Igniting a Culture of Learning: From Struggles to Superpowers

youth development Nov 01, 2023
Dr. Sonia Toledo at 2023 Paving the Way to Educations Success Conference

In today's ever-changing educational landscape, it has become increasingly vital for educators to adapt and evolve their teaching methods to meet the diverse needs of their students. Creating a safe and stimulating learning environment is a prerequisite for effective education, especially when it comes to children who may be facing various challenges in their lives. In the 2023 Paving the Way to Educational Success Conference organized by the Center for Schools and Communities, Dr. Sonia Toledo shed light on the importance of embracing a culture of learning that empowers both educators and students.

Dr. Toledo's personal journey through her K-12 education offers a powerful narrative. During this time, she faced the challenge of being diagnosed with a learning disability. However, what stands out is how the educational system primarily focused on her perceived weaknesses, particularly in reading and writing, when compared to her peers. This narrow perspective left Sonia wrestling with her self-confidence and feelings of inadequacy. It is crucial to understand that her story underscores the importance of nurturing an educational environment that empowers young people to embrace a positive attitude towards learning. Instead of fixating on their limitations, we should emphasize their strengths and abilities.

Dr. Toledo is now on a mission to revolutionize educational settings, where children are encouraged to be inquisitive, passionate, and take charge of their own learning journey. She passionately believes that every student, no matter what their struggles, has the potential to turn those very challenges into their own superpower. In this blog post, we will delve into some of the key concepts explored in her enlightening presentation.

Creating a Safe Space

Dr. Toledo began her presentation by emphasizing the significance of creating a safe space for both educators and students. She highlighted the importance of feeling safe and comfortable when sharing ideas and experiences, even if they may be uncomfortable or challenging. This first step, she argued, enables individuals to open and engage in meaningful dialogue, fostering an environment where everyone's voice is heard.

The Fear of Uncomfortable Conversations

Dr. Toledo recognized the fear that often goes with uncomfortable conversations, such as discussing what makes one feel safe or addressing sensitive topics. However, she stressed that pushing through this fear is essential for personal growth and development. By doing so, individuals can learn to engage in authentic and honest dialogue, a skill that is vital for effective communication.

The Implication for Children

The discussion then shifted towards the impact of these principles on children, particularly those who may be experiencing homelessness or in foster care. Dr. Toledo highlighted the importance of understanding that, for many children, their home would be the safest place they have, but not for them. When they lose this sense of safety, it can lead to instability in various aspects of their lives. Therefore, educators play a crucial role in creating a safe space within the classroom to help these children regain their sense of security and support their growth.

The Irony of Safety

Dr. Toledo drew attention to the irony in the conference activity, where many participants said that they felt safe when they were heard, listened to, and seen for who they truly were. She emphasized that this is what students need – to be seen and heard for who they are, to feel safe.

Three Pillars of a Culture of Potential

Dr. Toledo introduced three pillars for creating a culture where everyone, educators, and students alike, feels they have the potential to thrive.

  1. Permission: Students must be given permission to shine and highlight their talents. Dr. Toledo shared a personal anecdote about her son, Christopher, who was initially labeled as having a learning disability. However, when his artistic talent was recognized, it gave him the courage to overcome his first difficulties.
  2. Process: Dr. Toledo advocated for a shift from traditional teaching methods to a student-led learning process. Educators should aim to open the floodgates of learning, allowing students to lead and teach alongside them. This approach fosters an environment where students feel encouraged to explore their interests and talents.
  3. Purpose: Helping students discover what matters to them and their place in the world is essential. This step includes engaging students in conversations about the world's challenges, encouraging them to be curious, and supplying opportunities for exploration.

A Practical Exercise

To further illustrate the learning process, Dr. Toledo conducted a practical exercise with the audience. Attendees were divided into small groups, tasked with identifying challenges and opportunities youth may face in their communities. This hands-on activity encouraged participants to brainstorm, share their perspectives, and collaborate on potential solutions, sparking meaningful dialogue. This activity was intended to have participants experience how student-lead learning process works.

The Learning Map

Dr. Toledo presented a learning map designed to ignite a culture of learning that encompasses growth for both educators and students. The map emphasizes evidence-based practices, trauma-informed care, project-based learning, 21st-century skill building, and social-emotional learning as critical elements of modern education.


Dr. Toledo's presentation underscored the importance of creating a safe and empowering learning environment for both educators and students. By giving students permission to shine, allowing them to lead the learning process, and helping them discover their purpose, we can nurture a culture of potential. Educators play a crucial role in this process, and it is essential to support them in their journey of adapting and evolving to meet the needs of today's diverse students.

As we move forward in education, embracing these principles will lead to more engaged, empowered, and innovative students who are prepared to make a positive impact on their communities and the world.

Education is not merely about imparting knowledge but also about creating an environment where students feel safe and empowered to learn and grow. Dr. Toledo's insights serve as a valuable guide for educators and students on this transformative journey.


SONIA M. TOLEDO, PhD, founded Dignity of Children® in 2008 to develop children and youth holistically and reduce education inequality. She has a PhD in education and 25-plus years of experience building quality after-school programs. She focuses on emotional intelligence training, youth development, and organizational culture change. Dignity of Children® serves after-school programs nationally, providing exceptional child and youth development trainings.


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