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4 Ways to Teach Students About Social Justice Issues

February 2, 2023

“People create social conditions and people can change them,” wrote US playwright Tess Onwueme. Culturally responsive teaching empowers students with the skills to address social justice issues—bullying, discrimination, exclusion, and unfairness on the basis of social identity. 

When we teach our kids the words and actions to take when confronted with injustice, we enable the next generation to be more accepting and inclusive. 

Teachers seeking activities and ideas for addressing social justice issues in the classroom should consider interventions endorsed by the Learning for Justice Social Justice Standards framework. These interventions engage students on the topics of:

  • Identity
  • Diversity
  • Justice
  • Action

Educators should incorporate social justice concepts into their classrooms. Discover four approaches to teaching social justice at the elementary school level. 

1. Explore Social Identity

Understanding, empowering, and appreciating people with different identities is a cornerstone of social justice. Elementary school students can develop a working knowledge of social groups and identities so they can accurately describe their own membership in multiple groups and describe features of social groups they don’t belong to.

A person’s social identity has to do with their sense of belonging and membership in a social group. Students of all ages should learn that every person belongs to multiple social groups at the same time. 

Examples of social identities include the sense of belonging to the following categories.

  • Racial or ethnic group
  • Socioeconomic class
  • LGBTQ+ community
  • Religious group
  • Nation, state, city, or neighborhood
  • Age or generational cohort
  • Disabled community
  • Group based on shared language (e.g. Hispanic) 

Exploring social identity can be fun and engaging. Learning goals that can help students appreciate and accurately describe their own social identity include:

  • Knowing about one’s family history, culture, and the historical contributions of people who belong to the same social groups
  • Recognizing that every person’s social identity is complex and unique
  • Expressing pride, confidence, and self-esteem without putting down others

Need lesson plan ideas? Some activities that help students articulate and celebrate their social identities in all their complexity include:

  • Researching and creating family trees
  • Sharing recipes for foods and dishes from students’ home cultures
  • Doing arts and crafts that celebrate cultural heritage

2. Develop an Appreciation of Diversity

Diversity means difference. In a pluralistic society like the United States, people from different walks of life must work together to create environments where everyone can thrive. Accordingly, another crucial aspect of social justice is the social skills elementary students need to cultivate to develop into adult citizens who promote and protect a diverse society. 

Key skills that students should develop by the time they graduate elementary school include:

  • Respect for all people—regardless of whether another person or group is similar or different from oneself
  • The ability to learn, play, and collaborate with others even when they are different from us and even when we disagree
  • Curiosity about other people’s lives and experiences
  • The ability to ask questions about people’s social identities and experiences respectfully and listen to others share their experiences in an open, nonjudgmental way

Lesson plan topics educators can rely on to teach elementary school students the skills they need to succeed in a diverse society include:

  • Learning about and sharing historical narratives and stories that highlight the experiences and contributions of important historical figures who belonged to different social groups
  • Exercises and activities that build empathy and respectful curiosity for people with different lived experiences and backgrounds
  • Activities that encourage students to examine diversity in numerous historical and cultural contexts

3. Explore Examples of Social Justice Issues

Another element of social justice is recognizing that injustices exist in our society. Key competencies and skills that elementary school students should learn related to justice include:

  • Understanding what unfairness, prejudice, and oppression look like
  • Understanding what privilege looks like, so that students can recognize how life may be easier for some people and harder for others based on arbitrary social standing
  • Realizing that unfair laws, rules, and behaviors cause real harm to people from marginalized social groups
  • Learning about the actions of people and groups who worked to make our world more just and fair for everyone, such as anti-racism initiatives in schools

Lesson plans that can instill an appreciation for social justice may explore the history of activism in the United States. Students may learn about examples of social justice issues and topics such as the history of the following movements:

  • Civil rights
  • Disability rights 
  • LGBTQ+ rights 

4. Teach Students How to Take Action

Students should learn that addressing social justice issues is all about taking action—whether that’s co-creating a respectful and inclusive learning environment or calling out injustice when we see it.

Key activities that students in elementary school can initiate and take part in include:

  • Paying attention to how other people are treated and making sure that every person is treated with fairness and respect
  • Including people who are different in activities
  • Standing up for oneself and others when we encounter disrespect or unfairness
  • Showing respect even when we disagree with someone else’s words or behavior
  • Respectfully telling someone when their words or actions are biased or hurtful

Lesson plan topics that empower elementary-aged students to take action in promoting social justice include:

  • Role-playing activities that allow students to practice speaking up when they notice unfairness or exclusion on the basis of social identity
  • Teaching students key vocabulary terms—such as ingroup, outgroup, prejudice, and collective action (group action that challenges authority)—which can empower them to advocate for themselves and others
  • Introduce students to contemporary social movements, such as the #MeToo movement, #BlackLivesMatter, or #TakeAKnee 

Give Educators Tools to Teach Social Justice

Social justice issues and topics can be taught to elementary-aged students successfully. Students who learn about social justice are empowered to celebrate their own social identities, respect people who are different, create inclusive spaces, and stand up against injustice.

With the right teaching tools, educators can foster social justice among the next generation of students. Are you ready to take the next step in your career as an educator? American University’s online Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program prepares graduates to teach and support students from diverse backgrounds and promote educational equity. Start pursuing your goals in education with American University.