What Purpose Does Your Dress Code Serve? Why Inclusive School Policies Matter
When Tvli Birdshead, a senior at an Oklahoma high school was denied the freedom to wear his Native American regalia to graduation this spring, he decided to fight back. After all, the clothing is considered a cultural rite of passage in his tribes and family. Kudos to his mother and the ACLU for not letting this case be swept under the rug.
“It’s against the dress code” is one of those answers we are often told to accept at face value. Students are often told their attire is “inappropriate,” and that this is a matter of self-discipline and character, even being sent home on the basis that what they are wearing is disrespectful. But we rarely question what purpose these rules serve, who these rules exclude, and how these rules impact students’ mental and emotional well-being. It’s high time we start.
Dress codes like this are abundant and are too often used to promote race and sex discrimination, sending the message that students who come from diverse backgrounds do not belong in school, that their cultural backgrounds are to be left outside of their educational experiences, and that they must conform to dominant (mostly White) cultural expectations in order to succeed in school.
These policies directly undermine the work that many district and school leaders are doing to advance what’s called social-emotional learning, which focuses on teaching students how to regulate their behavior and emotions (known as self-management) and positive mindsets (such as self-efficacy, the belief in one’s ability to achieve goals and succeed at tasks). There is mounting evidence that social-emotional learning has positive effects on academics, well-being, and career outcomes. But when schools don’t create the safe and supportive learning environments that students need (i.e., ones that don’t discriminate based on race, culture, sexual orientation and/or gender), those efforts to teach social emotional skills and mindsets are likely to be wasted. It is therefore imperative that schools revisit a wide range of policies, such as dress codes, that often further marginalize students.
There are a number of scholars who insist that we must use a racial equity lens to ensure that social-emotional learning does not harm students of color, students from low-income families, and immigrant youth. There are also some ill-informed arguments that we must not “settle” for inclusivity and instead should focus on teaching character and self-discipline. This argument is misguided. Inclusivity is not settling; it is necessary to create schools that work for the racially and culturally diverse students in this country — with school systems that help all students to grow socially, emotionally, and academically. Not only does the research show the importance of ensuring students — especially students from historically marginalized backgrounds — feel that they belong in school, but that such students are often sent messages that they don’t belong through exclusionary discipline policies and codes of conduct based in Eurocentric ideas of how to behave. Merely focusing on teaching students to “behave better” will not get at the systemic injustices that punish students for behavior that is culturally appropriate according to their experiences and backgrounds.
And in fact, without careful attention to knocking down systemic barriers to inclusivity in schools, efforts to promote social-emotional learning in individual students could do more harm than good. Discriminatory policies in schools have a direct impact on the social and emotional well-being of students. When school administrations unjustly discriminate against students, yet adopt behavioral interventions meant to teach students to manage their emotions and behaviors, they are sending harmful messages that students are responsible for systemic injustices. When school systems exclude students who don’t conform to dominant cultural norms, they are failing to encourage students to believe in their abilities to achieve goals and succeed at tasks.
“Wearing these things is acknowledging that this is the step to a higher education,” told the local news. “Wearing these things just have a whole different meaning to me.” If the dress code policy is hindering this symbolic connection and recognition of achievement, it is doing a disservice to the students involved. Teaching students the social-emotional skills that are shown to have positive impacts, such as self-management and self-efficacy, will only work if schools are providing safe, equitable, culturally sustaining learning environments where all students are accepted, engaged, celebrated, and have the opportunity to thrive.
So no, inclusivity isn’t something to settle for; it’s what we must first address if social-emotional learning is to benefit all students. Inclusivity is the foundation upon which pedagogy, curriculum choices, discipline policies, community engagement, and other educational decisions must be made, and will in turn ensure we are not settling for teaching students to self-discipline and assimilate, but instead creating safe learning environments were all students are accepted, engaged, celebrated, and have the opportunity to thrive in schools.