What if?

Updated: Jan 15

How to address feelings about race and the feelings of white privilege with response to the attack on our nation’s capital.

By Martha Rodriguez, LCSW


We can no longer ignore the crisis in which we are currently experiencing. The assault that occurred on the Capitol demands a universal condemnation. This inconceivable act was difficult to watch; an attempt to dismantle democracy. Many question what if those protesting in front of our nation’s capital would have been black, or part of a minority group, would their treatment and the response by law enforcement have been different Unfortunately, the reality is they very well would have been. History has demonstrated that quite often minority led groups are unable to peacefully protest and are faced with severe forms of violence.


Certainly, students will have questions and feelings of fears, anger, and anxiety.

How do we support these students and how do we reassure them? Should we even talk about what occurred? How can we take a stand to support our student’s mental health during this time?


Supporting Students

  • We must start by being honest, calm and factual. Acknowledging that race matters, racism is real, but violence is never the answer to reaching justice.

  • Answer students’ questions, with honesty and a genuine concern. Students know you are being genuine; they need to feel you care. Yet you do not have to be able to fully understand them. Let’s be honest with ourselves and become aware that we may not be able to fully grasp their pain, anger, and feelings of uncertainty they may be experiencing. But we can certainly listen and model the tenets of true democracy.

  • Help your students to express their feelings, whether these are worries, anger, stress, and fears. Find ways to allow them to express and process their many conflicting emotions.


Some ways to help your students express their feelings are:


It is important to keep in mind, however, younger children may not be able to express or process the feelings, and may feel a sense of guilt, or responsibility. Being present, aware, and prepared to respond if a situation arises will help you be equipped to support your student.


Best Practices for supporting students include..

  • Become knowledgeable and competent in the signs and symptoms of those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

  • Distinguish signs and symptoms of PTSD in school-aged youth

  • Acquire knowledge in a problem-solving approach to working with youth in crisis

  • Identify a prevention/intervention strategy for assisting students

  • Have a plan to support students after Crisis and Loss


Why we must talk about race and the feelings of a double standard?


We may not have been able to control what is going on in our student’s environment when they are not in school. Yet, we can work on providing reassurance, structure, and resources, while creating and sustaining a school culture that values tolerance, diversity, and condemns inequalities.


Keeping quiet about things that matter and truly affect our students’ lives make us all complicit. Race matters, and the experiences our students have as a result of their race or how they perceive the world as a result of the injustices due to their race need to be examined and not ignored.


So, how do we talk about it?


We can start by getting to know our students. Their uniqueness, culture, and experiences. How these inform and affect how they see themselves and others. This is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate we condemn inequality and violence.

Let us be honest about our own bias and beliefs. It is understandable that some students may feel anxious, confused, or uncertain. It is ok to not be ok if we are mindful that some students may be affected or feel more vulnerable than others. We will be open to maintaining culturally and linguistically responsive practices which ensure that students and their families feel connected and engaged. This will in turn reinforce a sense of positive school community.

  • Be willing, able, and competent to address inequality and adversity.

  • Connect with parents and community on how they may be feeling during this time. While assuring them of plans to continue on keeping students safe during this unprecedented time.

  • Develop opportunities for students to become empowered through positive community and social justice projects.

  • Provide professional development opportunities that address tolerance, trauma, and race.

  • Be ready to support the unique learning needs of our students who may certainly be affected by the events that transpired, as well as the uncertainty of what may follow.


What are some Best Evidence Based Practices: Culturally Competent Approaches to treating and supporting students mental health?

  • Conduct culturally appropriate assessment and interventions

  • Create a treatment approach that recognizes and addresses the real needs and issues related to racism, xenophobia, and sexism

  • Do not be afraid to tell your student that you do not understand all the experiences related to lived experience, but you are committed to anti-racist actions and work.

  • Address aspects related to collective and individual trauma

  • Work on emotional regulation and energy devoted to how to treat hypervigilance and racism-related anxiety

  • Use psychotherapies that have been shown to be effective in vulnerable communities: culturally adapted cognitive behavioral therapy, culturally adapted cognitive processing therapy, and culturally informed prolonged exposure


If we choose to work on validating, acknowledging, and processing, how our students feel can become an opportunity to establish a positive relationship with students which is foundational to safe and successful learning environments and exceptional leaders.


“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Martin Luther King Jr.



Resources to Address Race, Trauma, and Crisis


Training Resource: Counseling Kids in Crisis Supporting Students After Crisis and Loss


Crises are uncontrollable, negative, instantaneous events that have the potential to create adverse, harmful effects on school-aged youth. Cognitive development and coping skills are often affected and may lead to academic and behavioral difficulties in school. This webinar focuses on the signs and symptoms of youth in crisis and those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Learn a problem-solving approach to use when working with traumatized children as well as prevention and intervention strategies.


Trauma and Race: Opportunities and Challenges for Therapists of Color Working with Families of Color


Teaching Tolerance -student mental health—and why it matters.


Let's Talk! Discussing Race, Racism and Other Difficult Topics With Students


Responding to Hate and Bias at School

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The School Social Work Association of America empowers school social workers and promotes the profession to enhance the social and emotional growth and academic outcomes of all students nationally and globally.

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