The Need for LGBTQ Social Emotional Learning Programs
By: Natalia Vasiliou and Rachel Rios-Richardson

As we celebrate Pride month and reflect on the history of LGBTQ liberation, it is also important to identify ways we can work toward an accepting, equitable, and affirming future for LGBTQ youth. In order to do so, we must understand the issues that are currently impacting these youth. While youth suicide is a widescale problem that profoundly impacts communities around the world, this issue disproportionately affects LGBTQ youth. Youth who identify as LGBTQ are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide compared to their heterosexual peers and this number is even higher for transgender youth and LGB youth of color (CDC, 2016; The Trevor Project, 2019).

The school environment can be particularly traumatizing for LGBTQ youth. According to a 2017 National School Climate Survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), 95.3% of LGBTQ students heard homophobic remarks from other students and school staff, with 60.3% reporting this as a regular occurrence (Kosciw et al., 2017). The same report found that 70.1% of LGBTQ students experienced verbal harassment directly tied to their sexual orientation and 91.8% of LGBTQ students felt distressed about the multiple types of harassment experienced at school (Kosciw et al., 2017). Compared to their heterosexual peers, LGBTQ youth are at increased risk for experiencing discrimination and abuse while at school. One study found that six out of ten LGBT youth interviewed felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation while four out of ten felt unsafe due to their gender expression (Kosciw et al., 2017). Additionally, 62% of the youth reported experiencing discriminatory policies or practices at school (Kosciw et al., 2017). These experiences of discrimination and abuse can lead to situations that put LGBTQ youth at greater risk of attempting and completing suicide. 

In order to make school a safer, welcoming, affirming environment for LGBTQ youth, we must implement supportive programming tailored to the unique challenges and needs of the LGBTQ population. School based social-emotional learning (SEL) offers an environment for experiential support to take place. SEL programs, implemented by teachers and/or school social workers or counselors, work to grow students in areas such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making through explicit, interactive activities (Haymovitz, Houseal-Allport, Lee, & Svistova, 2018).

Experiential SEL groups may be particularly useful for adolescents who identify along the LGBTQIA+ spectrum; these groups allow a safe space for adolescents to experience themselves in different ways and to openly ask questions about others’ experiences (Bradish, 1995). It is also a place to challenge societal norms and expectations, while not facing harsh backlash that so often occurs in larger society (Bradish, 1995). It can be used to increase self-esteem, social skills, and peer-to-peer connection (Greenberg et al., 1989). Experiential therapy uses activities such as arts and crafts, poetry, narrative writing, dance, music, visualization, and photography to achieve the therapeutic goal of increased self-awareness (Russell & Gillis, 2017). Experiential therapy is extremely beneficial to adolescent groups as it takes on a more kinesthetic approach versus relying on a child’s ability to grasp complex emotional concepts (Russell & Gillis, 2017). Research has shown that experiential approaches increase the willingness of adolescents to engage in therapeutic activities, which also enhances the outcome of the intervention (Russell & Gillis, 2017). 

In order to implement LGBTQ programs in school, we must collectively take responsibility to advocate for inclusion. School district board meetings are a great way to get involved in the community where you live and an opportunity to learn about what supportive programs are being offered to students. Express your concern through an e-mail to the superintendent. Learn about youth-organized LGBTQ events and show your support. We must all do our part to push toward a future where all youth are able to grow up feeling safe and supported.