Theater, Education, and Community

Strongly influenced by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Brazilian activist and director Augusto Boal created Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) in the 1970s. TO comprises a series of techniques combining performance and participation, inviting audiences to envision liberation and empowering them to resist oppression. If successful, TO catalyzes social change.  

Boal argues that traditional theater has been used as a tool of domination by the ruling class, with audience members as passive witnesses to the narrative presented by actors on the stage. In TO, on the other hand, actors and audience members alike are “spect-actors,” active participants and transformers of the theatrical act (Boal, 1979, p.122). Spect-actors analyze the performance and suggest interventions, then try them out on stage to determine whether they might work in real life.

Boal’s “hypotheses” include metaxis, the ability to be in two places at the same time. We can be both in the theater and wherever the on-stage action takes us. Boal’s goal was for the two realities to merge, for the solutions rehearsed in the theater to create change in the real world.

TO also features games that encourage participants to connect with one another and to facilitate “de-mechanization,” Boal’s term for unlearning the habits we’ve adopted as participants in the world of work and mainstream culture.


Bronx-based Act4Change utilizes TO methodology to help participants, especially children and teens, become creators and co-owners of their respective communities. Community, in the sense of a supportive environment characterized by a strong sense of safety and belonging (Gereluk, 2008), is integral to individual and collective well-being.  Students who feel connected to their classmates and to the adults in their lives are more likely to thrive both socially-emotionally and academically. The adults in a cohesive community can more effectively problem-solve and advocate for themselves. However, community can be difficult to create and maintain in low-income working-class neighborhoods whose participation in the public sphere has been curtailed, if not negated completely. Poverty and racism cause exceptional stress and trauma and create obstacles to cultivating cohesive communities, bound together by relationships, a feeling of safety, a sense of belonging, and individual and collective efficacy.

Using interactive theater arts to work with participants as equal partners in imagining their local future, Act4Change is a community engagement pedagogy designed to highlight truths and create possibilities for communal interventions. It incorporates participatory and critical pedagogy to drive the individual and community potential of young people in oppressed communities and develop strategies for social change.  

Vested in the educational development of youth, Act4Change draws on principles of creative transformation that encourage youth to explore the social conditions of their environments.  It aims to have participants gain a greater sense of self and to serve as resources to their peers and communities. Act4Change projects aspire to inform public life, inspiring and educating community members to address the social issues in their neighborhoods. Furthermore, these projects call for personal and community growth. As a practice of community engagement pedagogy, it combines community, theater, and education to center what Block (2008) calls kitchen table and street corner democracy.


Images: Act4Change

Act4Change Presentation

On December 14, 2018, 78 residents of the South Bronx, including children, teens, and adults, attended “What You Gonna Do About It?”  an Act4Change Forum Theater program on bullying. Youth and adults members presented and discussed their lives as fiction and intervened in its truth.  The program engaged the spect-actors in a dialogue on the social reality of bullying in their schools. In addition, participants experienced the theatrical act as conscious intervention, a rehearsal for social action rooted in a collective discussion on school bullying.  The participants continued to discuss bullying as a system of behaviors during the “design for equity” table talk dinner that followed the performance. Performers went to each table and asked the participants whether they had experienced bullying. They discussed how the community could approach the problem of bullying. Participants had to challenge their belief that individual responsibility was the sole avenue for addressing  bullying.

During the interactive performance, participants were engaged in problem-solving. During the dinner, they discussed in more detail the cultural and social nuances of bullying. As participants came to see bullying through multiple perspectives as a course of conduct and an accumulation of acts over time, they were inspired to consider ways to make their communities more aware of how to cope with it.  The Act4Change project, once completed, brought different possibilities to the forefront and gave voice to children, teens, and adults. To a certain extent, “What You Gonna Do About It?” brought to bear how bullying is constructed.

That evening children, teens, and adults tackled bullying as individuals and as part of a community.  Audience members were active participants, spect-actors, and took collective ownership of  devise ideas for liberation from bullying. They were called upon to view themselves as system change agents, not merely from the standpoint of individual responsibility but from the possibility of collective responsibility.  They built a public interest mindset using their collective creativity to frame the problem of bullying. Community interventions were created and served as a key element in thinking in a more just way on how to deal with the conditions of social life.

By utilizing TO methodology in educational settings, Act4Change facilitates constructive problem-solving and community-building. By working collaboratively to solve staged ethical dilemmas, participants of all ages begin to view themselves as change agents and to deepen their understanding of the centrality and potential of community in transforming society.   

Boal, A. (1979). Theatre of the Oppressed, trans. Charles A. and Maria-Odilia Leal McBride (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1979).

Block, P. (2008).  Community: The structure of belonging. San Francisco, CA, US: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Gereluk, D. (2008). Education and community. 1st ed. New York: Bloomsbury Academic


Cultural worker and action researcher, Eva Lopez, founder of Act4Change, is a teacher, community-based organization administrator, and Theatre of the Oppressed facilitator. E-mail:

Feelings Charts Instead of Behavior Charts: Radical Love Instead of Shame

As practitioners and teachers of Emotionally Responsive Practice (ERP) at Bank Street College, we have the privilege and adventure of stepping into a wide range of settings in which grownups work with groups of children. We travel from daycare centers to independent schools, from charter schools to NYC public schools, seeing classroom practice with children ranging in ages from infants to 13 years old. Classroom management and having children learn to take responsibility for their own behavior are common challenges. In this article, we highlight what we see as negative and harmful trends in behavior management and introduce some core concepts and language of Emotionally Responsive Practice at Bank Street , an approach to working with children developed based on deep knowledge of child development and a respect for children’s life experience (Koplow, 2002, 2007, 2009). These anecdotes contextualize our discussion.

Stories from the Field: Part I

An ERP consultant sits with a first grade teacher in an “academically-focused” charter school, who tells the consultant of a child who is constantly “flipping out” in the classroom and whose tantrums often escalate so fast and intensely that he must leave the classroom several times a day. When the consultant says, “describe to me what happens when he flips out,” the teacher replies that one thing that always triggers him is when his clothespin is moved downwards on the behavior management chart, where different-colored cards indicate to children where their behavior falls in the realm of acceptability (see figure 1). When the consultant suggests that the behavior chart may not be the best way to deal with this child’s behavior,  the teacher quickly replies that it wouldn’t be fair to the other children if this child didn’t use the same behavior chart.

A three year old boy is crying miserably upon waking up from his nap. His caregivers are busy helping other children with their blankets and cots as he sits on his cot unattended. “What’s happening?” asks the consultant in the room, pointing to the crying child. “ Oh. He does that every day when he wakes up,” says the teacher. She addresses the child. “Daniel, I told you before that big boys don’t cry. If you want to ride the big boy bicycle when we go to the yard, you’d better stop that crying!” At this, Daniel throws his shoe, unintentionally hitting another child passing by. The other child stands still in shock for a moment and then bursts into tears. The teacher shakes her head. “I told them to keep him with the two year olds, but they gave him to me anyway!” she tells  the consultant in a loud voice, exasperated. Then, turning to Daniel, she says, “ There’ll be no bike riding for you today! You can sit and watch while the other children ride.”

As 8th grade students file into their classroom, their teacher instructs them to remove their outerwear and prepare for learning. One child tightens the strings of his hooded sweatshirt, hiding his face, and slumps down in his seat. When the teacher challenges him, he stands up, indignant, insisting that he will keep the sweatshirt on. The interaction ends with the frustrated teacher telling the student to leave the classroom and go see the dean. The dean writes up a report, adding to a growing file of this student’s negative behavior.

The Risks of Behavior Modification Systems: Shame and Punishment

Educational programs for children often face the dilemma of how to manage challenging behaviors in increasingly stressed school environments. In most settings, due to external pressures, there is less and less time for authentic connection-making or creative or self-directed work, and more and more pressure on teachers and students to “perform” academically. More and more often, we see schools relying on implementing behavioral management programs to manage and shift children’s behavior. The basic premise of these programs is to reinforce positive behavior with a rewards system. In one of the examples above, we see the use of a behavioral modification chart. Typically, charts have levels or ranks, and the teacher moves each child’s name or number to a particular level based on the child’s most recent behavior.The highest card indicates that a child is meeting or exceeding the behavioral expectations in the classroom. The lowest card usually indicates that the teacher will call home, something that we frequently witness causing an undue amount of anxiety for children of all ages.  In many classrooms that we visit, it seems to be the case that these behavior management systems are relied upon to encourage and demand compliance from children. It is not unusual for the children who struggle the most to adapt to classroom norms to also be the children most easily triggered by the downward movement of their clothespins or cards, which publicly demonstrates their negative value in the classroom.

Often schools carry this theory even further by applying consequences  (read “punishment”) for low-ranking behavior, such as loss of recess or other special experiences, or a call home. Not surprisingly, the results of implementing these behavioral programs sharply highlight and replicate a macro-system based on shame instead of support, control instead of empowerment, punishment instead of healing: a system that invalidates young children’s deeply-felt experience of their own lives. It has been our observation over years of consulting that behavioral modification systems are implemented more often in schools in poor communities and communities of color and that, in racially diverse classrooms, they are used more regularly with children of color.

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot writes: “In our efforts to control and measure, in fact, we often confuse difference with deviance, illness with identity; we pathologize, exclude, and then label those children who do not fit the norm–who trouble the waters, who misbehave–and we reward the teachers who contain and squelch the troublemakers” (in Shalaby, 2017, p.xi). Indeed, we see behavior modification systems as an effort on teachers’ parts to contain children while ignoring the emotions that underlie their behaviors. Carla Shalaby writes:  “Teachers in training learn to punish transgressions because it is not controversial to be castigated if you misbehave. It is your choice and your fault. This logic is deeply embedded in the American psyche—the nation with one of the highest incarceration rates in the world—and it justifies our decision to throw away young lives by making young people think the fault for that exclusion is entirely their own” (Shalaby, 2017, p.xxii). It is easy to make the connection between punitive systems in school and the school-to-prison pipeline that has been widely and clearly documented in recent decades.

Let us return to Stories From the Field: Part 1. Our experience is that the vast majority of teachers and administrators want to support children, and that behavior modification systems such as the behavior chart are often introduced with the positively-framed goals of helping children to acquire self-management skills and creating a positive learning space. Unfortunately, these systems are far more likely to induce a feeling of shame in children who cannot meet the criteria on a given day, or every day. Brene Brown (2012, p.69) defines shame as, “the intensely painful feeling of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” When we see children vehemently deny that they did anything wrong, we understand that they would rather feel any other feeling than shame. While teachers often express frustration that children do not want to take responsibility for their actions, we prefer to interpret those children’s denial of wrongdoing as a natural, human reaction of avoiding shame, and ensuring self-protection. The rare children whom we have observed who are able to acknowledge that they hurt others and sincerely apologize are those who have been most well-supported emotionally in and out of school. We propose that teachers shift the lens through which they view the moment in which the child “refuses to take responsibility for his actions” to a lens of compassion, using their knowledge of development and respect for children’s life experiences. Utilizing a pathway through relationship and emotional literacy, teachers can empower students to accept  responsibility without feeling shamed in the process. The following anecdotes exemplify what such a shift in teacher practice toward a lens of compassion might look like.

Stories from the Field: Part 2

A class of four-year-olds has recently started using individual feelings charts in the classroom. One child is especially drawn to using his, and teachers have noticed that since he has had the ability to show his feelings on his own personal feelings chart, his outbursts have diminished. One day there is an unexpected fire drill, something that has caused him great agitation in the past. On this day, he runs to his feelings chart, moves the clothespin to “scared,” quickly finds a teacher’s hand to hold, and participates calmly in the fire drill. His teacher is able to talk to him later about how scary fire drills can be, and how glad she is that he could tell her his feelings using the chart.

An exhausted third grader puts his head down on the desk, having crumpled up his math assignment and thrown it on the floor. His teacher quietly acknowledges his fatigue and frustration, and invites him to rest in the cozy corner for a while. While he lies on the soft beanbag, in this small space, he holds his classroom teddy bear for comfort. Eventually, he reaches for his journal where he can write or draw something about what is making him feel so tired and frustrated. His teacher will read it if he wants her to.

In a similar anecdote to the 8th grade scenario above, instead of publicly challenging the student, the teacher approaches him quietly when all begin writing. He observes that when asked to remove outerwear, this student kept his on; he says,  “It looks like you really don’t want to take your sweatshirt off today.” The student confides that the sweatshirt was a gift from his late grandfather and is helping him feel connected to his memory. With this knowledge, the teacher allows the student to keep the sweatshirt on for today, and makes a mental note to find time to further connect with the student and to let the guidance counselor know he may need some space to process. The teacher also makes a mental note to reconsider his own policy regarding outerwear, realizing that the clothing may provide a feeling of security and retreat for these older students who still experience strong emotions.

Emotional Literacy: Healing and Validating

In Stories From the Field: Part 2, teachers have internalized ERP concepts of “inviting and containing” and “relationship-based teaching.” Instead of behavior charts, they have created “feelings charts.” Instead of removing the children from their community, they have provided quiet areas for children to retreat from group life when their feelings become overwhelming.  Feelings Charts, cozy corners, and other types of emotionally responsive invitations are alternatives to behavioral management programs. Feelings charts give children the opportunity to think about how they feel, and to communicate those feelings to the adults in the classroom. Many children struggle to make sense of their internal states, and feelings charts help children to develop emotional literacy.

Adults can help children use the charts to think about cause and effect. For example, “You came in this morning and you were feeling angry, and now you knocked down his block building. I wonder if you did that because you were feeling angry?” When children are able to identify feelings, they are more likely to develop self-regulation and to find more constructive ways to express them.

Using Feelings Charts: Introducing Emotional Literacy

In the current political era, the importance of the social emotional learning (SEL) that happens in school settings has begun to be more widely recognized. “Trauma-informed practice” has become a buzz-phrase, and more funds are being allocated to SEL. We recommend teaching emotional literacy through feelings charts.  A feelings curriculum is one of the basic recommendations we make at all grade levels. We have come to view reflecting children’s experiences and supplying language to express their feelings as acts of radical love. Naming a child’s feelings humanizes the child for the teacher who is struggling to support that child. The behavior becomes secondary to the human value of the child experiencing the feelings at the root of the behavior.

We suggest teachers incorporate feelings charts in stages, first introducing them and making them part of their classes’ daily routines, soliciting children’s ideas and observations. After a while, children should be invited to use the charts independently. Children should be able to move their names (or popsicle sticks, or pictures, or magnets) on their own. This can happen as they come into the classroom in the morning. It should be stress-free. Teachers should invite children to move their indicators throughout the day as necessary. This helps teachers to track how children are feeling at school, and helps both children who struggle with articulating their feelings and children who act out their feelings to express them in a productive way. Some children may use the chart frequently at first and less so over time while others may continue to use it throughout the school year and some may need their teachers’ help to use it at all. As well, teachers can always draw the class’s attention back to the chart when they observe that the theme of feelings is relevant.

A teacher who recently implemented a feelings chart in his K-1 classroom comments, “The process of creating the feelings chart brought kids into touch with a greater range of feelings and helped expand their feelings vocabulary. We looked at characters in literature and named and identified with their feelings. Children illustrated the feelings, and used those illustrations as part of the feelings chart. This process, along with the introduction of our “peace nook,” has allowed the children fuller recognition of a variety of feelings, especially strong feelings, in themselves and in others.”

Little by little, as teachers realize the benefits of their initial efforts to incorporate more emotionally responsive approaches, we see them first shift their thinking, and then shift their practices further. By inviting children to share the authentic stories of their lives and naming and reflecting the feelings surrounding those stories, teachers and schools come to know children in deep and meaningful ways. The children in turn feel understood, valued, and safe. Instead of focusing on stopping behaviors, we encourage educators to invite schools to understand more about the complex web of reasons that children act out at school, and how to listen deeply to what they are communicating through their behavior. Research shows us the power of relationship and community in regulating toxic stress in the bodies of children and adults alike. ( ( Classrooms and schools must become communities that courageously invite and hold the real struggles, successes and experiences of all children, so that these spaces can become grounds for healing and growth, not shame and punishment.

Figure 1: Examples of classic Behavior Modification Systems


Figure 2: Examples of Feelings Charts in the classrooms where we consult




Hurley, K. (2016). The dark side of behavior management charts. The Washington Post, September 29, 2016.

Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. (2017). Quoted in the introduction introduction to Shalaby, C. (2017) Troublemakers: Lessons in freedom from young children in school. The New Press.

Brown, B (2012). Daring greatly: how the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead. USA: Avery.

Koplow, L. (2002). Creating schools that heal: real life solutions. New York: Teachers College Press.


Margaret Blachly is a psychoeducational specialist with Emotionally Responsive Practice at Bank Street College. Her background is in the early childhood classroom, where she has worked as a bilingual and special education teacher in independent, charter, and public school settings. In addition to her work with ERP, she currently works as a consultant in a variety of school settings.

Noelle Dean is a mental health specialist with Emotionally Responsive Practice at Bank Street College. She also consults in the lower school at the Bank Street School for Children where she is affectionately called the “feelings teacher.”

NY Opens the Door to SEL

In August, the New York State Education Department published Social Emotional Learning: Essential for Learning, Essential for Life, a detailed document calling for all NYS schools to incorporate social emotional learning into their daily instructional practice with fidelity and district-wide support.  The linked Social Emotional Learning Benchmarks, however, are voluntary, and the authors point to sources of multiple barriers to success, not least among them that “[t]here are subgroups who believe that social emotional development, instruction, and learning falls outside of the purview of the public schools and should not be included in classroom curriculum.” Thus, realizing these aspirational goals will require lots of grassroots work and struggle.

A quote from Linda Darling-Hammond sets the tone:

I have no doubt that the survival of the human race depends at least as much on the cultivation of social and emotional intelligence, as it does on the development of technical knowledge and skills. Most educators believe that the development of the whole child is an essential responsibility of schools, and this belief is what has motivated them to enter the profession.

Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning: Research and Practice, 2015

SED’s call to action is the latest step in a decade-long process. In 2009, NYS legislation called for establishment of SEL guidelines through collaboration between SED and the State Office of Mental Health. In 2016, New York joined a CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) initiative and adopted CASEL’s definition and competencies.

CASEL defines SEL as the process through which “children, youth, and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

The SEL goals are:

    1. Develop self-awareness and self-management skills essential to success in school and in life;
    1. Use social awareness and interpersonal skills to establish and maintain positive relationships;
  1. Demonstrate ethical decision-making skills and responsible behaviors in personal, school, and community contexts.

Fleshing out the SEL definition, the CASEL competencies are:

    • Self-Awareness: understanding one’s emotions, personal goals, and values;
    • Self-Management: skills and attitudes that facilitate the ability to regulate emotions and behaviors;
    • Social Awareness: the ability to take the perspective of and have respect for those with different backgrounds or cultures, and to empathize and feel compassion;
    • Relationship Skills: communicating clearly, listening actively, cooperating, resisting inappropriate social pressure, negotiating conflict constructively, and seeking help when needed; and
  • Responsible Decision Making: the ability to consider ethical standards, safety concerns, and make accurate behavioral assessments to make realistic evaluations of the consequences of various actions, and to take the health and well-being of self and others into consideration.

SED urges schools to implement multi-tiered support systems such as Response to Intervention (RTI) and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS) that incorporate universal, secondary and tertiary interventions. Universal interventions are proactive and preventive. Secondary and tertiary behavioral interventions are more specifically targeted to individual students’ needs for support.

SED links its goals to the research on SEL’s importance in improving all students’ learning, with particular emphasis on its role in establishing equity, and meeting the needs of English Learners, Students with Disabilities and other students with special needs. The document identifies implicit bias as a major obstacle to achieving equity and looks to Culturally Responsive Practices (CRP), which require skill in all SEL competencies, as a means of managing it. Farinde-Wu, Glover & Williams (2017) showed CRP to be effective in improving student academic performance and life opportunities across content areas. CRP utilizes an assets-based perspective and leverages students’ cultural context to make learning relevant and increase engagement (M. Hurley, interview, May 2017).

A meta-analysis of 213 rigorous studies of SEL in K-12 schools (Durlak et al., 2011) indicated that students receiving quality SEL instruction demonstrated better academic performance, improved attitudes and behaviors, fewer negative behaviors, and reduced emotional distress. A number of studies have shown long term positive effects of prosocial skills on adult outcomes, including college graduation, financial well-being, physical health, and avoidance of substance abuse and involvement with the police.

Many children experience a number of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). These may include: physical, sexual, or emotional abuse; physical or emotional neglect; parental separation, divorce, or conflict; incarcerated or deported household member; homelessness; and household mental illness. The cumulative stress of ACEs “can affect students’ attention, processing of information, memory, and learning, undermine the development of language and communication skills, thwart the establishment of a coherent sense of self, compromise the ability to attend to classroom tasks and instructions, interfere with the ability to organize and remember new information, and hinder a student’s grasp of cause- and-effect relationships, all of which are necessary to process information effectively. Neurobiological changes in the brains of young people exposed to severe and/or persistent trauma leave them in a constant state of stress in which they are highly susceptible to ‘triggers’ in their environment.” It is critical for educators to be cognizant of the impact of ACEs when responding to students’ behavior and to provide proactive scaffolding within the school environment, utilizing trauma-informed practices such as those found in the National Center for Traumatic Stress Network toolbox.

Not surprisingly, SEL practices help to alleviate behavioral issues that frustrate schools, teachers, parents and students on a daily basis. In financial terms, a 2015 Teachers College study found an average of $11 return for every $1 invested in evidence-based SEL programs. (The six SEL programs in the study were the 4Rs Program (Reading, Writing, Respect, & Resolution); Positive Action; Life Skills Training; Second Step; Responsive Classroom; and Sweden’s Social and Emotional Training, which has a similar curriculum to the United States’ Providing Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS) program).

SED says that it is now poised to implement SEL for all students statewide and is developing a School Climate Index and A Guide to Systemic Whole School Implementation, in company with a series of school district-developed crosswalks aligning SEL competencies with learning standards in the content areas.

Genuine whole school implementation to the depth SED proposes will require a serious commitment and coordination of district and school supports in every area of school life including school culture and classroom environment; professional development; discipline/restorative practices; parent outreach and engagement; student support services; personnel policies; and alignment with out-of-school-time programs.

To support educators’ capacity to develop their own social emotional competencies and those of students, “educators need access to best practices in implementation and evaluation, including supports and resources on SEL that are integrated into existing teacher evaluation and professional development systems.” Revision and implementation of new or revised benchmarks will require a serious commitment of time and money.   

SED acknowledges potential barriers to statewide implementation. Schools and school systems tend to be conservative and hierarchical. A fundamental shift in focus toward SEL will require both advocacy and activism.

Furthermore, SED’s goals leave open the essential questions such as:  What, for example, are “ethical decision-making skills” and how can they be taught most effectively and equitably? What happens when someone tries to teach ethics in a school or district that is not itself ethical? What happens when encouraging students (or teachers) to ask hard ethical questions leads to challenges to authority? And what degree of SEL will help live up to Linda Darling Hammond’s challenge that we may be talking about the “survival of the human race,” and, perhaps we should add, of the planet?

These are fundamental questions with which individual districts, schools and teachers around the state and the country are grappling. Programs such those in the Teachers College study; Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility’s Restore360; Facing History and Ourselves’ programs; Institute for Humane Education’s Solutionary Program;  and Brown University’s Choices invite students to pursue ethical solutions to a range of problems, from the global to the classroom.

Geoff Renaud of The Ethical Community Charter School–Jersey City (affiliated with EIEN), tells of students’ shock at realizing, during Facing History’s Weimer Republic unit, that they had actually endorsed the Nazi Party’s platform when offered unlabeled choices among German parties of the time. Brett Schneider, principal of Bronx Collaborative High School, says, “The magic of [Morningside Center’s] restorative circles is that they allow students to be heard, and they open up trust. When there is a fight, students know they won’t be demonized. They have a moment of grace when they understand what has happened and why. It can be life-changing.”

The challenge is to transform schools so these programs, and others like them, move from being the exception to being the rule.

Jon MoscowCo-Executive Director of Ethics In Education Network, is a strategic planning and development consultant to community-based and educational organizations. He was executive director of Parents Coalition for Education in New York City and has helped to found and develop three student-centered schools in the City. He serves on a number of boards, including Brotherhood/Sister Sol and has a Master’s from Bank Street College of Education.

Critical Care, Cultural Humility and the Reflective Practitioner

As a social work educator trained as an education researcher, my understanding of the work of practitioners in schools and other community settings is informed by a number of conceptual frameworks. My practice career as a school social worker and my identity as a Latinx/Diasporican scholar have also informed the research questions I have pursued. Conducting research on racial justice initiatives in the field of child welfare, I have been interested in strategies for supporting the development of skills for culturally responsive practice, deepening engagement and improving outcomes with youth from racially and culturally marginalized families and communities. In this essay I reflect upon key concepts that have emerged in my work that offer insight into how teachers and social workers can strengthen their ability to address racial disparities in their practice.

Early in my academic career, I studied Latino youth and their experiences of teacher caring in schools (De Jesús, 2005; Antrop-Gonzalez & De Jesús, 2006). Drawing upon the literature on caring in education, I synthesized a body of theory that argued marginalized students engage with and respond to educators who authentically care about them rather than with educators who subscribe to a notion of aesthetic caring – the idea that students must demonstrate that they care about learning first (by exemplars of academic performance) in order to gain the recognition of educators. Angela Valenzuela, in her book Subtractive Schooling: US and Mexican Students and the Politics of Caring (1999) asserts that a prerequisite for Latino students to engage in learning is that teachers convey they care about them as individuals and are affirming of their identity. Emerging from this analysis, my colleague Rene Antrop-González and I advanced the term critical care to describe the nature of relationships that teachers developed with students. Based on our research in two Latinx high schools we asserted that teacher caring behavior was rooted in a critical analysis of the learning conditions confronted by marginalized youth and unlike teacher caring behavior motivated by pity (Ay! Bendito caring),[1] critical care was characterized by an emphasis on high academic expectations and the provision of academic and interpersonal support. Critical care provided a deeper understanding of the nature of motivations and relationships between teachers and marginalized students (Antrop-González & De Jesús, 2006).[2]

More recently, my research has focused on understanding strategies to support professionals in the field of child welfare to enhance their knowledge and skill in working with youth and families of color with the goal of reducing racial and ethnic disproportionality.[3]In social work and many other professions, this work, historically, has been organized under the construct of cultural competence. Cultural Competence refers to an integrated knowledge base and skill set which enables professionals to work respectfully and effectively with individuals, families, and communities from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds (De Jesús, 2012).[4]Cultural competence has been operationalized as supporting practitioners in developing: (1) awareness of their own cultural values, biases, and position in established power structures and the impact of these relationships with clients, (2) knowledge of diverse people, their needs and attitudes; and (3) skills to implement culturally appropriate interventions (Sue & Sue, 2003,Danso, 2016).

A number of critiques of cultural competence have also been advanced – focusing on the neglect of structural or critical theoretical analysis that illuminates unequal power relationships and the functions of social control enacted by professionals (Ortega & Faller, 2011; Garran & Rozas, 2013; Danso, 2016). This gap contributes to misconceptions about culture and stereotyping which may encourage a false sense of confidence in workers about their knowledge of the cultural identities of racialized groups(Ortega & Faller, 2011). In addition, use of the term competence is problematic in that it is often misinterpreted to convey the false idea that mastery of a culture can be achieved through the acquisition of knowledge or attending specialized trainings (Tervalon & Murray Garcia, 1998; Ortega & Faller, 2011; Danso, 2016). Acquisition of knowledge is a necessary but insufficient condition to work effectively with children and families of color. As Tervalon and Murray Garcia (1998) observe, “an isolated increase in knowledge without a consequent change in attitude or behavior is of questionable value” (p. 119). They introduced the concept of cultural humility to invite their fellow physicians to develop the flexibility and humility to “say when they truly do not know” and to access resources to enhance their practice. They also sought to address power imbalances in the patient–physician relationship through “life-long commitment to self-awareness and advocacy in addressing health disparities” (p. 118).

A growing body of scholars suggest that our professional emphasis on knowledge must be accompanied by a change in attitudes toward people of color and immigrants in ways that enable practitioners to partner with individuals and families in understanding their cultural identities. In this regard, Hook and colleagues (2013) define cultural humility as the “ability to maintain an interpersonal stance that is other-oriented (or open to the other) in relation to aspects of the identity that are important to the [Person]” (p. 2). This emphasizes the concept of intersectionality — the idea that multiple identities intersect to create a whole that is different from the component identities. These identities that intersect include gender, race, social class, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, age, mental disability, physical disability, mental illness, and physical illness as well as other forms of identity. Intersectionality theory proposes that we think of each element or trait of a person as inextricably linked with all of the other elements in order to fully understand one’s identity (Crenshaw, 1995; Collins, 2015). Ortega and Faller (2011) advance an intersectional cultural humility perspective that argues “intersecting group memberships affect people’s expectations, quality of life, capacities as individuals and parents, and life chances.” (p. 43). They further articulate a framework for racial equity practice, observing that it is the responsibility of the worker to bridge differing perspectives by employing four distinct cultural humility skills (active listening, reflecting, reserving judgment, and entering the client’s world) which have found support in the social work literature but are especially important in enacting culturally responsive practice (p. 37).

With colleagues from New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services I studied the impact of a Racial Equity and Cultural Competency Case Consultation Model utilized to assist preventive service providers in developing and refining their awareness, knowledge and skills to address racial disproportionality in their work (De Jesús et. al. 2016). This model, which is a form of group supervision, supports practitioners to present cases in order to discuss dynamics of race, class, gender, sexual orientation and their (reciprocal) influence on the case. Facilitated by an experienced clinician, the model asks the presenter to discuss at length his or her own intersectional identity including those of other members of a team working with a family before discussing/presenting the identified case. In this regard, how the identities of the worker and other members of the team may influence decision making is considered an integral part of the case being presented. This model enables workers and facilitators to interrogate racial power dynamics as they may play themselves out on the team as well as defensive strategies utilized by both whites and people of color when discussing thorny issues of race and identity.

The qualitative component of our study found that participants in the model reported enhanced understanding of interpersonal racism, one’s own bias and assumptions, and the subtleties of racial power and privilege within professional relationships. Study participants described enactment of the skills of reserving judgment and entering the client’s world in compelling ways. These findings, while limited, suggest that approaches to professional development that foster self-awareness of one’s own identities, power, and privilege may support changes in practitioner attitudes and over time. In addition, the opportunity to engage in supportive and critical supervision to reflect upon how these identities and our experiences shape our implicit bias is an essential component of culturally responsive practice. In his seminal work The Reflective Practitioner, philosopher Donald Schön(1983) advanced a discussion of reflective practice as reflection in action and reflection on action. Schön invited us to develop the ongoing capacity to examine our motivation and behavior as professionals as we practice, as well as to do so after we act (which also prepares us before we act). The concepts of critical care, cultural humility, and intersectionality inform an evolving framework as to how reflective practice influences culturally responsive practice. The racial equity and cultural competency case consultation provides a promising structure and process for reflecting on action in order to strengthen our ability to reflect in action.



[1]Ay! bendito is a Spanish term which translates as “blessed be” and is used as an expression of pity.

[2]While I have not yet done so, I have become interested in exploring the scientific literature on emotions like empathy and sympathy as it relates to motivation as a way to deepen this explanation informed by evidence.

[3]Racial disproportionality refers to the under or overrepresentation of a racial or ethnic group along the child welfare continuum (e.g., prevention, reporting, investigation, service provision, out-of-home care, permanency) relative to its percentage in the total population (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2016).

[4]This also extends to institutional and organizational policies and practices that support the reduction of health and mental health disparities through improving patient–provider communication, workforce diversity, and community engagement (De Jesús, 2012).


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Tony De Jesús is an Associate Professor in the Department of Social Work and Equitable Community Practice at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, CT. Originally from the Bronx, he received his MSW at the Boston University School of Social Work and was a school social worker in Boston prior to earning an Ed.D. at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He previously served as a researcher and administrator at the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños and on the faculty at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College. He is conducting a study of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families’ Racial Justice Initiative.