Home / Equity  / Addressing Health Disparities in the K-12 System
Photo of two girls, one Latina and one African American, discussing a book in class.

Photo of Delida Sanchez

Assistant Professor Delida Sanchez

Educational Psychology Assistant Professor Delida Sanchez’s research focuses on how racism, particularly perceived discrimination, affects social, emotional, and behavioral health among Black and Latinx populations. Her work shows how cultural strengths can be used to promote resilience. Here, she answers questions about health disparities for underrepresented K-12 students and what educators can do to help.

What kinds of health disparities do you see in the K-12 system?

Underrepresented populations, particularly Black and Latinx youth, face higher rates of psychological distress, such as depression and anxiety, and engage in higher rates of substance use and sexual risk behaviors compared to White youth. Research also shows that youth of color show significantly higher rates of childhood obesity, diabetes, and asthma. These health disparities are, in large part, correlated with poverty, racism, and discrimination. Exposure to these risk factors begin at an early age via poor access to and lack of quality health care, inequities in educational opportunities, poor housing conditions, and an overrepresentation of Blacks and Latinxs in the juvenile justice system. Overall, mental and behavioral health disparities have cascading effects across the life course.

How can those disparities be recognized and assessed by educators or members of the students’ community?

Teachers and counselors are often aware of students’ distress and engagement in risky behaviors. However, they may feel ill-equipped to respond and are not aware of how those symptoms are linked with larger structural and institutional inequities. Recognizing how health disparities are propagated and reinforced is essential for dismantling negative mental and behavioral health outcomes among underrepresented youth.

Educators and other members of the students’ community can also learn about the ways in which lack of access to quality healthcare and educational resources may be contributing to mental and behavioral health problems. For example, U. S. national data indicate that in states that endorse abstinence-only sexual health policies, youth have significantly higher rates of unintended pregnancy and STIs compared to those states with more comprehensive sexual health education. Considering how certain laws may be inhibiting efforts to reduce negative sexual health outcomes is important.

Next, educators need to be aware of how educational policies may be contributing to unfair targeting of underrepresented children, such as harsher punishment for age-appropriate misbehaviors. These can include suspensions for talking back to teachers, not following a dress code, or tardiness—all of which are part of normal child development. In fact, until September 2015, Texas had a long-standing law that sent students as young as 12 and their parents to criminal court, and sometimes jail, for being late or missing school. A child could be considered tardy for being just two minutes late, despite attending school daily. Unfair criminalization of normal behaviors exposes youth of color to the criminal justice system at a very early age.

Teachers and the community can collaborate to raise consciousness about young people’s health needs. Together, they can strategize how to support youth who may be experiencing mental and behavioral symptoms. That collaboration is central to mobilizing change.

What helps underrepresented children overcome these disparities?

Findings from my research have shown that there are differences in racial and ethnic identity development and discrimination among diverse Black and Latinx populations. This suggests that it is important to understand the racial/ethnic histories among Black and Latinx subgroups and how differences in those histories are linked to mental and behavioral health outcomes.

We’ve also uncovered a direct link between perceived discrimination and substance use and sexual risk behaviors. There’s even an indirect link via psychological distress, peer influence and certain Latina/o gender role attitudes. However, certain culture-specific values (such as an emphasis on collectivism within one’s community, familism, and spirituality that have been found to prevent negative behavioral health outcomes.

Qualitative findings suggest distinct cultural and relational contexts of identity development in African American and Mexican American girls. Attitudes and behaviors toward dating and sex seem to differentially affect sexual health. For example, among African American girls, themes of colorism and negative sexual stereotypes were factors in ethnic identity development, and egalitarian gender roles were associated with positive attitudes toward dating and sex. Among Mexican American girls, themes of language and acculturation were salient factors in ethnic identity development, and traditional patriarchal gender expectations were associated with negative attitudes toward dating and sex. Although there were no ethnic group differences in sexual behaviors between African American and Mexican American girls, findings suggest that sexual prevention and interventions should be culturally tailored.

What are you currently researching?

My most recent studies extend the examination of perceived discrimination and mental and behavioral health disparities to include preadolescent Latino males—a severely understudied ethnic and developmental demographic. I’m excited about what we’ll find based on this new research. It will be crucial for educators and communities to enhance cultural responsiveness to this underrepresented population.

Photo by Christina S. Murrey