Schools have the power to transform the lives of marginalized and minoritized students, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGTBQ+) youth. As students return to school this fall, especially in the midst of hostile anti-LGBTQ+ policies, it is important now more than ever that LGBTQ+ students have access to a supportive and inclusive school climate with positive peer and teacher relationships.
It is important for all youth to have access to a safe and inclusive school climate, regardless of their identities. Yet, data from Search Institute’s Resilience Through Strengths project shows that compared to heterosexual youth, LGBTQ+ youth report fewer social, family, school, and community assets, as well as lower caring from teachers and program leaders. Additionally, LGBTQ+ youth report higher levels of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) compared to heterosexual youth.
Positive identity refers to youths’ self-worth, sense of purpose, and sense of control over their lives. In our data sample, LGBTQ+ youth reported less positive identity than heterosexual youth. Why is this finding meaningful? The development of a positive identity in adolescence has implications for mental health and wellbeing across the lifespan. Young people’s developmental relationships and developmental assets–such as perceptions of their school environment and teachers as supportive and inclusive– help to shape their development of a positive identity. Using Search Institute data collected among high school students, we found that a greater sense of inclusion at school, greater school assets, and greater feelings that youth mattered to teachers and program leaders were all related to higher positive identity among all youth.
For LGBTQ+ young people, the development of a positive identity can be thwarted by factors across contexts, such as negative policy environments, discrimination from peers and adults, and a lack of inclusion at school. We wanted to know whether a supportive school climate had a stronger impact on positive identity for LGBTQ+ youth than for heterosexual youth. Interestingly, we found that a supportive school climate had a similar relationship to positive identity across both LGBTQ+ and heterosexual youth. Essentially, a supportive climate is equally important for all youth in terms of their positive identity development.
Given that LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to report lower developmental assets, it is still crucial that we take steps to make LGBTQ+ students feel included and supported. .
School should be a place where all youth feel safe and have the capacity to thrive, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity. Strong, supportive developmental relationships, such as those between students and teachers, show LGBTQ+ youth that they matter and create a more inclusive school climate for all.