Young teacher talking with teenager students seating in a circle at school

Facilitating Bridging Discussions

Educators will reflect on, and learn tips about, how to best engage in “bridging differences” discussions about justice and equity in the classroom.

Level: Middle School, High School, Adult
Duration: Multiple Sessions
My Notes: Add/Edit Notes

Planning For It

When You Might Use This Practice

  • To build a positive classroom climate at the beginning of the year
  • To cultivate strong relationships between students
  • To establish a deeper sense of accountability to the classroom community
  • To help students understand and process when a social or ethical dilemma from the classroom, school, or greater community arises


Time Required

  • ≤ 1 hour



  • None


Learning Objectives

Educators will:

  • Reflect on their motivations and apprehensions for engaging in practices that support bridging difference and understanding and pursuing justice in their classrooms
  • Prepare for engaging in these practices by considering supports, norms, structures, and sequencing that will best enable student learning
  • Review important definitions related to justice, equity, and bridge building
  • Learn methods for handling difficult conversations in the classroom



  • Middle School
  • High School
  • Adult


Additional Supports


Character Strengths

  • Humanity
  • Justice


Mindfulness Components

  • Focused attention
  • Open Awareness
  • Non-judgment


SEL Competencies

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness
  • Relationship skills
  • Responsible decision-making

How To Do It

Reflection Before the Practice

  • Take a moment to reflect on your own comfort and skills as well as your classroom environment and student skill-level for bridging differences. Use the following questions to help you prepare to engage in these practices.
    • What are your motivations for engaging in practices that encourage bridging differences and understanding and pursuing justice? Why is this work important to you?
    • What is your comfort level? Have you had any practice facilitating these types of discussions with your students or colleagues?
    • What are your hesitations or worries for engaging in practices that encourage bridging differences, and understanding and pursuing justice?
    • With whom in your support system—in and out of school—can you discuss this work?
    • What is your perceived understanding of your students’ skills, comfort, and motivation to engage in this work?


Preparing Your Classroom

  • Norms: Create or use established classroom norms as a basis of trust and respect in your classroom.
    • If norms are used effectively, they can support trust and relationship-building and make discussing complex topics less challenging for students and educators.
    • Norms can also be used to redirect students and help educators during difficult moments in the classroom to maintain accountability and trust in the classroom.
    • If you already have established classroom norms, review them for cultural relevance and inclusivity.
  • Educator Support: Consider your support in and out of school before you engage in this work.
    • Coordinate with other staff such as counselors and administrators so that you’re supported before participating in potentially difficult conversations.
    • Feeling connected to others is considered to be a fundamental psychological need, so it’s important for teachers to experience a sense of connectedness at school—just as much as students. In fact, studies indicate that teachers’ view of their school climate can be linked to their job satisfaction and self-efficacy in the classroom.
    • Consider practicing leading these conversations with other educators before doing it in real time with students.
  • Sequencing: The sequence you choose when using these practices is your choice! Think about your classroom needs, including what will be most engaging, relevant, and impactful for your students.
  • Student Support: Identify student supports, such as the school counselor or social worker, parents/caregivers, and mentors, within the school system that you can refer and connect your students to when they need support processing these practices.
    • Consider engaging in light rapport-building activities in advance of these practices, such as I See You. Everyone Matters. or 1-2-3 Clap, to build classroom community and connection.
      Engaging in difficult conversations requires energy and emotional capital. Giving students options, agency, and space, such as allowing students to self-select to take a break to recover, is important. Consider adding in ‘brain breaks’ after practices to help students transition out of the lesson as well.
  • Adapting Practices: You know your classroom community best. To make practices engaging and relevant for your classroom, adapt lessons as needed, especially for unique communities and circumstances.


Important Definitions

Through these practices, students will engage in the following terms related to bridging differences and pursuing justice. Oftentimes conflict with others who seem different from us or who hold different opinions is caused by a misunderstanding of terms and definitions. In other words, language. Hence, it is important for both you and your students to understand the terms listed below that are used in the practices when engaging in this work.

  • Justice: “fairness in the way people are dealt with.”
    • Justice is both the action taken toward creating and the end result of an environment of respect where all people can flourish. For example, see the disparity by race in school suspensions.
  • Equity: the situation in which everyone is treated fairly according to their needs.
    • Equity is the guarantee of accessibility and opportunity for all. For example, offer curricula that provide opportunities for students to see themselves reflected in the material and develop their racial and cultural identities.
  • Stereotypes: A stereotype is a widely held and simplified belief about a specific group.
    • Groups are often stereotyped on the basis of sex, gender identity, geography, race and ethnicity, nationality, age, socioeconomic status, language, and so forth. For example, the color blue is for boys and the color pink is for girls.
  • Implicit bias: Implicit bias involves automatic or unintentional attitudes, behaviors, and actions that are prejudiced in favor of or against one person or group compared to another.
    • Sometimes implicit bias can lead to discrimination, even when people feel they are being fair. For example, someone with implicit bias who is unintentionally influenced by the stereotype that young people are lazy and don’t care about politics would not reach out to them to register to vote.

Managing Difficult Conversations

Bridging differences and discussing equity and justice can lead to difficult, vulnerable, or uncomfortable moments in your classroom. While allowing students to share their beliefs openly, it is important to recognize when a comment is harmful to others or interferes with the protocol or safety of the classroom environment.

It is also important to make a plan to say this in advance of discussions in anticipation of difficult moments occurring, and repeating this preface often to clarify expectations. Furthermore, it’s important to recognize if you don’t have the resources or preparation to facilitate a given conversation. Consider taking small steps and having short conversations to begin so there is a build up of success and practice before more intense topics and lengthy discussions are planned.

At the same time, make a commitment to grow in your skills so that you can ensure that the perspectives of marginalized groups are heard. The inequities that marginalized people experience can be invisible to those who don’t experience them. What’s more, when they share their experiences, their peers can receive these perspectives with disbelief or defensiveness. While these conversations can be difficult to facilitate, they are essential to prepare for and have so that all voices–especially those that have been stifled historically–are welcomed and respected. You can seek out the support of trusted colleagues to build your skills and competence to navigate these important discussions.

Follow the tips in this handout to help you prioritize maintaining a brave, safe space and student well-being while challenging students to identify, unpack, and confront biases and stereotypes as well as seek justice.


Making Caring Common, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Reflection After the Practice

  • Do you notice whether your comfort level for engaging in these discussions has shifted after using these supports? What concerns or worries do you still have? Are there further resources or people with whom you can connect to discuss your concerns?
  • Have your views and or beliefs about justice and equity changed as a result of engaging in these discussions? If so, in what ways?
  • Are you engaging in more conversations about justice and equity with students and/or colleagues? Do you notice a change in how you interact with students and/or other staff members, or in how they interact with each other?

The Research Behind It

Evidence That It Works

Teens need support in building their skills to participate in solving problems within existing structures within society. They also need to learn how to recognize when these societal structures perpetuate inequities and how to take collective action to foster justice.

Researchers compared two different high school programs in the United States where students learned about democracy and citizenship. One program focused on participatory citizenship in an East Coast suburban/rural high school (almost all students were European Americans). The other program focused on justice-oriented citizenship in a West Coast urban high school (38% African American, 38% Asian or Pacific Islander, 5% Latino, 5% White, 10% Other; 40% lived in public housing).

The results? Both programs were successful in achieving each of their goals, but also had different outcomes based on their priorities. Compared to before each of the programs, teens in both groups followed the news more frequently, felt greater civic efficacy, and supported greater government responsibility for those in need after completing the programs.

Teens in the participatory citizenship program also felt greater personal responsibility to help others and greater leadership efficacy following the program. They also had a clearer vision of what to do for their community, and had greater knowledge of the skills needed for community development. What’s more, teens in the justice-oriented citizenship program also had greater understanding between structural and individual explanations for poverty, and greater interest in politics following the program.

The researchers highlighted that teens benefit from both types of program priorities–nurturing participation and cultivating the ability to analyze the underlying structural biases that lead to injustice–because focusing on promoting one does not guarantee the other will be fostered automatically in teens as well.


Why Does It Matter?

Equity and justice involve basic human rights for all people, but the majority of children across the world are living with inequity and injustice. What’s more, these unfair realities affect not just the development of children from marginalized identities because privileged children bear witness and are influenced by the existence of inequity and injustice, as well. In many cases, privilege is derived from exploiting children and communities from particular identities, which have negative ripple effects on entire societies.

“When you get these jobs you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”
–Toni Morrison
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