If you want a simple way to measure the health of a school, consider how much freedom of identity students have. This measure sums up much of the social dynamics and even academic mindsets present in a school.
Like actors testing out different types of roles, adolescents have to perform on many stages, as many characters, before discovering and choosing which roles feel right to them. This is essential work, at the core of what it means to be an adolescent – to develop your identity in a social world. Schools can help or hinder. The more fluid a student’s identity can be – the more easily, and with few repercussions, they can try on different roles and ways of being, provided they aren’t harming anyone – the faster and more healthily that student will develop, and the more vibrant that school’s culture will be.
It seems clear that when a school culture forbids certain identities – for example, if the prevailing school culture is homophobic and biased against students exploring their sexual orientation – then the school culture will be less healthy, because many students will find their identity exploration blocked. In this case, those students exploring non-heterosexual orientation would find few people to talk to, few positive role models, and would face major negative consequences for exploring a fundamental part of themselves. They may repress their real identity and internalize what the school tells them to be, creating a false self and psychological wounds for a lifetime. As their psychological health suffers, so too would the health and vibrancy of the school culture.
Questions of diversity and equity are at play here as well. If a student is in a small minority – let’s say, the only student of color in a class that is all white – then this fact may define their identity so completely that their space for exploration is reduced. Because they know their ethnicity, in this case, stands out so clearly in their group, it’s as if their identity has already been formed and communicated for them. Who they want to be is of secondary interest. Not to mention stereotype threat, in which they grapple with perceived shortcomings of their group, absorbed through the culture at large. They are like an actor who has been type-cast, always sought after for the same role even when they want to try something different.
All of this is to say that the more freedom kids have to explore identities, the more likely they will develop psychological health, and an ability to understand, accept, and express their inner lives. That ability to express our inner lives is fundamental to our happiness and success as an adult; without access to our inner lives we lose our natural source of power, authenticity, and motivation. When students are able to find pieces of their identity which feel authentic to them and which are accepted by their community, they are more creative, more engaged, more confident, and less anxious.
So if our task as parents and educators is to create freedom of identity, how do we do it? First, we can build truly diverse groupings (in all kinds of ways: personality type, introversion / extroversion, extracurricular interests, family structure, religious, political, ethnic, racial differences). We can tell and highlight stories of identity exploration. We can keep a loving and long-term orientation as we see young people explore identity, not being surprised or sarcastic if they change their minds many times. We can model our own non-mainstream identities, even down to our weird hobbies, and reveal our own continual process of exploration as adults. We can create as many avenues for exploration as possible through classes and activities, while incorporating reflection on identity in classes and advisory groups. We can introduce students to diverse characters in literature, film, and the stage, and create opportunities through activities like improv, drama, and spoken word for them to play roles and speak their own evolving truth. We can lovingly challenge them when they’ve fallen in love with a particular authority, whether that’s a friend who seems always right or a newspaper that seems always right, and show them that there are multiple sources of authority. We can teach them the history of struggles for freedom to express, like the history of gay rights and its current front lines, and honor the sacrifices people have made in order to be accepted for who they are. We can respond strongly to times when students accidentally or intentionally use hate speech, showing how that destroys the freedom to explore identity and forces kids to seek conformity. This and many more…
The long and short of it is: adolescents need adults who cherish the search for identity, who hold an open and widening mind as to what that means, and who cheer on even the most awkward and constantly-changing identity quests in the kids around them. Schools serving adolescents should recognize that their students are deeply engaged in creating their identity, and that this work is neurologically and psychologically natural and essential. Schools should measure themselves in part by how well students are able to take on this task, how free they feel to explore, and how clearly they’re able to identify unique, authentic elements of their identity as they get older. We all seek to be free, to be ourselves, to find our natural roles in life. We give students the best chance for this by offering the fullest possible freedom of identity.