Transcript of the episode “The right to thrive: Expanding our definition of equity”

[00:00:15] Amy H-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. 

[00:00:16] Jon M: And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Dr. David Osher, Vice President and Institute Fellow at the American Institutes for Research. Dr. Osher has published on school climate and the conditions for learning, social emotional learning, supportive community-building approaches to school discipline and safety, cultural competence, and responsiveness and family support and engagement. This is part one of a two-part interview. Welcome, David. 

[00:00:45] David O: I’m very, very happy to be here. Thank you for the welcome.

[00:00:48] Amy H-L: David, in an article that you recently co-authored with Dr. Jill Young, the first sentence is “all humans deserve to thrive socially, emotionally, cognitively, physically, economically, and spiritually.” I think all sentient beings deserve to thrive, but that’s a different discussion. You suggest that we should develop a more robust conceptualization of equity, one that “incorporates thriving and addresses human learning and development across all spaces and over the life course.” Would you expand on that?

[00:01:24] David O: Yes, but first let me say that I also personally believe that all sentient beings ought to thrive. And I also think our thriving is codependent upon and co- influential with their ability to thrive as well. Okay. So let me say that we were focusing in a particular way for a particular set of reasons, but if you and I were doing something together, I would be very comfortable expanding that point because I think it is very, very important. 

That is not the focus of our conversation today. So now let us go there. And so you asked me to expand. I think historically, in the West, when we talk about thriving, we have tended to often focus, discuss it, or address it with a relatively low or narrow standard and frame. Or, if in one area we tend to be more robust and broader about how we think about thriving, we still often don’t make the other connections to other domains where thriving is important. Not only because in each domain’s specificity, there is a need to thrive, but because when a person thrives, ultimately it reflects the co-influence of the array of experiences and the array of connections and the array of people they’re interacting with across all of those dimensions. And so there is not a thriving piece of myself or my grandson. There is, ultimately, how I am positioned and experienced at any given moment. So that’s the first big point. Amy.

There are at least two other points that also relate to how we often think about thriving as well as how we address it. One is we tend to, at least in the West, often think about thriving as individual thriving. Anybody who’s part of a family, I would hope anybody who’s part of a meaningful community of choice knows that your thriving is influenced by the ability of the people who you care about thriving and the people who care for you thriving. And the care may be emotional, the care may be physical. So how my grandson is doing now, or when he goes back to the UK in a week, really affects my ability to thrive. We ought not just look at it alone. How, in my neighborhood, my neighbor’s experiencing thriving affects me in a variety of ways. And if we have the capacity to create an environment that can be even more promotive of our ability to thrive, that’s very, very important.

But I think a third piece is that thriving is something that occurs over the life course and actually occurs intergenerationally, but it’s harder to measure that. Even though with others, I’ve written about the social accumulation of risk and assets and how that can really affect, because history affects us, and we have traditions. But people can, you have a life course, and what we really want, particularly when we are thinking about younger people and the paper that you were quoting from, Amy, was one that was focusing on youth, is to make sure that what we’re looking at is not just the short term, but also the long term. So, it is both. For example, my subjective wellbeing in the moment, but also the extent to which I, individually and with other people, are being positioned so that our subjective wellbeing, which is related to all life domains, will be richer 10, 20, 30 years out as well.

[00:06:00] Amy H-L: To your second point about thriving, about your thriving impacting my thriving. How can schools create conditions in which both students and teachers and everyone who works at the school can thrive? 

I’m going to answer your question, but also say it is necessary for schools to create those conditions. Because if people are not thriving, and particularly if they are experiencing ill-being, I want to come back to that. But if they are experiencing ill-being, , it will be very hard for them to be able to participate in consistently productive and exciting and meaningful learning experiences.

But now your question, and I want to start by defining thriving a little more. Because I use the word wellbeing, and also what we don’t want, which is ill-being. Wellbeing is the floor of thriving. And I think it is what we need to have, at a minimum, safe and supportive and successful schools. But it is in those moments when young people feel engaged, it is in that moment, when teachers and young people feel that they are part of a community that is making meaning, and that their work is meaningful, that we start to get closer to what are some of the other elements of thriving. And so, to me, wellbeing is the floor. The ceiling is the sky and beyond, but the main thing is we really want to have schools where thriving and includes not just students feeling safe, but students experience joy and awe. Not just faculty feeling safe, but faculty feeling that their work with young people and their work with their colleagues is enriching them and completing them.

Okay. So now let’s go back and say, I think that the most important thing to focus on is what are the conditions that foster thriving, knowing that conditions are both external to individuals, but some of the conditions are also the social, emotional, cognitive, spiritual attributes that each person is able to bring to an interaction, which is often a co-action, where they’re shaping each other. I think there are conditions for thriving. But your individual disposition, Jon or Amy, is in this conversation specifically, a condition for, at a minimum us having a productive conversation. But at a maximum, if it’s going to be a rich conversation, and I hope it is, and I think it is,

[00:09:17] David O: it also contributes to it, so the condition is not just physical. It’s not just the overarching social emotional environment. It is us for each other. Because even though I think, as Dan Siegel says, there is a “mwe” that really is the connection between us, even in this virtual space. And to some extent, I would say it can’t be the people listening, because I’m not being affected by the people who are listening and you are not and so forth. So I think we are limited right now to this Zoom, but while there is that mwe, there are also the conditions that are social and emotional, but even physical and technological, that can foster the creating of productive environments and ultimately safe environments.

And those conditions. I’m now going to move off this virtual screen, although that is one of the ways in which young people are living right now, and that has implications for how do you create safe environments. But if we’re thinking about a school, safety includes both what the people in the school who can make decisions, who unfortunately most often are the adults, both do that is affirmative and affirming and supportive and supporting and also what they don’t do that is disaffirming and unsupportive. So it’s not just the fact that you actually want a teacher or a principal in the front of their room or the front of the school saying “Amy, it’s so good to see you” and ideally even reminding Amy of what you talked about the night before, about what she was doing and asking her how it went. But it’s also that same person, if Amy is irritable, or Amy is not the person who is as easy to talk with, that you don’t respond to that person in an uncaring, a nasty, a sarcastic, in an exclusionary manner.

So it is both a bunch of affirmatives and it is the absence of those things that are disrupting. It’s not just creating spaces where people experience the school as embracing their culture and not ignoring their culture and at the same time embracing other people’s cultures. But it is also one that ultimately can be affirming for myself as I develop my own identity, which may not precisely be what the school has defined as my culture.

Okay. And so I think there, there are these nuances that I think are very, very important. And obviously we could go into them more. One of the books I’ve had the pleasure of writing with other people is a book, “Creating Safe, Equitable, Engaging Schools,” that is about this. Okay. And I’m not trying to push the book right now, but there’s a lot in there that can really elaborate. What I would like to do is to just add that when the conditions are right, and that includes those personal attributes that we can develop by supporting people’s developing their social and emotional and cognitive capacities, by supporting their development of empathy, and so forth, when the conditions are in place, neurobiology and biology work. And so we’re also secreting chemicals that further connect us. And so what happens is teachers who are being nicer and experienced as being nice by students, and students who are able to have an affirmative relationship with teachers, end up having that reinforced by their own physical being at the same time that they’re also thinking about that emotional experience and unconsciously processing that emotional experience that further contributes to their ability to thrive. Okay. 

So there is both the conditions that are important. It’s also the attributes that people bring to the table at any given moment. But it is then the wonderful, when it’s good, magic that happens when people are connecting with each other. And at the same time, if people are feeling. If people are brittle with each other, what you have is the precisely opposite. So that you never end up having just the experience of neutrality. I think it may be that there may be some level of that, a threshold effect, which is different for individuals before it matters, but either you’re feeling good or you’re feeling bad. And that really affects things, to be simplistic. 

[00:14:45] Amy H-L: You mentioned something that I’ve thought quite a bit about, which is this idea of schools presuming an identity, right, presuming a child’s identity. Although obviously, cultural competence and cultural responsiveness is important. I think there’s a fine line between respecting a child’s background and culture and giving that child room to grow, to develop their own identity that may or may not be centered in their ethnic background. 

[00:15:27] David O: Yes, I think that is right. And at the same time, I think it is a hard, precarious, and nuanced road that people have to be able to take, which I think becomes not necessarily the easiest road, but a better road to take when people are also involved in responsive and, I think, family driven relationships with families, which is not necessarily at an extreme regarding how the school is supposed to reinforce what a young person feels is the box her or his family has created. But on the other hand, it cannot be the people who have resources and privilege in some way and power and who are not connected to someone’s own traditions, doing things that they feel are enabling when in a different way, they both may be in the short run less than fully rich, but in the long run, they may also be consequential, because young people, as they develop their own identities, ideally need to be able to also connect not just to the people who they choose to affiliate with, but other people who they’re connected to. 

So that’s all to say on the one hand, I think you’re very right, but I really think there is a person who I learn a lot from and who talks about this as Zaretta Hammond, whose work I really recommend in different ways about cultural responsiveness and about identity and about identity safety, but also the distinction between affirming when one is coming in and affirming what happens as a young person develops. And so, yes, you want to affirm, but you have to be very clear that in your affirmation, it’s because that is the route that the young person has chosen to take, and not because you’ve set it up. 

[00:17:40] Jon M: You’ve talked about trauma sensitive schools. What do trauma sensitive schools look like? 

[00:17:46] David O: Let me start by the language of trauma sensitive and distinguish it between another language that is around, which it is not, which is important as well, which is being trauma informed. There are things that it is important for people to know and do when they are interacting with and trying to help somebody who really is considered to be affected by the trauma that she or he has experienced. I remember listening to a Alaskan Native woman who had been ravaged, but fortunately survived an encounter with a bear. And what she talked about was often well-intentioned caregivers who wanted to soothe her in the way that we would soothe people, by touching. And that was not working and, you know, trauma-informedness is to understand the fact that trauma expresses itself in different ways. And if you are interacting with people and particularly if you’re providing supports to those people, you have to understand and address the impact of trauma. Trauma sensitivity as a concept that people have developed is really thinking about the fact that a) it is never possible for schools to know precisely everyone who’s experienced loss, grief, trauma, and b) there are things that you can do in schools, universally, so that independent of whether or not someone has experienced trauma, you’re creating an environment that is supportive for them. And if the person has experienced trauma, you are not doing things that are retraumatizing them. To me, the ultimate nature of a trauma sensitive school is it is also informed by our knowledge of what trauma can do, but it generalizes it. It generalizes it by creating a platform so that everyone is safe and it’s not dependent on someone coming in and saying, to use the example I was using before that I was ravaged by a bear. That’s going to affect my behavior today. I’m happy to pursue that further, Jon., because it looks like I’m not being fully clear. 

[00:20:20] Jon M: I think you are. If I’m hearing you right. You’re making again this distinction between the individual and the community. Are you saying that trauma informed or trauma responsive tends to be more focused on individual experience whereas trauma sensitive is recognizing what one doesn’t know, but that it’s important to create an atmosphere that is sensitive to the entire community? 

[00:20:52] David O: I think somewhat. And the reason I’m saying somewhat is that trauma sensitive work from my perspective, and I think the perspective of my colleagues who I’ve written with, and there’s a brief that I think we can give people about this as well that I co-authored with other people, but also a very specific brief that my colleague, Kathleen Guarino wrote, that is about creating trauma sensitive schools is like universal social emotional learning, or universal character education. It is something you try to do for everyone. Or like what I was saying before, when we were talking about creating safe schools, not just what teachers do do, and you may do it universally, stand at the door and welcome your students in universally, but what you don’t do, snarl at them. In this case, here, one just understands and uses one’s knowledge of trauma and what would be safer, less traumatizing environments for people and explicitly baking it in. The reason ,Jon, why I didn’t just want to say that trauma-informed needs to be individual is I think there is a history of work that I know has come from women who’ve experienced physical abuse, among others, where people deal with intense trauma and are supported in dealing with intense trauma collectively. And in fact, in terms of some of the things that I think are important in terms of thriving over time, which is the ability to have agency, my ability to change the world individually, and collectively the ability to feel connected to other people and not just be isolated in one’s experience as well as the ability to feel wellbeing as you’re being healed from the trauma.

There are things that can, and maybe even should, be done collectively. Knowing that within a school context there are real rights of privacy that people have, and also in a lot of other professional contexts, but I think part of healing is addressing experiences that you have and you experience uniquely, but that are also shared by other people, that they experience in their own unique ways, in a way that also deals with your own commonality so that you can feel better in the healing. When I read a little the Olympic gymnasts talking about the experience of finally being able to come out and the need for change, they’re not just talking about the fact that they feel better individually because they’ve expressed themselves or that they feel better because they’re having some impact. It’s also that community amongst them that has been reinforced. That’s part of their “feeling better.” And I’m the one who put those words in. I’ve never seen them say that, but that’s illustrative takeaway I would take from reading and learning from them.

[00:24:21] Jon M: You’ve also written and talked a lot about SEL, social emotional learning. What are the strengths and limitations of SEL as practiced in many schools?

One, and this is true regarding most interventions that we have that are practiced in many schools, is they’ve tended to be developed with some young people in mind in affirmative ways and other people either not in mind or in mind, only in ways in which you’re trying to help them get better and be closer to the first group. And this is an issue with SEL, but it’s not just an issue of SEL. I think this is a function of what happens in societies that are segregated by privilege, that are segregated by people having different experiences, when some people have more intellectual power to be able to make things happen and to influence them. Okay, so there is an issue about social emotional learning in schools that the criteria that may be used and the benefits that may be suggested for students may be easier to be taken up by some students than by other students. And that’s one of the reasons why there is a need in social emotional learning and character education, in academic learning areas, to really try to think about the fact that people’s sense of their selves and the experiences that people have and bring in is part of the learning process. That’s why you want to be culturally competent and culturally responsive. There are a number of other challenges that are important. One is that oftentimes the entry point for social emotional learning in schools is very, very narrow. It is, “Do social emotional learning so that your students behave better. Do social emotional learning so they’re more employable. Do social emotional learning because the fact that the test scores are going to go up.” Rather than what you want to do is to support key aspects of young people’s development, both their intellectual development as well as their human development that involves enhancing their social and emotional and cognitive capacities. There is that narrowness, which can then be experienced by students as being, “All you want me to do is behave.”

[00:27:05] David O: There is a third and fourth challenge. The third challenge is the fact that social emotional learning, like other programs that have often entered into schools, ends up being experienced as something that you do at a certain point in time. It ends up being an insert and I’ve seen it in schools, an insert for 10 minutes a day, an insert for one period a week. While that may be useful for some young people some of the time, if one’s really going to be developing and using these skills, social emotional learning has to be infused in the environment. And the best people who are doing this work, talk about social emotional learning as a way of being. And in this case here, people are also thinking about doing it in culturally responsive ways, and a way of being for teachers as well as for students, where it really is integrated into the moment by moment experience that young people and teachers have. And that makes sense because of the fact that what we know at the level of how the brain works, how the body works, as well as how people learn, is there isn’t this very distinct connection between how I perform athletically, to use an example, or how I perform academically, and my ability to deal with emotions and regulate the stress and interact with other people in the process of doing these things that are really very important to me. So that turning social and emotional learning into something that is part of the culture of a school, I think would be very important. It doesn’t have to be called social emotional learning. It’s about what are you doing to develop the social and emotional and cognitive competencies of young people in a way that really is helping them grow and develop.

The fourth challenge is that as it has developed, it has been seen as something that is being done in the school. And ultimately, one develops, applies practices, social and emotional competencies, not just in the school, but across one’s whole life. Also, students come in with skills that they’ve already developed that are functional for them in some way, and may be very functional and may also be valued within their own families, their own communities. And when social and emotional learning is done in a way that is tone deaf to that, it is, at a minimum, less effective because people will not learn as much whatever, you know — learning’s a hard word because we’re talking about development — but they will not progress as much, but in addition, there will be much less meaningful uptake if people see the social emotional learning as something that works within the school context, but then they do other things outside of the school context.

You need a much more integrated and integrating way of doing that, and that includes more actively acknowledging the lives of young people and letting them help drive it in terms of what are their needs. But it also builds upon when schools are strongly connected to families and when schools are more richly connected to communities and to community agencies where this work is going on as well. In a handbook that I co-authored with a bunch of people, including Rob Jagers, who’s the director of research from CASEL, there’s a very nice chapter that I was the third author on, the last author on that. I think Rob led on the development of social emotional competencies within Black families, that I think is just illustrative of the fact that schools doing this work can’t act as if there’s a tabula rasa. 

And that’s true for learning in general. And that’s why people who understand the construction of learning talk about the funds of knowledge that young people bring in. It is the funds of social and emotional knowledge that young people are bringing in. And they’re not always the most productive ones for them, but they’re a starting place. 

[00:32:21] Amy H-L: You’ve written a lot about racism in schools. There’s a recent article, “Why a systemic approach is needed to counter racism within the education system.” You write about the Austin Independent School District, which seems to have implemented wide ranging equity-focused social emotional learning programs. What is Austin doing that other districts across the country could or should emulate? 

[00:32:49] David O: Yeah, the work that Austin is doing builds on work that has already happened. That helps situate it, including having rich work that has been done in social and emotional learning, rich work that has been done in trying to better integrate services in the school.

And so I’d want to start there, but then saying one of the reasons why the work we’ve had the privilege to be involved in — that blog that you read was written about is the recognition of Angela Ward, who’s the person who was leading the work at that time. All that good work still had the types of limitations that we were talking about a while ago in the conversations that Jon initiated. And so it really is to center issues of equity more in the work. So that’s one piece that’s important. 

And there’s an another article that we can share with people that a bunch of us wrote. Rob Jagers was one of the authors as well and the lead author was Anne Gregory, called “Good Intentions Is Not Enough: Centering Equity in Efforts to Deal With Exclusionary Discipline.” I forgot the subtitle. And in that article, we talk about the fact that even restorative practices, if you look in the outcome data, often does not eliminate disparities in exclusionary discipline. So you have restorative practices, and it tends to be the white kids and the middle class kids who were seen as candidates for the restoration. And then there are the other kids who people are making decisions about, that they’re not conscious about in terms of the racism that’s involved. It’s what we call implicit bias. But in the end they saw it. And that if we’re thinking about males and females, they would look at Amy and see Amy as somebody who’s a candidate for restorative practices and Jon less a candidate. So we don’t have enough time for right now. We’ll deal with Jon in a different way, or we’ve done other things beforehand. So Jon’s not as ready for the restorative practice. What the work in Austin is trying to do is to really make sure that doesn’t happen. 

I think there are a number of things that other settings and districts can learn from Austin’s work. The first is that it really is trying to center on equity. The second is that it understands the fact and defines restorative practices not as something that is coming from juvenile justice or adult corrections, but rather something that is grounded in the way in which some and many, it may be even many traditional communities, both within the US in terms of First Nations communities, but also in terms of places like New Zealand and Australia, created inclusive spaces. And I think that’s very, very important. 

I think the third thing that I particularly like about what Austin’s doing with the statement, the alert, that they’re also doing something that I recommended that they do. And it comes from work that AIR has been doing. They’re also addressing the fact that the movement to really being restored in how one interacts with other people is not an easy process for many educators, no matter how well intended they are, because I think we are really battling two sets of mindsets, among others, that many educators have. One is we live in a nation and country and set of cultures. It’s not just the dominant culture where people believe a lot in punishment. That is not the only way that one can create civic schools. It is not the only way that people can come together. People take suspension as something that is a given, whereas in some other countries, and Scandinavia is a place that I know, that’s not the case. In fact, Scandinavians that I’ve spoken to were superintendent, members of the Ministry of Education in Finland and the superintendent was in Sweden who would say, “Why would you have compulsory education and then kick people out of school? Just does not make sense.” Well, it makes sense to Americans. 

Okay. So part of it is dealing with a mindset, an episteme, that really assumes that you can move things by excluding and by punishing. And all the research that people have shown up until now regarding the fact that punishment doesn’t work. Not restorative practices yet, we used to have to learn about that proactively, but that punishment doesn’t work does not persuade many people that they shouldn’t use punishment. Because it’s a default, similarly, but in relationship to issues of race and cultural differences and to some extent, sexual orientation differences. There is also biases that people have that they may not even be aware of. Jennifer Eberhardt’s book, Biased, is really important because she even suggests the extent to which, as we would know, Black people growing up in this country will pick up the toxic water that is reinforced over and over again in the media and things like that. So what you also have is when teachers are encountering children who are different from them, it ends up being a set of processes that they may not even be aware of that lead them to respond in a different way. So this is tough work. 

Exclusionary discipline is what people who study political science call a “wicked problem” because it’s wickedly tough, not easy to go away. I think the way it goes away is if you understand and support the change process among people. And what we know about change is the fact that if people are going to change, they go through a set of emotional processes as well as cognitive processes, and they don’t take place in a moment. They take place over time and they include your own experience doing things. They include your work with other people. There is a model for addressing that that I fell in love with before it was connected to AIR. It’s called the Concerns Based Adoption Model, and it’s based on the knowledge that there are these different processes. It has become part of AIR because we merged with the Southwest Educational Research Lab, and that was the tool that they had developed. And so what I used to use from other people now is part of AIR’s repertoire. And when we were meeting with Austin, we talked to them about CBAM, as it’s called, because it really helps people go through those processes and you develop measurement instruments, not to punish people, but to know how people are moving as they adopt new practices so you can support them. And at the same time, that will feed into the question that, Amy, you just asked, which is, and what do we know about it in Austin?

The work we are doing right now in Austin is an early stage grant funded by the Department of Education. And so it really is largely qualitative work. We will be collecting quantitative work as well, but we’re really following the uptake in how people are adapting it. Ultimately, if people adopt it and adapt it, because no matter what people apply it within their own class, within their own context, and they do it well, then I think we really will see the results that come from that. And the results that I would be most interested in are not whether or not academics as measured by a test score improves immediately. Not whether or not there is just less discipline problems, though. I think that’s in problem. It would be measured, from my perspective, on whether or not students feel more engaged, and students who are often subject to discipline tend to feel more connected into the community. And other people feel connected to them and they are learning together.

It’s about the learning piece of schools, but at the same time, if they’re learning together, they’re building community together and they’re building off community together. 

[00:42:39] Jon M: Thank you, David Osher, American Institutes for Research.

[00:42:44] Amy H-L: And thank you, listeners. This is Part One of a two-part conversation with Dr. Osher. Be sure to , listen to Part Two next week. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with a friend or colleague. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give us a rating or review. This helps others to find the show. Check out our website,, for more episodes and articles, and to subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use workshops or classes.

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