Equity Considerations for Social and Emotional Learning

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by Mandi Bozarth and Isaiah McGee

During the past several years, Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) has grown as a topic of educational programming and planning. Evidence shows us that implementing SEL can result in improvements to classroom academic success and school culture and climate. As we return to class this fall, many districts and buildings are considering a new emphasis on SEL practices as early as the first weeks of school to support students who have experienced disruptions to their education due to the pandemic. With the growth of SEL programming and implementation, we are also aware of challenges some systems face when SEL is implemented without considering equity. If implemented in a color evasive way, without considering differences in the experiences of students of color or without taking into account the impacts of implicit racial bias, SEL can have negative impacts on marginalized student populations.

It is key that districts and buildings understand what SEL is and approach SEL programming with an equity lens. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), defines SEL as “how children and adults learn to understand and manage emotions, set goals, show empathy for others, establish positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

Research suggests that SEL approaches can:

  • increase student achievement on standardized test scores;
  • improve attitudes toward school;
  • reduce behavior classified as aggressive and disruptive;
  • and limit occurrences of depression, anxiety, stress, and social withdrawal.

Alignment with equity

In their resource, Natural Opportunities to Promote Social-Emotional Learning and MH, the The Center for Mental Health in Schools & Student/Learning Supports at UCLA (The Center) posits a series of questions to consider when implementing SEL. We have highlighted three of these here that provide ways to examine how equity is aligned to SEL implementation:

  • Is instruction carried out in ways that strengthen or hinder development of interpersonal skills and connections and student understanding of self and others?
  • Are interpersonal conflicts mainly suppressed or are they used as learning opportunities?
  • Are roles provided for all students to be positive helpers throughout the school and community?

We also encourage you to ask the following questions we have crafted that specifically address race:

  • Is instruction carried out in ways that strengthen or hinder development of interpersonal skills and connections with students of color? Is instruction carried out in ways that strengthens or hinders students’ understanding of self and others and celebrates the differences and strengths of students?
  • Are conflicts around race mainly suppressed? How are students of color treated when the idea of race is brought into a conflict or discussion? Are student feelings validated? What are you doing to create a sense of belonging and safety with your SEL programming?
  • Are roles provided for students of color to be positive helpers and leaders throughout the school and community?

In order to attend to conflicts that can arise when SEL is implemented, it is important to examine your school culture and climate and work towards creating a space where conflict and resolution can happen safely for students and adults.

For teachers and education leaders, there are a few essential considerations.

  • Ensure that you approach understanding your students by looking for strengths. Often our society and systems are steeped in deficit-thinking and looking for what students need based on what we ourselves believe they need — many times what we think they don’t have. A solid SEL implementation considers the strengths students and families bring and looks to students to help identify what they need to succeed.
  • It is important to collaborate with students to co-create definitions for behaviors and competencies; a shared language and a shared understanding not only ensures you are on the same page, it also allows you and your students insight into what you all need.

Viewing SEL through a lens of equity is more than adopting and utilizing programming aimed at students. Implemented carefully, SEL can present an opportunity to explore how a school or district supports its staff, faculty, leaders, and students to learn together and co-create a system where each and every person has value and learns together.

*This post was originally posted on West Wind’s Educational Equity Resources Portal.

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