Natalie Randolph and Diana Parente

Understanding Intersectionality and Trauma: Establishing Healthy Social and Emotional Learning Environments in Athletics


By Natalie Randolph and Diana Parente

Being part of a sports program during the formative years allows students to learn important life lessons. Student athletes can learn social awareness skills through Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). As defined by CASEL (2020), “Social and emotional learning enhances students’ capacity to integrate skills, attitudes, and behaviors to deal effectively and ethically with daily tasks and challenges.”[1] Within athletics, key SEL competencies are the development of self-awareness, emotional management, and effective decision making. These skills require an understanding of students’ unique identities and experiences and the influence of external social stimuli. As educators within athletics, to facilitate effective SEL experiences and programs, we too must consider the unique experiences and identities of our students. This mission requires an understanding of the roles that intersectionality and trauma play within our athletic department practices, which is essential because participation in athletics improves the well-being of all.


What is Intersectionality and why is intersectionality pivotal in SEL?


We all have multiple identity markers, such as gender, race, culture, and class. Human beings are complex, and the complexities of identity must be considered when making education policy decisions. The convergence of two or more identity markers, along with the forms of inequality or discrimination that exist for persons with these identities, is known as intersectionality. When creating policies for athletic departments, intersectionality must be at the front of our minds to foster a learning environment that supports social and emotional learning. If educators fail to address intersectionality, it becomes impossible for our students to be their true selves. This is described by Love (2019) “When teachers shy away from intersectionality, they shy away from ever fully knowing their students' humanity and the richness of their identities. Mattering cannot happen if identities are isolated and students cannot be their full selves.” (Love, 2019, p.7)


If our goal as an athletic department is for students athletes to achieve the benefits of self-awareness, emotional management, confidence, and effective decision making through athletic participation, then all our policies and decisions must account for intersectionality to ensure we are meeting the needs of our student athletes’ complex identities.


An Example: Intersectionality and Title IX

Many of the current policies that drive athletic departments fail to address intersectionality. An example of this is the way that secondary schools and districts determine Title IX compliance. The purpose of Title IX was to provide gender equity within education and athletic participation. Today, compliance is most commonly determined by comparison of the proportion of enrollment and athletic participation by gender. The proportion of female students enrolled should be similar to the proportion of female participation in athletics. Any break between enrollment and athletic participation is considered a “gap.”[2] An acceptable difference in enrollment and participation proportion is less than 10 percentage points, as described by the National Women’s Law Center in 2015. Athletic directors around the country are using this metric to evaluate their program to determine if their school or district data meet the policy's gender equity standard.


The problem with the above policy structure is that program equity is solely determined by gender and does not consider the intersection of race. It assumes that the experiences of female athletes are neutral within the education system. Macedo (2000) “asserts that educators must understand that education is never neutral.” Focusing solely on enrollment and participation proportion based on gender can give the illusion that an athletic program is equitable if the proportion is similar. However, upon examining race along with gender, one may find that female athletes of color are participating at much lower rates than their white counterparts, as described in the report Finishing Last: Girls of color and school sport opportunities,[3] (NWLC, 2015) The failure to address intersectionality within Title IX athletic compliance has left girls of color invisible and missing out on the benefits that athletic participation brings, which include a greater social and emotional awareness.


Recognizing and understanding the effects of trauma are essential in athletics:

There has been a recent focus in the effects of trauma on educational outcomes of students and the benefits of social and emotional learning strategies and routines on the healing process. The athletic space is no different. Just as students come to their classrooms with the effects of trauma, so do they come to our athletic programs. Childhood trauma or an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), as described by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is any potentially traumatic event that occurs in childhood before 17 years of age. These events include violence and witnessing violence, abuse, neglect, and aspects of an environment that undermine a sense of safety, stability, and bonding. [4] The CDC also finds that children who have experienced more ACEs have dramatically higher rates of negative health outcomes.[5]


In addition to the connection between trauma and health, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris finds that there is a significant relationship between the experience of trauma and the presence of learning and behavioral issues in children.[6] Further, our current social climate, the focus on racial injustices[7], and our continued struggles with the coronavirus pandemic[8], only serve to increase the levels of stress and trauma. Simply put, childhood trauma has a major effect on educational outcomes.


Athletic spaces have long been seen as environments within which children can escape and release energy. However, as within academic spaces, trauma can adversely affect learning and behavior. It is for this reason that we must recognize the effect of trauma on students when incorporating social and emotional learning strategies within our athletic practice and when developing policies around these practices.


As athletic administrators and policy makers, our role lies in providing training for practitioners in trauma-informed practices. Much of our required training for coaches is focused on physical health, with courses in concussion awareness, heat illness, and injury prevention. Given the findings described in the sources above, it is clear that trauma plays a large role in the educational experience of a child. Therefore, training in this area is essential and should also be required. Consider situations where coaches are motivated to model and teach “good behavior” and “sportsmanship,” and an athlete’s failure to meet those expectations results in disciplinary action that involves punishment or suspension. If the behavior is a result of an ACE, suspension would remove that child from the very activity that aims to provide SEL and, therefore, the much-needed strategies for coping with that trauma. In addition to her research that establishes the connection between ACEs and learning and behavioral outcomes, Dr. Burke Harris asserts in her book, The Deepest Well (2018), that some of our traditional disciplinary practices may indeed be harmful and that recognition of the impact of trauma and trauma-informed practices are effective solutions. During this current time of hypervisibility, we are all affected by the daily flow of images, stories, and videos of the worst in our society. On top of the traumatic experiences a student may have already had, the year 2020 has added insult to injury.


As we consider intersectionality and the effects of trauma within athletics, it is important to intentionally evaluate our programs, practices, and policies to ensure maximum benefit for the students we serve. As suggested by Shahjahan (2014), it is necessary to pause and reflect on our practice in order to interrupt some of the ways of being and doing that can be counterproductive.[9] Pausing is essential to acquiring knowledge, both from our practice and from examining new research information. Athletic directors must create educational opportunities for our coaches and practitioners that address both intersectionality and trauma, which play a significant role in the educational experience of a child. When considering these two factors within our practice as athletic administrators, the question we must ask is not why we should examine intersectionality and trauma-informed practice, but how can we not?




Natalie Randolph began her tenure as the director of Equity, Justice & Community (EJC) at Sidwell Friends, Washington, D.C., in July 2019. She served as the senior women’s administrator and Title IX coordinator at the D.C. State Athletic Association from 2016 to 2019. Prior to this work, she was an educator with District of Columbia Public Schools for 11 years, teaching environmental science, biology, and physical science. During her tenure with the District of Columbia Public Schools, she also served one of the first female head football coaches in the country at Calvin Coolidge High School.


Diana Parente started her career in 2004 as a social studies teacher and girls varsity soccer coach with New York City Public Schools. She transitioned from the classroom to the Director of Title IX for New York City Department of Education's Public School Athletic League (PSAL) in 2012. As the Director of Title IX, she oversaw athletic compliance and focused on increasing female athletic participation for the league. After two years as the Director of Title IX, she was promoted to the Deputy Director position (PSAL), overseeing the district's 56,000 student athletes. 


After 12 years working with New York City Public Schools, Parente became the Executive Director of Athletics for the District of Columbia Public Schools. In this role she oversaw all 115 schools within the district and managed all aspects of athletic operations. Currently, she is the Director of Athletics for Flint Hill School in Oakton, Va. 







[6] Burke et al. “The Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences on an Urban Pediatric Population” Childhood Abuse & Neglect Vol. 35, no. 6, 2011, pp. 408-413. Science Direct,

[7] David R. Williams & Ruth Williams-Morris (2000) Racism and Mental Health: The African American experience, Ethnicity & Health, 5:3-4, 243-268, DOI: 10.1080/713667453


[9] Patel, L. (2015). Decolonizing educational research: From ownership to answerability. Routledge. (Forward and Intro)