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Supporting Student Identity during Unwanted Change

The shaggy-haired boy at table six usually loved to write. Most days, he could barely stop tapping his pencil through the mini-lesson before he excitedly bent over his own writing creation. Today, he sat with arms crossed and hair slung over his teary eyes. His notebook remained resolutely closed. This week he got the distressing news that his father was being deported. Suddenly, his identity shook in the face of such a life-changing event. He struggled to focus on work that had once been so important to him. He was no longer sure of his place with his father so far away.

Unfortunately, unwanted change is a part of life for everyone. We lose loved ones and jobs, face serious illness, and wrestle with disappointment when things don’t work out the way we planned. For students like the 5th graders in my class, change can feel like an uncontrollable force that turns their worlds and families upside down. An apartment eviction can mean double-bunking with relatives across town or saying a teary goodbye to a school that is no longer within walking distance. Even a rejection from a writing competition or a failing math grade can leave vulnerable students second-guessing their identities.

Especially in the midst of unwanted change, our students need support to deal with threats to their identities. After all, student identities don’t stay shoved in backpacks or neatly stored in lockers. For the student stunned by his father’s deportation, his once-clear school identity was suddenly murky in the face of his new reality.

Supporting identity is important, but it’s still hard to find time for anything extra in our packed classroom schedules. Fortunately, many research-based strategies to support identity readily combine with academic goals. Below, I’ll describe ways to use identity-supporting strategies to support students in an academic context.


Bibliotherapy, using books for managing stressful situations, finding healing, or supporting identity, is a natural fit for the classroom. Books are generally available and emphasis on literature fits most classroom goals. In bibliotherapy, teachers match issues a student is experiencing with books of similar focus. I keep a list of books that might help students deal with sudden changes. I might recommend Ruby on the Outside for a student who recently watched a family member head to prison or offer Return to Sender to a child struggling to make friends after a recent move.

Bibliotherapy provides distance for students to try out responses and emotions without taking the risk in their own lives. I like to have students write letters from the perspective of the characters undergoing change to explain how they’re feeling and how they plan to respond to challenges. Students can quickly enter rich whole-group discussions when they can first discuss a character’s feelings before comparing their own. It’s hard to imagine feeling chatty after a tearful event like deportation, so silent engagement is always an option in my classroom.

Consider starting your own list of age-appropriate books that deal with common issues your students face. Some classes can benefit from whole-group studies of books that reflect challenges and unwanted changes. However you decide to approach the use of books for bolstering identity, remember that it’s a strategy students can use long into adulthood when change can be equally daunting.

Self-Affirmation Strategies

Originally popularized by psychologist Claude Steele, acts of self-affirmation are reminders of self-adequacy. Telling stories of difficulties a student has overcome in the past or remembering moments of success are both acts of self-affirmation. Just by recalling the hard work it took to learn a sport or pass a math test can help students find the strength to tackle new challenges. In times of unwanted change, self-affirmation reminds students of the internal resources they already have at their disposal. An act of self-affirmation reminds the student who is forced to move to a new neighborhood that she has made new friends before. Suddenly, her friend-making skills are part of her identity again.

In the classroom, it’s easy to employ self-affirmation through writing exercises. Before a challenging new math unit, I might take a moment for a quick-write that asks students to reflect on conquering past difficulties. Student examples are often applicable to a challenging academic work. For example, a student might write about the way she asked a basketball coach for extra help until she improved her free throw shots. Later, when the student is frustrated with fractions, I can encourage her to apply her basketball skill of asking for help and her determination to keep practicing. Sometimes a tiny reminder of past success is all students need to keep trying.

Broadening a Sense of Self

In times of unwanted change, people tend to become myopic in their sense of self. A successful athlete who experiences a career-ending injury can become obsessively focused on the loss of his athletic identity. By reminding himself of his role as a son, student, amateur comedian, and church member, an injury doesn’t have to destroy his sense-of-self entirely.

Many teachers use webs of connections where students map out multiple aspects of their identities and visually connect them to others in the class. The activity might seem simple but it can help students remember that they are more than a failed math grade or a friend group rejection. Take this activity one step further by asking students to revisit their list of identity aspects throughout the year. A student might realize he’s neglected a piece of his cultural heritage or forgotten about his interest in music since he’s been so focused on being popular. Other students might be able to add new identity aspects to the list. I like to use the web of connections to help students reflect on how different parts of their identity have helped them make friends, tackle challenges, or dream about the future.

Identity broadening doesn’t resolve every problem, but it does remind students that one challenge need not destroy them. For the student mourning his father’s deportation, he might garner a bit of strength from a reminder that he is also a son to the mother waiting at home, a big brother to the sibling beside him on the bus, and a trusted friend to the classmates at his table.

As a teacher, I can’t undo the tragedy and trauma that students face. The world will always be full of unwanted changes. But perhaps identity-supporting strategies in the classroom can offer a spark of hope for students who feel helpless or frozen in the face of unwanted change.


Written by Marissa King

Marissa teaches 5th grade at Tulsa Public Schools where she spills tea and misuses the coolest slang. She is also a Yale National Fellow.