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The power of centering equity in social and emotional learning

Centering equity in social and emotional learning

By Joni Wackwitz
June 27, 2019

Is social and emotional learning (SEL) serving all students equitably? A recent Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest webinar, “Supporting Equity and Social Emotional Learning,” explored the complex interrelationship between equity and SEL and showcased equity-based practices that can help promote students’ social and emotional development.

>> View the archived webinar resources

Barriers to equitable SEL

Jameela Conway-Turner, Ph.D., research liaison for the REL Midwest Achievement Gap Research Alliance, began the webinar with an overview of the evidence supporting SEL and equity, and the intersections between the two. A strong body of research shows that building students’ self-awareness, self-management skills, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decisionmaking can improve academic achievement and behavior. In particular, SEL can benefit students who are economically disadvantaged or dealing with trauma.

Dr. Conway-Turner noted, however, that poverty and trauma are among several barriers that can limit students’ social and emotional development and opportunities. Because of these barriers, effective SEL can look different for each student, depending on the individual’s lived experiences and cultural, racial/ethnic, and economic backgrounds.

By reframing SEL through an equity lens, practitioners can recognize and build on students’ assets, experiences, and cultural capital—helping to ensure that all students reap the full benefits of SEL.

Five barriers to equitable SEL

1. Poverty

2. Trauma and lack of trauma-informed school practices

3. Exclusionary discipline practices and policies

4. Implicit bias in school staff

5. Educator stress and burnout

“We want to merge those two buckets,” said Dr. Conway-Turner, “and we want to make sure that we are focusing on equity—recognizing that those two things are not mutually exclusive.”

As an example of equity-based or transformative SEL, Dr. Conway-Turner shared an excerpt from the brief Toward Transformative Social and Emotional Learning: Using an Equity Lens, adapted by researchers Elena Saavedra and Liz Nolan:

“A process whereby students and teachers build strong, respectful relationships founded on an appreciation of similarities and differences; learn to critically examine root causes of inequity; and develop collaborative solutions to community and social problems.”

Classroom practices to support equity and SEL

Building on the research, Rose Jackson Buckley, Ph.D., assistant director of technical assistance for the Midwest and Plains Equity Assistance Center, described five evidence-based classroom practices that districts and schools can use to promote equitable SEL.

  1. Safe, healing spaces: Create safe and healing spaces to promote collective well-being as a supplement to trauma-informed practices, which focus primarily on individuals.
  2. Critical consciousness: Model self-awareness to recognize the impact of personal identities and biases and the role of group identity on power, privilege, and norms.
  3. Cultural responsiveness: Focus SEL on students’ identities, cultures, and lived experiences; highlight diverse cultures and histories; and discuss issues of social oppression and justice.
  4. Communal values: Promote communal values, such as interdependence, social responsibility, conflict resolution, and inclusive and mutually supportive processes and structures.
  5. School and community engagement: Provide opportunities for school and community social justice activities and partner with diverse community members to extend SEL programming.

See the webinar archive to learn more about each practice and to explore the provided resources

How Champaign County Head Start supports equity and SEL

Elise Belknap, Ph.D., an early childhood mental health consultant with the award-winning Champaign County Head Start program, then shared her firsthand experiences using equity-based SEL practices to support students. Champaign County Head Start serves close to 600 young students in east-central Illinois. Many of these students live in poverty and face a variety of issues.

To support this population, all Champaign County Head Start classrooms integrate SEL. Programming focuses on the effects of trauma and on building emotional intelligence and resilience. Staff draw on the Conscious Discipline model to teach coping skills and create safe spaces in classrooms. In addition, they use the evidence-based Pyramid Model to support SEL in infants and young children.

“We want to be trauma-informed, that’s our primary goal,” Dr. Belknap said. “We need to treat our teachers as we treat our students, because burnout and stress are real,” she added.

Through funding from the local County Mental Health Board, the program has hired three mental health staff. In addition, Social Skills and Prevention Coaches work with teachers to identify areas of need and provide strategies, support, parent outreach, and referrals and treatment plans as needed.

Dr. Belknap noted that since expanding the team, the program has seen a reduction in transition-related behaviors among students and decreased stress among teachers. Their goals now are to add trauma-informed parenting classes and increased supports for staff.

Interested in more practices for grounding SEL in equity? View our related infographic and Ask A REL reference desk response on the topic and then explore the resources provided to dig deeper.

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Author(s) Information

Joni Wackwitz Staff Picture

Joni Wackwitz

Senior Communications Specialist | REL Midwest


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