When We Know Better, We Do Better

Why Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Are Relevant in a Windward Education

In her wisdom, the poet, writer, and civil rights leader Maya Angelou invites us to try our best with what we know while remaining open to new knowledge. Angelou says, “Do the best you can until you know better. And when you know better, do better.” Over the years, the research community has learned what works best for children with language-based learning disabilities. Without a doubt, Windward is among the best when it comes to teaching students with dyslexia and other language-based learning disabilities. This fact, however, does not make the School sit comfortably and take what we know for granted; rather, we remain curious and open to learning about what we could be doing better.

All our students are neurodivergent, meaning their brains process information in ways that are not typical. As a School, we understand that being neurodivergent is part of what makes our students who they are, and we embrace them because of it. Something we know is that neurodivergent people are more than their diagnosis. This can be explained by applying the intersectionality framework, which considers how various aspects of a person’s identity interact to create unique dynamics that can result in discrimination and/or privilege. Our students must be understood in all their identities (e.g., disability, race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic class, religion, first language, nationality) and how their intersection impacts how they navigate the world. This understanding will mitigate the potential mistake of treating everyone as if they had the same needs. One size does not fit all.

Last spring, I took a group of Windward students to MOSAIC, a middle school diversity conference organized for independent schools in Fairfield and Westchester counties. For the first time in MOSAIC history, neurodiversity was included as part of their workshop offerings. This was thanks to Windward ninth-grade students who, with the guidance of their teachers, planned and delivered an informative and engaging workshop educating participants on the characteristics of neurodiversity. And sharing their experiences as neurodivergent people was not our students’ only interest; another group of Windward ninth-graders presented on the involvement of girls and women in sports. Similarly, the seventh- and eighth-graders that attended as participants chose to join sessions where they discussed what it is like to be Jewish, Black, Latine, White, and multiracial students in independent schools. When we gathered to debrief the conference, students reflected on how meaningful it was for them to be in a space where they could safely talk and ask questions about their, and other young people’s, lived experiences. What is more, by the end of our meeting, all students were energized, wanted to continue the dialogue, and expressed interest in extending the conversation to the entire School community. Their reflections did not surprise me, as they aligned with education research findings that emphasize the importance of affirming students’ salient identities and opening spaces in schools for those identities to flourish.

Having a school experience where students see themselves reflected in the curriculum and pedagogy, while also learning about other people’s realities, promotes an environment where everyone sees themselves as a valuable member of the community. This matters, not just because it is what our students are interested in, but because it boosts their self-esteem and growth, and it encourages them to develop a more nuanced view of the world. Research has shown that learning about ourselves and others in ways that are significant helps reduce prejudice and stereotypes and increases empathy, another area where DEIB bolsters learning and growth. As the United States becomes more diverse, it is important for Windward students to acquire tools to interact with people who are different from them and expand their multicultural competence. How we prepare them for life after Windward will be key in their future endeavors, as evidence has shown that a positive experience with diversity provides global benefits, such as greater critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills. Also, people who have been part of environments promoting equity and inclusion tend to be more invested in improving the lives of people in their communities.

In 2024, young people seem to be savvier in understanding issues of identity and differences, due in part to the internet and social media. The speed and availability of information today can stimulate growth, connection, and learning. However, we also know that the information young people are exposed to is not always appropriate, accurate, or conducive of healthy development. By creating space in schools for students to learn about topics related to hard history, current events, and identity exploration, we are giving them opportunities to receive complex information in ways that are not only age appropriate but also digestible. When sensitive conversations take place within a structure where the ground rules are clear and the adults have received the proper training, students tend to feel safer. They are then better positioned to receive and respond to challenging information. Some people argue that teaching children about issues of oppression, such as racism, only serves to perpetuate the problem. Why bring up something that they might not yet be thinking about? Research shows that not talking to children about race, for example, can lead to the normalization of racial inequalities. Children begin to observe and absorb what is happening around them quite early in life. If the adults in their lives do not bring it to the surface, provide proper explanations, and give them the language to talk about it, children quickly begin to internalize those inequalities as “the way life should be.” Openly talking about differences and inequalities helps pave the path for solutions, as we have an opportunity to point out the many instances in which humans work to fix the problem.

Overall, for Windward students to be seen and understood as people with disabilities is key for their growth and development, not to limit what they can do but to provide them with what they need to reach their full potential. Similarly, we must see and understand our students as complex beings with intersecting identities. Without doing so, we might miss supporting parts of themselves that are important to them, too. Creating an inclusive School where everyone has a strong sense of belonging is good for our students now, and it will be good for them in the future. I would like to invite you to complete a thinking routine that I often use when I deliver DEIB-related workshops: “I used to know...but now I know...” And when you know, you go on and do better.