Portrait of a Learner 9-12

Systems Change

Factor Connections

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Identity development is the process through which individuals develop a sense of self and establish a unique understanding of who they are, underlying how they interact with the world. This process starts at birth, peaks in adolescence, and continues through adulthood. A few common aspects of an individual's Identity include race, ethnicity, gender, cultural background, and disability status, among others. In adolescence, learners often place more importance on peers and on their social lives; while the school setting is still an important context where Identity development can be supported, adolescents are more independently navigating social spaces without adult supervision. During this time, adolescents have new experiences and increased social interactions with peers and the broader community that help them continue to shift and shape their meaning of social Identities.

Main Ideas

Although every aspect of Identity may develop in different ways, children start noticing (and asking about) similarities and differences between individuals from early in life. Caregivers and community members play an important role in helping individuals learn about their Identities, from passing down cultural traditions to having deep discussions about race, including racial discrimination within society, a process called socialization. However, as adolescents' social networks expand, they begin to receive socialization messages from multiple sources, including peers and adults outside of the home. In addition, two key Identity-building behaviors can help individuals acquire self-relevant information and develop their Identity, including:

  • Self-presentation: Individuals present themselves in a variety of ways, from changing their appearance to experimenting with different hobbies and activities. When they receive feedback on these presentations from those around them, they can choose to maintain or alter their chosen Identities in light of this input.
  • Social comparison: Individuals often look to those around them to contextualize their own Identities. Through this process, they can gain an understanding of who they are in comparison to others.

Just as students can explore self-presentation and social comparison at school, social media can also provide opportunities for adolescents to present and explore their individual Identities. Similar to school settings, social media can be supportive (for example, allowing students to access communities they may not have access to in person), but it can also have negative effects on emotional well-being (for instance due to unrealistic social comparisons).

Because identity is intersectional, it is made up of many factors that combine to form a sense of self. These aspects of Identity develop through life experiences as individuals explore and become invested in different aspects of their Identities. Therefore, throughout development, aspects of Identity can continue to develop, shift, and intersect in new ways. In addition, although some aspects of Identity can feel more important or central than others, different environments and experiences may lead some aspects of Identity to feel more salient than others in that context.

Finally, it is important to recognize that many people have concealed/non-apparent Identities that may be stigmatized, such as physical or mental health, sexual orientation, family circumstances, or learning disabilities. These non-apparent Identities can be isolating, impacting an individual's Sense of Belonging, Social Supports, and well-being. Students with learning disabilities or from families that experience socio economic hardship may experience labeling, separation, and stereotyping in school, which may reduce a learner's Sense of Belonging and academic growth. When it comes to students with learning disabilities or ADHD who choose to present in ways that adhere more closely to societal norms, this is referred to as “masking” or “camouflaging.” Because we often cannot see all aspects of a learner's Identity, educators need to strive not to make assumptions about students' Identities and seek to create an environment where all students feel valued and have the space to grow and shine.

When educational contexts are designed to promote a Sense of Belonging and Social Support for all students, Identity can play a positive role in Learner Mindset, Motivation, and academic achievement. For example, strong ethnic/racial Identity and role models with a shared Identity can help buffer learners from the impact of stereotypes and discrimination. However, the interaction between a student's Identity and environment can lead to negative learning outcomes in less supportive environments. When students do not see themselves represented in curricular or instructional practices, and/or when children's home environment and school environment emphasize different ways of knowing, this can create an environment that does not support a Sense of Belonging, leading to reduced Motivation and self-efficacy. Further, through conscious or unconscious bias, educators' perceptions of their students can affect learning outcomes: for instance, interpreting identical actions as more aggressive from students of some Identities (e.g., Black boys) or unconsciously signaling to students that they may not belong in a domain due to stereotypes (e.g., having lower expectations for girls in math). Engaging in discussions around these stereotypes and their baselessness can support adolescents' resistance to the negative effects of Stereotype Threat.

Because negative learning outcomes are typically a byproduct of the interaction between an unsupportive environment and a marginalized Identity (or Identities), this means that educators have the opportunity to improve students' learning conditions and well-being by creating an environment where all students feel seen, represented, and respected. In addition, educators can provide learners with opportunities for positive Identity development by allowing students to consider, share, and celebrate aspects of their Identity.

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