• By Mia Covarrubias • IDRA Newsletter • April 2022 •

As a future school counselor, I know when school mental health practices do not consider a child’s cultural background, they do them a disservice. Children are in school eight hours per day, five days per week for at least 13 years of their young lives, during the most crucial time for brain development, emotional growth and knowledge expansion.

In a school setting, culturally sustaining leadership encompasses the ways administrators, teachers, mental health practitioners and anyone else interacting with children in that school can serve them in a way that enhances their learning experience. Cultural sustaining training, anti-racism training and underlying bias training equip educators to better serve students, particularly minoritized students.

In my training and experience as a school counselor graduate student, I have learned that when children see themselves reflected in what they are learning, they inherently achieve better academic outcomes (Wun, 2018). It helps them actively formulate a strong sense of self. When students have positive experiences in a school system, they are more likely to engage in learning and avoid negative behaviors (Be the Change Consulting, nd).

A student’s academic success is nurtured by strong intrapersonal relationships between the educator and the student that help the student feel accepted (Ladson-Billings, 1995). IDRA research on keeping students in school and learning shows that there must be at least one educator in a student’s life who is totally committed to the success of that student (Robledo Montecel, 2004).

In addition to students feeling valued and seen, this relationship creates a safe space for students to be vulnerable and lean on the trusted adults around them to receive the support they need and to grow.

Being a culturally aware or curious educator starts with figuring out your own biases and privileges (Andoh, 2021; Johnson 2018). Another facet to overcoming biases is to educate yourself in multicultural studies and research the work of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) academics.

It also means challenging the current and past research in the field of psychology recognizing the racist practices on which the field of psychology was founded. With culturally curious minds, the paradigm can be shifted to expand representation of diverse voices and research.

To me, being a culturally curious person means allowing myself to see how our society is built on a foundation that affects minoritized students and clients. When practitioners do not embrace cultural sensitivity or curiosity, they may misunderstand a situation and thus lead a student down a path that does not benefit their well-being (D’Aniello, et al., 2016). The same is true when educators project their own biases about a student’s culture.

During the pandemic, there has been an important emphasis on social-emotional learning. The research supports how social-emotional learning positively impacts students and their success in schools (McCallops, et al., 2019; Bojorquez, 2021).

Counselors and teachers can work together to support students’ mental health. They should work to incorporate instruction and school activities that use the lived experiences of their students and supports their cultural expression. It is even more powerful to include students’ interests, views and needs into social-emotional learning programs designed for students the school serves (Kikeda, nd).

Being a culturally curious educator enables growth on both ends of the relationship. It helps you face pre-disposed judgments of others and keeps the space open and available for students to share their experiences and feelings with you as you support their mental health and learning.


Andoh, E. (April 1, 2021). Psychology’s Urgent Need to Dismantle Racism, Special Report. American Psychological Association.

Be the Change Consulting. (no date). What is social and emotional learning?, webpage.

Bojorquez, H. (2021). Ready – Renew – Reconnect! Proven Strategies for Re-engaging Students Who Need You the Most. IDRA.

D’Aniello, C., Nguyen, H.N., & Piercy, F.P. (September 2016). Cultural Sensitivity as an MFT Common Factor. The American Journal of Family Therapy, vol 44, issue 5.

Johnson, P. (May 2018). Culturally Sustaining Instruction Requires Culturally Sustaining Leadership. IDRA Newsletter.

Kikeda. (no date). Social Emotional Learning (SEL) & Why It Matters for Educators, webpage. National University.

Ladson-Billings, G. (September 1995). Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3):465-491.

McCallops, K., Barnes, T.N., Berte, I., Fenniman, J., Jones, I., Navon, R., & Nelson, M. (March 12,  2019). Incorporating Culturally Responsive Pedagogy Within Social-Emotional Learning Interventions in Urban Schools: An International Systematic Review. International Journal of Educational Research.

Robledo Montecel, M. (April 2004). From Dropping Out to Holding On – Seven Lessons from Texas. IDRA Newsletter.

Wun, C. (2018). Angered: Black and non-Black Girls of Color at the Intersections of Violence and School Discipline in the United States. Race Ethnicity and Education.

Mia Covarrubias is an IDRA intern. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at mia.covarrubias@idra.org.

[©2022, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 2022 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]