Addressing discrimination in learning environments

We can never guarantee total safety or know what feels safe to all students. However, we can do our best to promote conditions of relative safety. Why is establishing relative safety in our learning environments so important?

Let’s start with the assumption that students learn better when they do not feel threatened or traumatized. Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory supports this hypothesis by explaining how the nervous system impacts neural processes like learning and behaviors like social connection (Dana, 2018). Next, let’s also assume that discrimination results in stress and potential trauma. This is backed up by the CDC’s recent statement pinpointing racism as a social epidemic resulting in negative health consequences (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2021). Identifying discrimination is complex and layered, so it’s best to consult with the UAF Department of Equity and Compliance to determine if any situation is defined as discrimination. Concerns about discriminatory behavior can be reported here.

We can never fully guarantee our students’ safety. Micro-aggressions are one form of subtle or unintended discrimination that may be more likely to appear in your classroom than overt discrimination. Whether discrimination is covert or overt, here are four ideas for promoting conditions of relative safety.

1. Co-create a set of norms in your class right away. Ask students what behaviors they expect in the learning environment or what makes them feel safe. Including students in this process helps avoid your own biases and may increase the likelihood that students are invested in these expectations. Document and post these “rules” in an easy-to-find location and give frequent reminders of their presence.

2. Set boundaries with clear consequences that are enforced immediately and consistently. You can explicitly state in your syllabus and/or lectures how you view academic freedom and address conduct violations such as micro-aggressions and discrimination. Craft a potential response ahead of time so you are prepared to address both overt and covert discrimination.

Examples: “Let’s make sure we all speak from our own personal experiences and avoid generalizing how others think or feel.” “I want to remind you all about our shared class expectations…” “Let’s take a five minute break. Tom, can I talk to you for a second?”

3. You probably won’t notice all potential sources of discrimination, so highlighting resources and avenues for communication are needed. Reminding students of your office hours and demonstrating your respect and caring may increase the likelihood that a student will let you know if there’s a problem. You can create a quick, anonymous check-in survey online and/or on paper available every meeting session so students can report their concerns. You could enlist the help of students in your class as a network of caring who can bring potential issues to your attention. If behaviors escalate or you need support addressing discrimination, the UAF Department of Equity and Compliance is the place to start. They will enlist the help of the Center for Student Rights and Responsibilities when needed. Title IX resources and reporting can be found at The Nanook Diversity and Action Center offers regular training and resources to learn more about inclusion and safety.

4. Practice self-awareness and check for bias regularly. Implicit bias is learned and everyone has it, but we can do our best to prevent discrimination and hold safe spaces by learning about our own stress responses. Meditation, breathing exercises, reading research, journaling, therapy or workshops all offer opportunities to gain personal insight. Harvard offers an Implicit Association Test on several topics as a launch point to examine implicit bias. The Well on the UAF Troth Yeddha’ campus provides a safe space, daily meditation, and regular workshops aimed at promoting wellbeing.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). Impact of racism on our nation’s health.
Dana, D. (2018). The polyvagal theory in therapy: engaging the rhythm of regulation. New
York: W.W. Norton & Company.

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