COMMENTARY: This moment calls for radical care for all our children

Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

Whenever and however schools open for in-person instruction — during and after the pandemic — we cannot go back to business as usual.

Many of our students will need something different, something transformative, something deeply rooted in our commitment to provide students a significantly different type of school environment.

This moment calls for radical care.

Radical care is a fundamental belief that students need something different from what schools have typically offered. Many educators offer shallow platitudes about how much they care about students, yet will engage in practices that dehumanize and render them invisible.

Others educators remain indifferent in the face of policies, attitudes and beliefs that are centered on blaming students and families for the effects of structural racism and generational poverty, which has placed many children and families into some of the most untenable situations.

Radical care means:

  • Acknowledging and embracing the sheer resilience, brilliance and genius that resides in all students, in particular those on the margins.
  • Recognizing that the millions of students who are living in poverty prior to the pandemic have experienced even deeper poverty because of the pandemic.
  • Understanding the number of students experiencing homelessness will continue to climb and creating schools that provide a multitude of basic services such as food, shelter, mental health supports and afterschool care, which many students need.
  • Imagining schools where teachers are prepared and equipped with tools to support students whose psychological, social and emotional needs are viewed as essential to their academic success.
  • Requiring fearless leadership, where school leaders challenge, inspire and support their staffs to do better. Fearless leadership requires not being afraid to engage in courageous conversations about apathy and carelessness that becomes accepted practice in too many schools.
  • Creating schools that are equipped with teachers who engage in culturally sustaining pedagogy, are “warm demanders” and engage in their work in a manner that is anti-racist, has no tolerance for anti-black racism, and is inclusive.
  • Expecting leaders to support educators in building the knowledge, attitudes and dispositions necessary to identify and respond to students’ trauma, grieving and psychologically strained situations caused during the pandemic.
  • Listening and learning from students about their lives outside of school, and trying to place ourselves in their shoes and imagine how we may be angry some days and disengaged on others.

Our students possess a wealth of intellect, wisdom, curiosity and deep desire to do well in schools. They just need caring, consistent and culturally connected adults in schools.

When school personnel recognize that students possess deep funds of knowledge and a tremendous depth and breadth of cultural wealth then they can learn more about the various forces that shape their lives — including not just the challenges they face, but also their values, interests, ambitions, cultural traditions, family histories, out-of-school learning opportunities and more — they are better able to leverage those resources both in and out of the classroom.

Why is radical care needed? A recent report by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research reported that 45% of California youth between 12 and 17 reported having recently struggled with mental health issues during the pandemic.

Nearly a third of them experienced serious psychological distress that interferes with their academic and social functioning. They also found that the rates of depression and anxiety were highest among poor, multiracial, female and gender non-conforming students.

These data tell us that many of our students are emotionally frayed and psychologically distressed due to social isolation, disconnection and Covid fatigue. Student fear and our focus on relationship building matters more now than it has in a long time. Schools that are committed to showing radical care will take necessary steps to ensure they have highly resourced social workers in place, consistent nurses, supportive school staff, and patient, giving and loving educators and administrators.

Many students, like adults, are exhausted from Zoom, frustrated with being disconnected from peers and school personnel, and want something resembling normalcy again. Yet returning to schools cannot be exactly what we had prior to March 2020. It has to feel different, look different and ultimately schools need to be different.

Radical care should be less about what we say, and more about what we do. How can we show up for students when they need us the most? We show up by creating different types of schools where outside recreation, collaborative learning, safety, no standardized testing, discovery learning, teacher supports and holistic learning environments are the norm.

Practices and an ethos that are rooted in hope, love and a radical care that sees all students, but in particular our most vulnerable students must be our aim.


Tyrone C. Howard is a professor at the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies at UCLA. He is also the Pritzker Family Endowed Chair in Education to Strengthen Children & Families and director of the UCLA Black Male Institute.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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