A Closer Look

Addressing Microaggressions in Pre-K–12 Settings

Students from marginalized or minoritized backgrounds are increasingly being targeted in schools. In 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center noted 821 bias incidents in schools reported in the media. An additional 3,000+ incidents were reported by teachers. These bias incidents were related to race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, and religion. Moreover, these incidents were reported at all education levels. In most cases, school administrators failed to discipline the perpetrator or offer any type of response. These blatant events can occur because of other incidents of discrimination, particularly in the form of microaggressions, that have gone unaddressed. Microaggressions are brief exchanges that send denigrating messages to individuals of socially marginalized groups (Sue et al., 2007). These messages are often unconscious and may be delivered in the form of subtle snubs or dismissive looks, gestures, or tones. Although most microaggressions research focuses on adult populations, there is ample evidence that students in pre-K-12 settings may experience microaggressions from other students, from adults in the school, and through the school environment.

Experiencing microaggressions can have a deleterious impact on students' emotional health, leading to anxiety, depressive symptoms, sleep difficulties, negative affect, and lowered self-esteem. Additionally, these exchanges can negatively affect the relationship between students from marginalized groups and their peers and teachers. Students need support in navigating the complex emotions evoked by microaggressions and advocates empowered to address microaggressions and the systemic factors which may sustain them. It is important that school psychologists and other school personnel have the knowledge to recognize microaggressions and the skills to appropriately address them and to support students who have either experienced or witnessed microaggressions.

Because the topic of microaggressions has received little attention in school psychology, school psychologists' knowledge may be limited. When witnessing a microaggression, they may ignore it because they do not recognize the microaggression or are uncomfortable with the difficult dialogue that may ensue after addressing the microaggression. Worse still, school psychologists may be dismissive of students who have experienced microaggressions. Unhelpful responses such as these invalidate students' experiences and exacerbate the emotional distress associated with experiencing microaggressions. In contrast, thoughtful discussions led by adults who are comfortable discussing power and privilege validates students' feelings of bias and may lead to valuable learning experiences.

School psychologists and other educators must interrupt microaggressions and speak out against bias whenever it occurs. Otherwise, inconsistent responses send the message that it is okay to discriminate and target some groups. To be effective allies to students, educators should do the following:

  • Acknowledge when a microaggression has occurred. The subtle and ambiguous nature of microaggressions makes them particularly harmful. Recipients are left questioning if they interpreted the situation correctly or if they are overreacting to the situation. Just the small act of acknowledging that a microaggression has occurred is affirming to students, helps them be seen and heard, and recognizes their lived experiences.

  • Understand that intent does not equal impact. People who perpetrate microaggressions usually do not mean to offend and are often unaware they have engaged in a microaggression. But focusing on the perpetrator's intent as opposed to the microaggression's impact shifts attention from the recipient to the perpetrator, invalidates and minimizes the harm inflicted on the recipient, and places the recipient in the uncomfortable position of having to defend their emotions and reactions to the microaggression. Individuals called out for engaging in a microaggression need to acknowledge and own their behavior.

  • Speak to the behavior, not the person. Microaggressions are grounded in implicit bias, a person's unconscious attitudes towards a group. Implicit bias is generally not an indication of a person's actual values, and many hold implicit biases that run counter to how they think about themselves. As a result, people tend to get very defensive when confronted about microaggressions and view this confrontation as a personal attack. Focusing on the person's behavior allows you to acknowledge the perpetrator's good intent while also discussing the harmful impact of the behavior.

  • Ask questions to make the invisible visible. Ask simple, exploratory questions to better understand the individual's intent. Questions, such as "Who are you referring to when you say that?" or "What do you mean?" help the person uncover the underlying message of the microaggressive statement or action and can educate them on microaggressions in general.

By learning more about how to identify and respond to microaggressions, school psychologists can work towards creating school climates that are safe for and supportive of all students.

Reference

Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62(4), 271-286.

Resources

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About the Author

Celeste M. Malone, PhD, MS
Celeste M. Malone, PhD, is an associate professor and coordinator of the school psychology program at Howard University. Her research focuses on the development of school psychologists’ multicultural competence through education and training, diversification of the profession, and the relationship between culturally competent practice and PK-12 student outcomes.