Supporting the Social, Emotional and Academic Learning Needs of LGBTQI students

The Social Emotional Learning Innovation Fund offers up to $5,000 grant awards for teachers seeking to foster students’ social and emotional skills in fresh, inventive or innovative ways. In 2018, for the first time, the fund asked for proposals from educators working to support the social emotional needs of LGBTQI students. In honor of National Coming Out Day, we met with the following educators, who are using their Innovation Awards to build the resilience and agency of LGBTQI students and promote inclusion and tolerance within their school communities.  

  • Sara Barulich, MFT & Behavioral Specialist, San Carlos Charter Learning Center (CA)
  • Irene Bond, K-1 Educator, San Carlos Charter Learning Center (CA)
  • Danielle Dunn, Media Specialist and Cultural Proficiency Liaison, Hammond High School, Howard County Public Schools (MD)
  • Ginny Frisch, Resource Specialist, San Carlos Charter Learning Center (CA)
  • Razia Kosi, Facilitator, Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Howard County Public Schools (MD)
  • Carrie Snyder-Renfro, Family and Consumer Sciences Educator, Oklahoma Centennial High School, Oklahoma City Public Schools (OK)
  • Lapeta Solomon, Middle School Inclusion Teacher, Capital City Public Charter School (DC)

To learn more about these teachers and their Innovation Award-winning projects, see here.

Q: How did you become interested in supporting the social emotional needs of LGBTQI students?

Ginny: I have two reasons for being interested in supporting LGBTQI students. On a personal level, my twenty-five year old son identifies as gay, and growing up, he was always very open about his identity, and I want learners at our school to also feel they can be open. On a professional level, we have had learners who identify as LGBTQI and have had a really hard time because our school didn’t have a Gay-Straight Alliance student organization or other visible supports. In some cases they have had to come out to a staff member in order to get the support they needed.

Sara: I am interested in this work for all the reasons I am a therapist–supporting people in becoming who they are.

Carrie: I value student voice and I am always asking students about what they need. I want to meet all students’ needs, and a lot of LGBTQI  kids don’t feel like they have a voice so I try to give them those opportunities.

Razia: Most of my work up until three years ago was with adults, but last year, we started working in schools with teachers and students together. We started hosting retreats with students and teachers together, where we would break down stereotypes, bridge understanding and amplify students’ voices so that we–the adults–are learning from them and they are leading our efforts. I’m also an ally of the LGBTQI community–I have an adult child who is a member of the LGBTQI community. When it comes to supporting a child for who they love, I’m one hundred percent behind that. It’s much harder to support a child for someone or something they hate.

Q: In addition to allies and members of the LGBTQI community, you are all recipients of 2018 Innovation Awards. Congratulations! Tell me about your projects and how they support LGBTQI students.

Irene: We’re trying to make the school a place where students can identify however they want. We have presented to staff and used gender spectrum website to talk about ways to raise the inclusion level at our school. One of our main objectives is to make sure we are intentionally including discussion about gender in classrooms and play spaces so that students who identify as LGBTQI feel included. We create that environment through inclusive curricula, visibility, partnerships with organizations like GLSEN and PFLAG, questioning gender norms, training staff and bringing these conversations to parents and the community.

Carrie: Part of my project helps students in the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) student-led organization learn project management, organizational skills and develop their leadership capacity. They plan monthly “lunch-and learn” events with guest speakers and a showcase at the end of the year to share artifacts that they’ve created with the school and community. They are also helping to create “Comfort Corners” in each classroom with alternative seating and Social Emotional Learning resources like playdough, hand puppets, stuffed animals, drawing and writing tools to help them manage their emotions.

Danielle: Every fall, we gather a group of students, staff and–beginning this year–parents in a three-day Cultural Proficiency Workshop, where they can start communicating with people who are different than they are. Once they start communicating, they realize they have more in common. We try to get a lot of voices in the room, and find that LGBTQ topics always come up in discussion. At the end of each workshop, we ask students to identify action steps, and last  year, students decided they wanted to create gender-neutral bathrooms in schools. That work is close to being finalized, but for the past year, students have been writing new school policies and working with administrators to implement it.

Lapeta: Our project is to start a Gender Neutral Alliance (GNA) organization. We want to bring awareness to the school; we already do a lot of equity work and affinity groups, but staff and students have asked for more support for LGBTQI+++ students, so we’re also creating a “lunch bunch” group for students and staff who identify as LGBTQI and their allies. We’re planning a culminating activity where students will participate in the DC Pride Parade and have their own float.

Q: Tell me about your students. What are your LGBTQI students’ social and emotional needs? How are their social, emotional and academic needs intertwined?

Irene: Where we live is perceived as quite progressive, but the children aren’t always aware of that. They don’t understand history or context in the same way adults do. One of the social studies units we teach in kindergarten and first grade is about family, and the first year I taught that unit, we read books about all kinds of families. And yet, at the end of the unit, when I asked students what they learned, one student said “a family is a mom and a dad.” We have to keep reinforcing these lessons so that lessons of inclusion seep in.

Lapeta: In order for students to do well academically, they have to ok with who they are. If you’re in a classroom, and you think your teacher is biased against you, then that you might think this isn’t a place for you, or that the school isn’t safe. Having resources and supports embedded in the school community will help LGBTQ students have confidence and be able to come out, and help allies stand up for their peers.

Razia: Ten years ago, we had a student come to talk to district leaders about her mental health needs. She talked about how she was a “normal” kid in elementary school, and then in middle school she started to not fit in. She became less gender-conforming, and other students didn’t know what to make of her. She would go whole days without speaking to anyone, and her depression grew. She didn’t know how to put words to what she was experiencing, and she wasn’t a kid who acted out in class or was using drugs or doing anything that caught attention–she was just quietly, quietly suffering inward. She ended up dropping out. She became a different person when was able to talk about her needs and find her community, and eventually she enrolled in community college. Today, I’m seeing now more and more students are asking for what they need. There are still students quietly suffering, and we have to create safe spaces for them.

Danielle: There’s a lot of positive movement to support all our students, but I also think of some of students who don’t have parents who support them. For those students, school has to be a place where it’s ok for them to be who they are. They need a safe space where people value and accept them. How can students survive or do well in anything, if they can’t be who they are. Our most important message is telling students whoever you are, however you identify, that’s what you should be. End of story.

Q: Tell me about the communities and schools where your students come from. Are they safe places for LGBTQI students? What resources does your community need to support LGBTQI students?

Sara: Our school community is less racially diverse and more affluent, but we’re trying to show our students what the world looks like. There is a lot of privilege at our school, and we try to teach students that with privilege comes responsibility.

Carrie: In terms of resources, we’re starting from scratch. I think this grant is helping bring resources that we can use to empower LGBTQI students as leaders and providers of comfort, so that all students can benefit. That will help us improve our school and help students become more successful in school and life.

Danielle: A lot of parents do support their kids, but if students don’t get that support at home, we want them to have a teacher at school who supports them, and we want to create spaces where they can be who they are. Pronoun use is sometimes difficult for our faculty, because it’s different than when they grew up. Some teachers struggle, but when students see them trying, they appreciate the effort.

Razia: In our schools, you’ll probably see the best and worst of things. You’ll probably see schools that are very affirming and positive, and you’ll also see situations that aren’t great. Both these realities exist in many schools. One year, a school counselor who is part of the LGBTQI community wanted to interview other LGBTQI staff members about their experiences. She asked me for names, and at the time, I felt the need to get permission before I shared peoples’ names. And that made me think, well, maybe our community isn’t as safe as I thought if I felt like I needed permission.

Q: Speaking of work to be done, what changes are you hoping to see among LGBTQI students or within your school communities as a result of this project?

Carrie: My hope is students become more kind and develop their capacity for empathy. I hope students and teachers learn to understand each other better and appreciate the diversity within our school.

Ginny: As adults, we often see that some students are struggling with their identities, even though they may not be aware of it themselves. Our hopes are that we can openly support all students grappling with their identities, and that the supports are visible. I would like our project to make inclusion not seem like another thing–that it’s integrated into the fiber of our schools.

Razia: My hope is all students, staff, and community are treated in a manner that upholds their dignity and offers them the space to be who they are and to thrive and achieve their hopes and dreams and I hope LGBTQI students see themselves in the curriculum in schools and with leaders both inside and outside the schools.

Lapeta: My hope is that we can create a community where everyone is compassionate to all people and where we are able to challenge hateful views and help people become more mindful, open-minded and open-hearted. People should be able to be themselves without hesitation or fear.

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