Microaggressions and Microinterventions in the Classroom

Heather H. Miller, B.A. and Kayla Miskimon, B.S.

What are microaggressions?

Microaggressions refer to brief, commonplace behavioral, verbal, and environmental insensitivities by potentially well-meaning individuals that communicate hostile or negative attitudes and insults to individuals of marginalized groups (Sue et al., 2007).

According to Sue et al. (2007), there are three types of microaggressions:

  • Microinsults: communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person’s identity.
  • Microassaults: verbal or nonverbal attacks meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior, or purposeful discriminatory actions.
  • Microinvalidations: communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of persons belonging to minority groups.

Microaggressions vary from everyday rudeness to slanderous acts and communicate to members of minority groups that their status has been degraded to that of a second-class citizen (Sue et al., 2019). Microaggressions may appear harmless, but over the course of time can inflict feelings of shame and degradation on the target (Yosso et al., 2009).

Who is impacted by microaggressions?

Microaggressions can be experienced in a number of ways based on family structure, social class, race, sexuality, gender, ability and disability, religion, appearance, and size (Compton-Lilly, 2020; Sue, 2010; Wintner et al., 2017). Microaggressions in the classroom can occur between students or between school personnel and students and can impact the target, aggressor, and bystanders by leaving those exposed to the incident feeling less at ease within their school community (Wintner et al., 2017). Examples of microaggressions between students include the use of phrases such as “that’s so gay” in response to something a student has said or done, telling a fellow student that they would look pretty if they lost weight, or asking a student to touch their hair (Clay, 2017). Examples of microaggressions between school personnel and students include assigning a student a task or role based on gender role expectations (i.e., assigning cleaning tasks only to female students), continuously failing to pronounce or learn the proper pronunciation of a student’s name, or scheduling due dates for assignments on cultural or religious holidays (Murray, 2020)

Why are microaggressions problematic?

Students who experience microaggressions are at risk for a number of negative outcomes. Research suggests that students who experience microaggressions have elevated levels of anger, stress, and anxiety (Huynh, 2012). The students are also likely to exhibit post-traumatic stress symptoms and are more likely to engage in risky behaviors (e.g., drug and alcohol use, sexual activity, involvement in fights) as a means to cope with these symptoms (Flores et al., 2010). Microaggressions can also impair students’ academic performance. Research has found that teachers are more likely to perceive their classes as too difficult for students of color, which is problematic because when students are underestimated by their teachers, they tend to internalize these low expectations and have lower achievement (Cherng, 2017).

What can educators do?

Microinterventions are unintentional or intentional words or deeds that validate the targets’ experiences, affirms their racial identity, and offers encouragement, support, and reassurance that the target is not alone (Sue et al., 2019).

Implementing microinterventions in the classroom:

  • Use microaffirmations. Microaffirmations are small acts that foster inclusion and support for individuals who may feel isolated or invisible in an environment (Rowe, 2008). Examples of microaffirmations include rewarding positive behaviors, creating lesson plans that are culturally inclusive, and using positive words even when correcting students’ work or behavior (Samuels et al., 2020).
  • Set high expectations for all students. Making comments along the lines of “You are all extremely intelligent and capable students” and “I am confident that you are all going to succeed” can go a long way.
  • Validate students’ feelings and experiences. Make it clear to the student that you recognize and understand the challenge of the experience, and that you are willing to help them come up with productive strategies for addressing it (Powell et al., 2019).  
  • Talk it out. If you witness a microaggression occur in the classroom, do not be afraid to talk about it. Explore the incident with the student who committed the microaggression and seek to understand the intentions behind their behavior. You can also use this time to educate the student by explaining to them why their behavior was offensive (Sue et al., 2019).


Additional resources:

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