Schools have the power to transform the lives of marginalized and minoritized students, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGTBQ+) youth. As students return to school this fall, especially in the midst of hostile anti-LGBTQ+ policies, it is important now more than ever that LGBTQ+ students have access to a supportive and inclusive school climate with positive peer and teacher relationships.
It is important for all youth to have access to a safe and inclusive school climate, regardless of their identities. Yet, data from Search Institute’s Resilience Through Strengths project shows that compared to heterosexual youth, LGBTQ+ youth report fewer social, family, school, and community assets, as well as lower caring from teachers and program leaders. Additionally, LGBTQ+ youth report higher levels of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) compared to heterosexual youth.
The Power of Positive Identity
Positive identity refers to youths’ self-worth, sense of purpose, and sense of control over their lives. In our data sample, LGBTQ+ youth reported less positive identity than heterosexual youth. Why is this finding meaningful? The development of a positive identity in adolescence has implications for mental health and wellbeing across the lifespan. Young people’s developmental relationships and developmental assets–such as perceptions of their school environment and teachers as supportive and inclusive– help to shape their development of a positive identity. Using Search Institute data collected among high school students, we found that a greater sense of inclusion at school, greater school assets, and greater feelings that youth mattered to teachers and program leaders were all related to higher positive identity among all youth.
For LGBTQ+ young people, the development of a positive identity can be thwarted by factors across contexts, such as negative policy environments, discrimination from peers and adults, and a lack of inclusion at school. We wanted to know whether a supportive school climate had a stronger impact on positive identity for LGBTQ+ youth than for heterosexual youth. Interestingly, we found that a supportive school climate had a similar relationship to positive identity across both LGBTQ+ and heterosexual youth. Essentially, a supportive climate is equally important for all youth in terms of their positive identity development.
Four Strategies to Increase Inclusivity
Given that LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to report lower developmental assets, it is still crucial that we take steps to make LGBTQ+ students feel included and supported. .
- Create safe spaces for LGBTQ+ youth: This could look like asking students their pronouns and preferred names and affirming them in conversations. Other simple, but meaningful actions, include displaying symbols of support like LGBTQ+ pride stickers or posters. Small acts of support can go a long way to show LGBTQ+ youth that their identities are valid and supported, which can in turn promote greater mental wellbeing and higher school belonging. Other ways to provide support include LGBTQ+ student organizations, like GSAs (Gender Sexuality Alliance/Gay Straight Alliance). GSAs provide a supportive space for LGBTQ+ students and allies and can improve the school climate for all youth by promoting a more affirming environment and student body.
- Advocate for LGBTQ+-inclusive curricula and policies:
Policy changes, such as non-gendered dress codes, inclusive bathroom policies, and name change or pronoun use guidelines, can help LGBTQ+ youth to feel safe and supported in school. With regard to curricula, it is crucial for LGBTQ+ youth to see themselves represented in the content they are learning, whether in history class or sex education. Additionally, LGBTQ+-inclusive curricula can benefit the health and wellbeing of all youth, not just LGBTQ+ youth.
- Take steps to address bullying and discrimination: While almost all schools have anti-bullying policies, far fewer schools have enumerated anti-bullying policies (policies that specifically provide protections for LGBTQ+ youth). LGBTQ+ youth who attend schools with enumerated anti-bullying policies report less school-based violence and hostility and higher teacher intervention. In addition, these policies can protect against poor mental health for all youth, regardless of sexual orientation. Teachers and staff can also address bullying head-on. In a recent survey, nearly all LGBTQ+ students reported hearing anti-LGBTQ+ remarks at school, such as the word “gay” being used in a negative way, and over half reported hearing homophobic comments from teachers and staff. When staff and teachers intervene in these situations, LGBTQ+ youth feel safer at school and are less likely to miss school due to feeling unsafe or uncomfortable.
- Provide teachers and staff with professional development resources and training: Supportive teachers and staff can improve LGBTQ+ youths’ academic achievement, attendance at school, school belonging, and mental wellbeing. Effective professional development and resources can include information about identities and pronouns, how to support youth who come out at school, how to intervene in cases of bias-based bullying, and how to advocate for institutional level supports like policies. Additionally, these opportunities create space for adults to question and challenge their beliefs and assumptions about sexual and gender diversity.
School should be a place where all youth feel safe and have the capacity to thrive, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity. Strong, supportive developmental relationships, such as those between students and teachers, show LGBTQ+ youth that they matter and create a more inclusive school climate for all.
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