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“Have You Talked to Him?” Interrogating Adults’ Reactions to Children

I distinctly remember coming across Joaquin’s Dilemma, by Pedro Noguera, when I was a special education teacher in Miami-Dade County Public Schools. I was struck by the title of his analysis of the racialization of school-related behaviors. It was the first time I read an academic who wrote so candidly about being a father. Joaquin was Noguera’s teenaged son. A few years later, as part of a doctoral seminar, I read Beth Harry’s memoir, Melanie, Bird with a Broken Wing: A Mother’s Story. With utmost vulnerability, Harry revisited the years she advocated for her daughter while making sense of mothering a child with cerebral palsy.

I was a mother of two elementary school students when I first learned of these education researchers who, like me, are of Caribbean ancestry. It left an indelible impression to read the connections they made between their commitment to broadening access to high-quality education for all students and their embodied experiences as parents of minoritized children.

In my scholarship, I have included autoethnographic tracings—even referencing my parents’ and grandparents’ childhoods—to situate my philosophical orientations to equity research and education. This blog, however, is the first time I write about my children’s schooling. When I learned of the Spring 2019 theme, “Understanding adult interpretations and reactions to children’s behaviors,” I reflected on my family’s recent transition from South Florida to Arizona.My daughter, Leah, is a sophomore in high school, and my son, Nathan Jr., is in eighth grade. They are presently enrolled in schools with international curricula that include topics like ableism, intersectionality, community engagement, and the value of speaking multiple languages. The teachers are dedicated to their profession, and my kids find the academic activities thought-provoking. Nonetheless, we are no longer in a space where the majority of teachers have familial ties to Latin America, the Caribbean, or are of African descent. Today, almost all of their teachers are white.

My son has especially drawn the attention of his middle school teachers. While the majority of my daughter’s high school classmates are students of Color, my son often reminds us that he is “one of four Black boys in the entire building.”  Since moving to Arizona in 2017, I received more teacher communications about Nathan’s behavior than in all the seven years he went to public schools in Miami Dade County. The first of these communications was from a teacher who expressed concern about his reticence in class. Usually, children who are quiet are thought of us as shy or may even go under their teachers’ radar. My son’s silence, for some reason, drew his teacher’s attention. “He seems solemn when he comes in,” she communicated via e-mail.

When my son and I met with his teacher, she elaborated on her observations. In response to her concern, I asked, “Have you talked to him? Do you know we recently moved from another state?” She answered, “no.” I was struck by the fact that she was making judgements about his state of mind—even going as far as suggesting counseling—without ever initiating a conversation with him. The tone of the meeting shifted once I asked those two questions. It nonetheless marked the beginning of a series of exchanges with teachers who found his classroom contributions insightful but his behavior, demeanor, and affect problematic. One teacher even suggested that my son was responsible for other students’ behaviors in his class. “It’s obvious that all of the kids look up to him,” he explained. “They all think he’s cool and follow his lead.”

My research on intersectional competence—that is, teachers understanding of how individuals’ multiple sociocultural markers intersect in nuanced and complex ways—focuses on how professional and sociocultural identities are entangled with teachers’ preparedness to meet the needs of intersectionally diverse students. As such, I have long understood the demographic divide between students and teachers in the United States and its implication for the sociocultural construction of student behavior. Admittedly, my family’s geographic location provided us a cushion from this issue because a substantial number of educators in Miami-Dade County embody experiences similar to ours. In our move to the Southwest, we must now navigate schools in ways familiar to many non-white families.

The contrast between the surveillance Nathan Jr. experiences in Arizona compared to the schools he attended in South Florida reinforces the race-place nexus. Like Trayvon Martin, my children and I attended schools in a predominantly Black community called Miami Gardens. Given the precarity Martin experienced when visiting his father in Central Florida, my husband and I have explicit discussions with our children about the hypervisibility of their racialized and gendered bodies in this new context.

In sharing my narrative, I highlight the insights parents of minoritized students provide about how educators interpret students’ actions. It is not enough to know the meaning of intersectionality or to teach about social justiceas my son’s teachers aptly do. Educators must also monitor the assumptions they make about their students. As I encouraged my son’s teacher to speak with him if she wanted to understand his silence, it is critical to highlight the insights children—across ages and abilities—have about the sociocultural construction of behavior.

Carla Shalaby’s Troublemakers offers lessons from the perspectives of first and second graders. She centers the experience of four children identified as having behavioral challenges and explores how their classmates, parents, and teachers respond to them. Shalaby notes that classmates made judgments informed just as much by the children’s activities as by the signals teachers gave about how to respond to racial, class, and ability differences. Her research, along with research conducted by and for minoritized youth, underscores that a “problem child” in one place, may go completely unnoticed in another.


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Harry, B. (2008). Melanie, bird with a broken wingA mother’s story. New York: Paul H. Brookes.

Noguera, P. (2008). The trouble with Black boys . . . and other reflections on race, equity, and the future of public education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Rodriguez, L. F., & Conchas, G. Q. (2009). Preventing truancy and dropout among urban middle school youth: Understanding community-based action from the student’s perspective. Education and Urban Society, 41, 216–247.

Author biography

Mildred Boveda is an assistant professor of special education and cultural and linguistic diversity at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. In her scholarship, she uses the term “intersectional competence” to describe teachers' understanding of diversity and how students, families, and colleagues have multiple sociocultural markers that intersect in complex and nuanced ways. She designed the Intersectional Competence Measure to assess teachers’ preparedness for an increasingly diverse student population. Her research focuses on establishing the theoretical and empirical evidence of validity of the intersectional competence construct. Drawing from Black feminist theory and collaborative teacher education research, she interrogates how differences are framed across education communities to influence education policy and practice. Professor Boveda started her career as a special education teacher in Miami Dade County Public Schools. She engages in various professional activities that allow her to examine the research, practice, and policies involved with educating students with diverse needs. She is currently the immediate past president of the Division for Diverse and Exceptional Learners of the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) and the chair of the Diversity Caucus for the Teacher Education Division of CEC.

Blog topic: The sociocultural construction of “problem” behavior: Understanding adult interpretations and reactions to children’s behaviors