An increasing amount of attention has been given to prioritizing social and emotional learning (SEL) in the school environment over the past several years. There is growing evidence that implementing SEL can result in improvements to classroom academic success and school culture and climate.

Student interacting with teacher practicing sign language.

Yet, as more and more districts integrate SEL programming into their systems, challenges are emerging. In particular, when implemented without proper and deliberate considerations of equity, many schools are encountering negative impacts of SEL programming on certain marginalized student populations, particularly students of color.

Given the trauma students experienced with the disruption to schooling due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the potential disruptions for the fall, school districts can anticipate that students will enter the year with some anxieties about anticipated experiences and uncertainties. For example, students may enter school with concerns about any school time or content they may have missed. For many students, we may also see challenges to re-engaging in the school environment that could result in conflict with school staff and peers.

To support students and teachers returning to class, many districts and buildings are considering a new emphasis on SEL practices even as early as the first few weeks of school. In anticipation of that reality, we seek to center equity and race in the definition of SEL and review the benefit of successful equity-focused implementation.

What is Defining Social Emotional Learning

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.” CASEL’s framing of SEL establishes five core competencies that include self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

According to research by Elias and Weissberg, when implemented correctly, SEL programming significantly increases social and emotional skills, positive attitudes toward oneself and others, and kind, pro-social behaviors in children, while also reducing behavior problems and emotional distress.

Benefits of SEL

An SEL approach should help students process and integrate their social and emotional skills when returning to school.

When a student knows that his or her feelings will be heard and respected, it is often easier for that student to relax and focus at school. If a student can learn to find his or her voice and express anger appropriately, it could prevent him or her from acting inappropriately and damaging relationships.

Strong student-teacher relationships lead students to want to perform better in school and inspire students to embrace challenges beyond the classroom.

Alignment with equity

Despite the growing implementation of SEL, only recently have we begun to see substantial efforts to ground SEL within an equity context. Many types of SEL programming are intellectualized rather than experiential and focused on student skill development.

An example is teaching coping skills strategies to particular students who subjectively are deemed to have more displays of challenging behaviors. The Center for Mental Health in Schools & Student/Learning Supports at UCLA (The Center) suggests that rather than organizing SEL around intellectualized, structured, and sequential lessons, SEL should offer opportunities to capitalize on natural teachable moments. The Center provides some examples of these natural teachable moments, including “as students relate to each other and to staff during class and group instruction” and “providing roles for all students to be positive helpers and leaders throughout the school and community; engaging students in strategies to enhance a caring, supportive, and safe school climate; as essential aspects of conflict resolution and crisis prevention.”

While we affirm this approach of finding the natural teachable moments and implementing SEL lessons, we also encourage districts and buildings to consider how SEL can be embedded in all interactions throughout your system in ways that honor the differences and strengths of adults, students, and families.

In their resource, Natural Opportunities to Promote Social-Emotional Learning and MH, 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 the 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 these questions we have crafted that specifically address race:

  • Is instruction carried out in ways that strengthen or hinder the development of interpersonal skills and connections specifically 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.

Applying an equity lens with a focus on race to SEL can help to address barriers that prevent many students from accessing its full benefits. CASEL suggests using an equity lens to help identify various challenges in implementing SEL and highlights what can happen when an equity lens is not used or is not firmly in place. In CASEL Competencies, they offer equity-driven considerations around their five core SEL competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

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.

For students, belongingness precedes achievement. For schools, excellence must include everyone.

Through a process that addresses action and awareness, the IncludED pathway helps schools get results by ensuring the essential conditions for students to thrive in school and adults to prosper in the workplace.

Learn More!