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  • Dear Beautiful:: A Self-Empowerment Book for Black Women (Volume 1)
    Dear Beautiful:: A Self-Empowerment Book for Black Women (Volume 1)
    by Gail L. Thompson Ph.D.
  • Yes, You Can!: Advice for Teachers Who Want a Great Start and a Great Finish With Their Students of Color
    Yes, You Can!: Advice for Teachers Who Want a Great Start and a Great Finish With Their Students of Color
    by Gail L. Thompson, Rufus Thompson
  • The Power of One: How You Can Help or Harm African American Students
    The Power of One: How You Can Help or Harm African American Students
    Corwin Press
  • Up Where We Belong: Helping African American and Latino Students Rise in School and in Life
    Up Where We Belong: Helping African American and Latino Students Rise in School and in Life
    by Gail L. Thompson
  • Through Ebony Eyes: What Teachers Need to Know But Are Afraid to Ask About African American Students (Jossey-Bass Education)
    Through Ebony Eyes: What Teachers Need to Know But Are Afraid to Ask About African American Students (Jossey-Bass Education)
    by Gail L. Thompson
  • A Brighter Day: How Parents Can Help African American Youth
    A Brighter Day: How Parents Can Help African American Youth
    by Dr. Gail Thompson
  • African American Teens Discuss Their Schooling Experiences
    African American Teens Discuss Their Schooling Experiences
    by Gail L Thompson, Greenwood
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    What African American Parents Want Educators to Know
    by Gail L. Thompson
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Friday
May312019

Vol 1 (2) Spring/Summer 2019

 

Overview

Equity Talk is an online professional development newsletter that provides Education Leaders (district-level leaders, school-site level leaders, and teachers) with practical strategies to improve the schooling experiences of students who have historically been underserved in schools.

The current issue features an interview that I conducted with Dr. Niki Elliott, who is an expert on Social-Emotional Learning.  Dr. Elliott explains how educators can work more effectively with brilliant Black students, and other misunderstood students. The article ends with professional development exercises that can be used by individuals and groups.

Foundational Principles

Quote: “Equity has nothing to do with your race or skin color, but it has everything to do with the condition of your heart, and your mindset about children and vulnerable populations. Your heart and mindset will determine how you treat them.” (Dr. Gail L. Thompson)

 

  1. All students should have equal access to an outstanding education regardless of their race/ethnicity, socio-economic status,  primary language, home life, gender, sexual orientation, who their parents/guardians are, or the community in which they live.

  2. All students deserve to be treated fairly.

3. Every Education Leader has a moral and professional obligation to provide all  students with equal access to an outstanding education.

“They Loved Dumping the Black Kids That Nobody Else Wanted to Teach on Me!” A Professor’s Quest to Help Educators Work More Effectively With Brilliant Black Students

 

Dr. Niki Elliott

 

Introduction

Many experts have reported that depression, anxiety, and suicide rates are increasing in the U.S. For example, a study conducted by Blue Cross Blue Shield revealed that “since 2013, major depression rates have risen dramatically . . . . This rate is rising even faster among millennials, and adolescents.”1 A report from Mental Health America stated that “. . . as many as one in five teens suffers from clinical depression.”2 Furthermore, many children experience adversity and trauma that can cause chronic stress, as well as behavioral and academic problems.3

These problems have forced school leaders to pay more attention to the overall wellbeing of students through Social-Emotional Learning strategies. I recently was privileged to interview Dr. Niki Elliott, who is a Clinical Professor and Co-Director of the Center for Neurodiversity, Learning, and Wellness at the University of LaVerne, founder of “The Innerlight Method,”  author, and expert on Social-Emotional Learning. In this article, you’ll learn about Dr. Elliott’s background, the experiences that shaped her current work, and the mindfulness practices and other strategies that she uses to help adults work more effectively with Black students and other students who continue to be misunderstood and underserved in schools.

 

Dr. Elliott’s Experiences as a Brilliant Catholic School Student

Dr. Elliott grew up in a two-parent home in Los Angeles. Because her parents believed “that a religious education was the best thing that you could do for your child,” she attended K-12 Catholic Schools. Her experiences attending “all Black” Catholic Schools laid the foundation for her current work. Because Dr. Elliott was an outspoken, light-skinned, high achiever who skipped fifth grade, she was bullied by jealous students. “Generally, with the children, I stood out as the smartest girl in the class, so I was a target,” she said. “Kids use to try to beat me up for being the ‘Teacher’s Pet,’ or because I had straight A’s, and learning was just way too easy for me.”

But Dr. Elliott’s brilliance--particularly her natural inclination to ask questions about the inconsistencies that she saw also caused problems between the nuns and her. Here’s how she explained it:

From elementary school all the way through high school, the nuns told my parents that I caused my peers to question the faith. At the time, that was considered a derogatory thing. But as I matured in my field, I guess a lot of what I’m called to do on the planet is to cause people to question what they unconsciously believe, particularly as it relates to education, wellbeing, socio-economic status, and the capacity of children of color.

I was raised in an environment where I was constantly confronted with things that I couldn’t make myself believe and follow, but I still learned how to work within that system. I got straight A’s, and scholarships to college. I found a way to work around and through the system to get what I needed from it, and to keep my own sense of values, and my own understanding of God and human beings intact. That kind of crafted who I am as a Social Justice Advocate in education.


Here’s how Dr. Elliott summed up what she learned from attending all-Black Catholic Schools:

So, my concern has always been how do we create more diversity for Black students, so that there’s not a shaming of brilliant Black students to have to dumb themselves down for being Black, and for being a female [hearing these types of messages]: “The boys aren’t going to like you if you’re too smart, and the other Black students aren’t going to like you if you’re too smart. And if you’re light skinned, they’re really not going to like you”?

It’s all these layers of what can interfere with a Black student’s achievement. For me, it was on so many levels. It was the gender level. “Girls need to be better behaved. Girls need to be quiet; girls should not be talking back,” and asking these kinds of questions. Then, especially in the Catholic environment, obviously, women are not allowed in the priesthood; so the general thing was that women are to be quiet, compliant, and kind. That part of me was constantly being suppressed. I was told, “Don’t have so many opinions. Even if you have the answers, you don’t have to say it all the time. Let other people shine.”

There’s always this underlying thing for high-achieving Black students: Don’t stand out too much. And after I got to college, the messages I heard were, “You sound White. You’re not really down. You think you’re better,” and then, if a woman is super intelligent, “You’re intimidating to the men, or the boys don’t want to date someone who’s smarter than them.”

 

The Teacher and Social Justice Advocate

After graduating high school, Dr. Elliott earned a Bachelor’s Degree in African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Next, she earned a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction, and a Teaching Credential from Columbia University’s Teachers College. For the next three years, she taught fourth and fifth grade in the suburbs of Teaneck, New Jersey. She quickly noticed huge inequities, especially regarding the treatment of Black students. Many of these students were viewed as behavioral problems, but through mindfulness practices and other Social-Emotional Learning strategies, Dr. Elliott had great success with them.  According to Dr. Elliott:

In New Jersey, they loved dumping the Black kids that nobody else wanted to teach on me. They thought they were dumping African American students who had behavior problems that the veteran teachers didn’t want to deal with, but I was really getting Gifted students.

One of the most life-changing experiences that Dr. Elliott had, occurred during her first year of teaching, and it involved Gregory, a Black fourth grader whom “nobody wanted to teach.” Dr. Elliott said:

My first year of teaching, this little Black boy pushed me into a sharp table that cut my thigh. Nobody wanted to teach him, but I just was not giving up on him. Today, he would’ve been diagnosed with some kind of emotional disturbance or defiant behavior disorder. He didn’t have a formal diagnosis back then, but today, he would have definitely been medicated.

He had very violent, impulsive behavior. He would fight; he would scream; he would have outbursts; he threw over tables and chairs in class, but I could see that he was very bright, especially regarding science. I just made it my point to understand what was needed to help him regulate his behavior, so that people could see how brilliant he was. Then, he could be considered for the Gifted programs or some of the other higher-level opportunities that he was being denied because of his behavior.

In addition to teaching Gregory self-regulatory strategies, Dr. Elliott also worked closely with his parents.  She explained:

I just stayed with him, and loved him, and would go to his home, and sit with his family, and just try to understand what was going on. I didn’t even realize that I was ministering to the family, and over the year, his behavior just improved and improved. The parents would tell me, “You’re the first person who saw our child as something more than a behavior problem.”

A key factor in Dr. Elliott’s success with Gregory was that she was able to empathize with him by remembering how she felt when she was a child. She said:

 

I knew what it was like for me as a student being bored out of my mind with a curriculum that wasn’t meeting my needs, and there was no alternative. If I finished my work before the rest of the class, they didn’t say, “Here’s more complex work to do Nicole.” Instead they said, “Read a book until everybody else is done.”  So, people don’t understand how stressful it is to a Gifted person’s mind to be under-stimulated.

Regardless of what’s happening in your home, there are significant stressors to being in an environment where the instruction is slow, where there is no challenge, where you’re not being presented with things that stimulate or excite you, where you can figure out things easily and effortlessly, and there is a depression that sinks in for these advanced children, especially for Black kids. Plus, every time they misbehave, it’s used as evidence to prove “That Black kid can’t be smart.” In reality, that child may be under-stimulated in that environment and needs something different.

Because of Dr. Elliott’s work with Gregory, he not only graduated high school, but went into the military afterwards, and became “a productive parent.” Today, Dr. Elliott remains in contact with Gregory and his parents, who are grateful for the positive impact that she had on Gregory. But this wasn’t an isolated case.  During her teaching years in New Jersey, her reputation quickly spread, and she began to have a similar effect on other under-served and misdiagnosed Black students and their parents. According to Dr. Elliott:

The parents started trusting me and opening up, and the kids trusted me. It was nothing academic, because these were all very intelligent kids. They were brighter than average. A couple of them were highly Gifted. When the behavior masks the Giftedness, people don’t see a Black boy bored in class and call him “Gifted.”  They think he’s ADHD or a troublemaker. But if they see a bored White boy, then, they’ll think, “Oh, he’s Gifted, and he’s just not being challenged.”

So, I just made a point to get into the Social-Emotional aspects of these kids’ lives, and I’m still friends with some of the families today. One of the students called me today. I took her on as a mentor in high school. She called me this morning, and said, “We still think about you,” and she’s almost 40 years old now.

 

The Importance of Social-Emotional Learning and Mindfulness Practices

After teaching in New Jersey for several years, Dr. Elliott returned to California and earned a doctorate from UCLA. She also became a mother, worked with Charter School development and school reform projects, became the Founding Board President of a charter school, “training teachers to work with highly-intelligent children who have mood and behavior challenges that mask their Giftedness,” and developed a “Wellness” program. According to Dr. Elliott:

Over the last 15 years, I’ve developed a program called “The Innerlight Method” that includes mindfulness practices, yogic breathwork, and energy work that help people increase their self-regulation, balance mood, and increase self-awareness. We call it a “Holistic, Mindfulness-Based Wellness Program.” I target helping professionals, like teachers, psychologists, ministers, social workers, and particularly adults who are child-serving professionals.

In terms of how this work directly affects children, Dr. Elliott explained:

My work has always been around the highly-sensitive child. My work has looked at students with mood, learning, and behavior challenges who tend to be what we call “highly-sensitive children.”  I have found that mindfulness practices have been especially effective at helping these students learn self-regulation skills.

I practice Energy Work, and have helped a lot of students with yoga, mindfulness methods, meditation, and with energy practices to learn how to regulate their own behaviors. It’s the Social-Emotional things that I am committed to helping improve the self-regulation, self- efficacy, helping people look at toxic stress, adverse childhood experiences, trauma, and how all those things impede learning.

 

Empowering Educators to Work More Effectively With Children

Because of her expertise in Mindfulness Practices and Social-Emotional Learning, Dr. Elliott was invited to serve as the Co-Director of the Center for Neurodiversity, Learning and Wellness, and Clinical Professor at the University of LaVerne, where she has worked for the last two years. In addition to conducting research about the effectiveness of this work, especially in disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline, Dr. Elliott provides extensive professional development services to school districts, and leads Mindfulness Retreats that are influenced by the work of mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn. Here’s how she described her work at the Center for Neurodiversity, and the classes that she teaches for Special Education teachers who are earning Master’s Degrees:

The current practices we use include breath work, various types of meditation, various types of teaching children body scanning: how to become aware of their body, aware of what they’re needing, teaching them energy techniques of where to tap on their body to release energy, and teaching them tools for regulating their nervous system. So, it’s a range of practices that help students, teachers, and parents become aware and increase their self-compassion and empathy. This works helps them become more fully able to speak what their needs are, and to slow their automatic responses down that would lead them either into explosive behaviors or into implosive self-injurious behaviors.

What I love about this work at the Center for Neurodiversity is that I get to teach parents, teachers, social workers, and psychologists, how the brain functions for learning, how mindfulness helps repair the physiology of the human nervous system, to repair the damage of toxic stress and trauma, and how mindfulness is emerging, pretty much for me, as the social justice tool for our generation.

 

Dr. Elliott also explained additional important benefits of her work:

Research is showing that mindfulness helps eliminate unconscious bias, which our children need, especially as more and more people of color leave the teaching profession or don’t go into the teaching profession, and more of our children are being taught by Caucasian teachers. I teach teachers what’s happening when children are in the face of fear, when they feel unsafe.

Mindfulness and Social-Emotional Learning on the part of our students helps them be more resilient when they are in environments where they aren’t being treated with love and care. Neurological Diversity includes all the spectrum: kids  who are Gifted, whose brains work in ways we can never understand, students with autism, students with ADHD, students with dyslexia, students with anxiety disorders, students with emotional disturbance, and students with mental illness. There’s this whole range of different ways that brains function in the classroom. We have to create more space for all of those kinds of brains to be recognized, to be honored, to be seen, and to be able to thrive. Not only does that mean including and diversifying our learning spaces and our instructional strategies, but it also includes strengthening our Social-Emotional components.

 

Advice to School Leaders and Teachers

Effective Classroom Management starts with the teacher’s emotional state.

“A lot of our dogmatic discipline styles, a lot of our authoritarian cultural ways are crushing to Black kids. I think teachers need to understand how the condition of their own nervous system, and the teacher’s own response to perceived threat impacts their class management styles. It impacts their relating style, and adopting mindfulness practices enables them to shift and heal their own nervous system state, and allows them to engage with students in a completely different way.”

“Many of the behaviors that they now find threatening or challenging would become a non-issue. If their nervous systems were healed, it wouldn’t bother them. So, when teachers want to know how they can control kids’ behavior, I say, ‘Learn to regulate your own nervous system,’ and that will allow students to co-regulate to you in a way that lets them borrow your regulated state to achieve their own self-regulation. Discipline as we’ve known it, would become a non-issue in schools, and we could find another way to relate to students without needing to dominate and be so authoritarian over them. Then, we’ll get a chance to see their real light and their real gifts when our focus is not on controlling them.”

Children need to feel physically, emotionally, and psychologically safe at school and in the classroom.

“We have to get explicit and unpack everything that’s a part of the dynamic of what makes a teacher give a child a sense of safety that allows them to calm down and self-regulate. Many administrators are worried about locking their schools down and keeping certain students out. So, they’re worried about physical safety, but they’re forgetting that psychological safety is more of a day-to-day threat to the wellbeing of students than the idea of a shooter.”

“Administrators have to analyze their learning environment from top to bottom to see where all the places are that students are made to feel psychologically unsafe in their learning spaces. They need to give it as much attention as making sure that every door is locked, and every gate is patched up to prevent armed shooters from getting on their campus. They ought to be just that vigilant about weeding out psychological threats to their children’s and teachers’ safety, because if administration is threatening the teachers, then the teachers are passing that threat down to the kids. Neuroscience shows us that the brain doesn’t learn in the presence of a real or perceived threat. It goes into survival mode. It does not go into learning mode.”

 

References

“Major Depression: The Impact on Overall Health.” Blue Cross Blue Shield

Link: : https://www.bcbs.com/the-health-of-america/reports/major-depression-the-impact-overall-health.

 

“Depression in Teens.” Mental Health America

Link: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/conditions/depression-teens.

 

National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Link: https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/about-child-trauma.

 

Practical Application: Guiding Questions for Professional Development

What are the main “Takeaways” that you learned from this article?

How will you use the information that you learned from this article to help African American, Latino, low-income, and other students, parents, teachers, and school leaders?

 

About Inspirations by Gail LLC

Mission for Districts and Schools

As a former Endowed Professor of Education, junior high school and high school teacher, Executive Director of Equity, and critically acclaimed author, my goal is to help district, school, and classroom leaders improve schools on  behalf of
African American, Latino, and low-income students by providing the following Selected Services:

Selected Services for District, School, and Classroom Leaders

Keynote addresses & motivational presentations

 

  • Interactive workshops
  • Mentoring and coaching
  • Face-to-face and online short-term and long-term PD courses
  • Equity-Driven Leadership Development
  • Customized Multi-Year Equity in Action Plans
  • Culturally Responsive Lesson Plan Development
  • Positive Behavior Strategies
  • Facilitating “Real Talk Forums” to address racial problems,
  • cultural insensitivity, unconscious biases, microaggressions\, etc.
  • Schoolwide and Classroom-Level “Cultural Awareness Project” Development
  • Schoolwide and Classroom Level “Improving Race Relations Project” (IRAK) Development
  • Customized Equity-related regional seminars, symposia, and conferences
  • Workshops for Parents/Guardians
  • Grooming Your Child for Greatness Parts 1-4
  • Workshops for Middle, Junior High, and High School Students
  • How You Can Have a Great Future Parts 1-4

 

About Dr. Gail L. Thompson

 Dr. Gail L. Thompson, Founder & CEO of Inspirations by Gail LLC, is a critically acclaimed author of many articles and books; former secondary school teacher; and former Executive Director for a business corporation. During her years as the Wells Fargo Endowed Professor of Education at Fayetteville State University, she created and served as Director of the Black Men Teaching (BMT) Program, and supervised doctoral students. Dr. Thompson also created “The Literacy Club,” an after-school reading incentive program for struggling readers, and implemented it at several schools.

 Dr. Thompson has appeared on numerous television and radio programs, including PBS Television’s “Tony Brown Journal.” Her books include the critically acclaimed The Power of One: How You Can Help or Harm African American Students; Yes, You Can! Advice for Teachers Who Want a Great Start and a Great Finish With Their Students of Color (co-authored with Rufus Thompson); Through Ebony Eyes: What Teachers Need to Know but are Afraid to Ask About African American Students; What African American Parents Want Educators to Know; African American Teens Discuss Their Schooling Experiences; and Up Where We Belong: Helping African American and Latino Students Rise in School and in Life. Her latest book, Dear Beautiful! A Self-Empowerment Book for Black Women, was published in January 2018, and her weekly podcast can be heard via her YouTube Channel: Inspirations by Gail.

 Contact Information:

 Gail L. Thompson, Ph.D.: Founder & CEO of Inspirations by Gail LLC

 Website: www.drgailthompson.com

YouTube Channel/podcast: Inspirations by Gail

 https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCs91Cj1EwZsnTJA3isAS5PQ

Email:  gaillt@drgailthompson.com

 

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