Teaching Florida Children Social and Emotional Learning to Avoid Racism


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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed the “Stop WOKE Act” at Mater Academy Charter Middle/High School in Hialeah Gardens on April 22.

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You walk into the grocery store and immediately locate the nearest exit, continuously looking over your shoulder. You hold your child tightly because in the United States at any time you can be targeted and killed because of who you are and who you exist.

Just recently, a male white supremacist intentionally planned and methodically executed a massacre of black people at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York. Although racism can exacerbate psychiatric disorders, racism alone is not a mental illness; it is learned and perpetuated by hateful bigoted individuals, including those in positions of power. In Florida, lawmakers continually exhaust racist tactics while simultaneously attempting to waive gun laws. This combination can have deadly consequences.

Understanding racism and moving towards change begins with identifying and self-reflecting on one’s own privilege. Starting this work in childhood is essential, as children develop a sense of and understanding of the world through an empathetic lens.

And yet, Florida’s Stop WOKE Act, enacted, prohibits teachings on critical race theory or topics that require a student to believe that they “bear personal responsibility and must feel guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress” due to past actions of members of the same race or nationality.

Acknowledging one’s privilege in the world may be an illicit discomfort, but does not directly induce prolonged psychological distress. On the contrary, generational racial trauma in the form of mass shootings, police brutality, assaults and discrimination lead to higher rates of depression, anxiety and trauma among racial minorities. Ignoring racism and actively whitewashing history in schools deprives students of fundamental learning experiences and perpetuates the hatred and discrimination that have fueled deadly consequences for racial minorities.

Teaching Florida Children

Under this law, the Florida Department of Education is looking for textbooks that prohibit “critical race theory, social justice, culturally appropriate teaching, social and emotional learning.” Social and emotional learning is an integral part of child development and education. In fact, children with higher emotional intelligence are more able to pay attention, are more engaged in school, display positive relationships, are more empathetic, and achieve better grades. Emotional intelligence is one of the strongest predictors of future success. Thus, removing social-emotional learning from schools does a disservice to students and will likely hinder future success.

In 2020, firearm-related injuries became the leading cause of death among children and adolescents, an increase of nearly 30% over the previous year. Last month, Governor Ron DeSantis signaled his support for constitutional carry in the state of Florida, which will allow individuals to purchase and carry a gun in public without a license.

Two of our country’s deadliest mass shootings took place in Florida under current gun regulations and before the passage of two discriminatory bills. Florida’s recent legislative actions, along with hate-motivated rhetoric, will overturn all efforts to improve gun control and fuel racism, hate and violence – deadly combinations.

Along with much stricter gun laws, open, honest, and safe discussions regarding our country’s historic and ongoing systemic racism will educate young people and facilitate cultural awareness and humility. During these discussions, young people will develop invaluable social-emotional skills that will increase their future success.

Children and adolescents, especially racial, ethnic, gender and sexual minorities, deserve change, advocacy and protection from discrimination and threats to their physical safety.

Natasha L. Poulopoulos is a Miami-based pediatric psychologist and youth mental health advocate.


This story was originally published May 25, 2022 3:22 p.m.


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