Equitable Learning Environments

Identity Matters


American Educator, Fall 2021

Mounting evidence demonstrates that development of the individual cannot be disentangled from the context in which that individual develops, including political and sociocultural elements of context. Therefore, these elements must become central when leveraging developmental frameworks like the Building Blocks for Learning (BBFL), which is shown in the main article.

Developmental frameworks like BBFL are designed with universal goals in mind—outcomes that matter to every human being. But, while frameworks might be universal, they cannot be colorblind. When accessing such a framework to inform the design and delivery of equitable learning environments and experiences for children, researchers and educators must prioritize the role that a sociocultural element such as racial identity plays in development1 and how targeted supports connected to identity can reinforce progress toward a universal goal.2 This focus cannot be an additional or supplementary one; this focus is integral to how constructs within the framework are operationalized and how they develop and co-act with each other within the framework as a whole.

Take self-regulation for example. Within the BBFL, self-regulation involves regulating attention, emotion, and executive functioning in the service of goal-directed actions.3 However, without centering race and culture as critical contextual factors, this construct can easily be operationalized through a dominant or individualistic lens, which denies the centrality of community and collective success that many cultures within our society, like those within Indigenous communities, place on development. Acknowledging the interconnected role that culture, community, and multifaceted development (including spirituality) play in the development of something like self-regulation is important when taking a context-sensitive and inclusive approach to whole-child development.4

Beyond the role that racial identity must play in defining these constructs, the science demonstrating the role that race and ethnicity play in an individual’s experience within US society and the impact that racial-ethnic identity has on the development of BBFL skills and mindsets must become a normative presence in all learning settings. Racial-ethnic identity reinforces positive development of individual skills and mindsets within the BBFL, including stress management, self-efficacy, relationship skills, and resilience.5 When addressing the role that broader context plays in individual development, we cannot ignore the role that racism plays within society as a macro-stressor and source of stress for families of color and especially Black families.6 Racism as a macro-stressor and contributor to adversity is an important addition to other named adverse childhood experiences, like neglect, abuse, and instability,7 that impact development of BBFL skills and mindsets.

A dramatic shift in the US education system grounded in the developmental and learning sciences is long overdue. If we know that to learn and thrive students must bring their whole selves to the classroom, then we cannot ask them to leave any part of themselves, their culture, or their community behind. This includes intentionally integrating strengths and assets connected to racial-ethnic identity into whole-child learning and development.

Brooke Stafford-Brizard is the vice president for research to practice at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. This sidebar is adapted from her sidebar, “Building Blocks for Learning and Whole-Child Development,” in Whole-Child Development, Learning, and Thriving: A Dynamic Systems Approach, by Pamela Cantor, Richard M. Lerner, Karen J. Pittman, Paul A. Chase, and Nora Gomperts (Cambridge University Press, 2021).


1. N. Nasir et al., Handbook of the Cultural Foundations of Learning (New York: Routledge, 2020).
2. J. Powell, S. Menendian, and W. Ake, Targeted Universalism: Policy & Practice (Berkeley, CA: Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, 2019).
3. C. Blair and A. Ursache, “A Bidirectional Model of Executive Functions and Self-Regulation,” in Handbook of Self-Regulation, 2nd. ed., ed. R. Baumeister and K. Vohs (New York: Guilford Press, 2011), 300–320.
4. H. Rowan-Kenyon, A. Martínez Alemán, and M. Savitz-Romer, Technology and Engagement: Making Technology Work for First Generation College Students (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2018).
5. R. Anderson, M. McKenney, and A. Mitchell, “EMBRacing Racial Stress and Trauma: Preliminary Feasibility and Coping Responses of a Racial Socialization Intervention,” Journal of Black Psychology 44, no. 1 (2018): 25–46; D. Rivas-Drake et al., “Ethnic and Racial Identity in Adolescence: Implications for Psychosocial, Academic, and Health Outcomes,” Child Development 85, no. 1 (2014): 40–57; and A. Umaña-Taylor et al., “A Small-Scale Randomized Efficacy Trial of the Identity Project: Promoting Adolescents’ Ethnic-Racial Identity Exploration and Resolution,” Child Development 89, no. 3 (2018): 862–70.
6. V. Murry et al., “Children in Diverse Social Contexts,” in The Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science: Ecological Settings and Processes, vol. 4, 7th ed., ed. M. Bornstein and T. Leventhal (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2015).
7. V. Felitti et al., “Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 14, no. 4 (1998): 245–58.

[Illustrations by Erin K. Robinson]

American Educator, Fall 2021