, Bonner, Sarr, Marks, Hyland & Ring, 2008). Since it has been established that microaggressive statements can be harmful to a subset of students based on their identity groups, our ethical guidelines compel us to intervene.
“In their words and actions, school psychologists promote fairness and justice. They use their expertise to cultivate school climates that are safe and welcoming to all persons regardless of actual or perceived characteristics including race, ethnicity, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, immigration status, socioeconomic status, primary language, gender, sexual orientation, gender identification, gender expression, disability or any other distinguishing characteristics” (NASP, 2011).
The literature indicates two basic intervention strategies for addressing microaggressions. The first involves social supports from both peers and mentors (Watkins, Labarrie & Applo 2010). This approach includes forming positive and supportive relationships with other students of similar race, ethnicity, and culture, learning to reframe maladaptive microaggressive experiences into a collective group identity, and teaching self-regulation strategies. The second intervention is related to active coping (Tyler, 1991; Torres, 2010), which ultimately reduces stress and promotes a sense of agency and purpose.
The school psychology three-tiered model of professional practice provides a framework for incorporating these two strategies into daily practice (NASP, 2011). A needs assessment, led by the school psychologist, can determine whether the climate within the school may be uncomfortable for certain students and incorporate interventions into any or all of the tiers within the practice model.
The first tier of the professional practice model involves providing universal school wide services that address the entire population of the school. School psychologists can advocate for the implementation of psychoeducational activities about the nature and impact of microaggressive statements such as hall displays, speakers, assemblies and other school wide events. The psychoeducation could be incorporated into other prevention initiatives that address popular issues such as bullying, raising awareness about autism, and other special needs. Tier one interventions could also involve advocating for the designation of microaggressive acts as infractions in the school's code of conduct.
Through work on collaborative teams, school psychologists can address microaggression on the second tier. Creating new, as well as utilizing preexisting groups and clubs that have students who are members of marginalized groups, can provide a venue for open discussion about their experiences with microaggression as well as mentor and peer supports. Group meetings could provide a safe place for validation of the impact of microaggressive acts and opportunities to discuss coping strategies. Facilitating these activities could be incorporated into the daily practice of the school psychologist.
Similar processes with respect to acknowledgement, validation, and the development of active coping strategies could be replicated for individuals at the third tier with counseling, consultation, and psycho-education groups. Depending on the age and maturity level of the student, it may be appropriate to share with them and/ or the parents that microagressions should not be dismissed as being insignificant. Instead, discussions as to how such incidents may have affected their perceptions and their experiences in school would take place. Microaggressive incidents may come up during a teacher consultation about the underperformance of a student. Although it is important to maintain a working relationship with teachers, it is possible to do so while raising awareness about the possible consequences of microaggressive statements on learning. School psychologists have significant experience communicating data based information that is unwelcome and or unpopular in a non- judgmental, supportive, and professional manner. This expertise can be applied when microaggressive acts occur in schools.
As race, difference, and multiculturalism continue to be salient issues within society, the challenges that accompany them will be reflected in schools. One such challenge is microaggression and its disparate negative impact on the learning experiences of students who are members of marginalized groups. Ethical guidelines of the profession compel school psychologists to act when fairness, equity, and respect are threatened. Research has provided school psychologists with options to intervene that are rooted in evidenced based practices and related to social supports and active coping strategies.
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Contact: Jennifer Durham, PsyD , Adelphi University, 1 South Avenue, Garden City, NY 11530.