* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.Schools need to recognise their LGBTQ+ students are more vulnerable and put in place measures to support them
Sonny Thadani is the co-founder and chief executive of Robin, an education consultancy
Helping students feel seen, valued and accepted must go beyond simply putting pronouns under name tags or displaying rainbow stickers on the walls (although these are a great first step!).
Fostering an accepting school culture means creating opportunities for students to connect and empathize with each other. By inviting trained mentors into the school who can share their own experiences of feeling different or uncertain, students will feel more comfortable being open and relating to one another.
Empathy comes from understanding what others are going through and connecting over shared experiences in a non-judgmental way.
It’s crucial for teachers and support staff to have the necessary training to effectively support these types of connections. This includes understanding the unique mental health challenges that LGBTQ+ students may face, such as higher rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. It also means knowing how to provide appropriate social support, including creating safe and inclusive spaces, connecting students with resources and networks and advocating for their rights and wellbeing.
One of the best ways to make schools safer and more supportive for LGBTQ+ youth is to offer professional development for teachers and other school staff on how to understand and help them. This can help reduce the violence that LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to face and help them feel more connected at school.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are four main things that teachers and school staff need to learn:
- What sexual orientation and gender identity mean and how they are different
- What health challenges LGBTQ+ youth face and why
- How school environments affect LGBTQ+ youth’s well-being
- How to create policies and practices that support young LGBTQ+ people in schools
Educators have tremendous influence to create an accepting and supportive school culture that allows all students to thrive, but they must be given the right tools and resources. Providing the right messaging in a safe space where students can express themselves without fear of judgment or discrimination can foster an environment where empathy and understanding can flourish.
One powerful tool every school should have in its arsenal is a program that includes Social Emotional Learning (SEL). Scientific research has proven that this is critical for both mental well-being and academic achievement.
Teaching these important life skills can help LGBTQ+ young people navigate the challenges they face and build a stronger sense of self. Aspects of this education should include helping LGBTQ+ students who don’t identify as heterosexual celebrate what makes them different.
In reality, there is no such thing as "normal" - we are all unique, and that fact alone should be talked about openly and celebrated. Helping students appreciate what makes them unique is like revealing someone’s inner superpower; it helps them learn to value and love themselves. This can lead to higher self-esteem and a stronger sense of self. Not to mention, safer, stronger learning environments for all students.
SEL programming also deepens identity connections. For young people, this includes educating them about the various identities that make up their community and helping them find safe, empowering spaces to explore and respect those identities.
For this to happen, educators need the resources to learn about these identities and terms themselves, so that they feel comfortable and empowered to answer students' questions and provide guidance and support.
Federal funding is available for these types of programs (even more so since the pandemic) but beyond just funding, instructors need to be trained how to deliver it. According to a 2022 report, 72% of teachers rated themselves “not at all prepared” to teach LGBTQ+ related topics.
When schools invest in social-emotional learning, foster empathy and understanding, and provide the right type of support and resources to LGBTQ+ students, along with the professionals educating them, real progress can be made.