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REL Pacific

Key Considerations for Promoting Culturally Relevant SEL During COVID-19

REL Pacific
Marisa Crowder
May 19, 2020

student doing school work

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed unique social-emotional challenges to students across the globe. Social distancing efforts have changed daily routines, separated many students from their social support networks and, for some, have introduced and exacerbated stressors within their living environments.1, 2, 3 These social-emotional challenges disproportionately affect students who are racial minorities and from working-class families, as they are at higher risk for exposure to the coronavirus and the stresses related to social distancing efforts.4, 5 This highlights the need for continued, equitable, SEL practices that meet the needs of all students.

Adopting a Cultural Lens

Culture shapes how we view the world around us by influencing how we view ourselves in relation to others. Therefore, understanding our students' cultures is an important first step to adapting SEL practices to students' social-emotional needs.6 The most common characterization of cultures distinguishes between individualistic and collectivistic values.

  • Individualistic cultures are characterized by emphasizing values that place the individual at the center of experience and prioritize personal goals over communal goals. Members of individualistic cultures, such as White and middle-class individuals, are more likely to adopt an independent model of self, which is defined in terms of how they are unique, and different, from others (e.g., I am smart, I am funny).
  • Collectivistic cultures are characterized by emphasizing values that prioritize the needs of the group and place communal goals over personal ones. Members of collectivistic cultures, which may more frequently include racial minority and working-class individuals, are more likely to adopt an interdependent model of self, which is defined based on interpersonal relationships (e.g., I am a team player, I am a sister).7

These cultural models shape how we learn, what we are motivated by, how we express our emotions, and how we view others.8 As such, it should come as no surprise that our students' cultural backgrounds shape their social-emotional needs.9

Cultural Differences in Students' COVID-19 SEL Needs

Two common social-emotional challenges that students are facing as a result of COVID-19, and that likely vary across cultural backgrounds, are stress and loneliness.

Chronic Stress. Chronic stress refers to the constant activation of our sympathetic nervous system in response to repeated exposure to stressful situations and can hinder brain functioning. This type of stress prevents students from being able to engage in their academics.10 Some students may be learning to cope with chronic stress as a result of health concerns, financial hardship, or restructuring family roles and obligations.

Some SEL strategies that can support coping with stress promote mindfulness practices (to promote self-awareness and emotion regulation) and self-regulated learning (to promote goal-setting and self-monitoring).11 However, these practices privilege an independent cultural model over an interdependent model, as they conceptualize stress as a personal problem that stems from personal situations, and which must be tackled by the individual.12

Stress is expressed and conceptualized differently for members of collectivistic cultures. For example, members of some collectivistic cultures describe stress and other forms of psychological distress in terms of physical symptoms, such as headaches or upset stomachs, rather than psychological ones.13 Additionally, some Asian and Pacific Island cultures, which tend to endorse collectivistic values, view personal stress as a familial or communal responsibility. As a result, students from collectivistic cultures may be less likely to share their feelings with others.14

Loneliness. Social distancing efforts have separated many students from their primary social support networks: their peers. The loneliness that can ensue as a result of this isolation could lead to reduced social-emotional competence (SEC), or the ability to positively interact with others, regulate one's own emotions and behavior, and problem-solve.15 It may also lead to an increased risk for psychological issues, academic disengagement, and risky behaviors.16 SEL practices to address feelings of social isolation focus on building social competence and include promoting collaboration among peers as well as help-seeking behaviors.17 Although these are excellent strategies to maintain social connections during the COVID-19 pandemic, they reflect and reinforce an independent cultural model, as they assume that peer relationships are central to students' identity and wellbeing.18 Students who adopt an independent model of self are more likely to prioritize their chosen relationships (their friends), as they are reflective of the things they value and like to do. However, because the interdependent self is defined by relationships, individuals are more likely to prioritize familial, or predetermined relationships.

These differences have implications for what makes us lonely. Whereas members of individualistic cultures are more likely to be lonely when they experience an absence in peer-to-peer interactions, members of collectivistic societies are more likely to be lonely when they experience an absence of familial interactions.19 Thus, students from collectivistic backgrounds may be feeling lonely to the extent that the COVID-19 pandemic is limiting interactions with their extended family members.

Adapting SEL Strategies to Meet Students' Needs

Understanding how culture may shape students' social-emotional needs highlights two focus areas for adapting SEL practices to support those needs. First, consider SEL activities that reinforce students' cultures and build bridges between both of your worldviews (such as creating a common emotional language or finding alternative means for expressing emotions).20 Second, identify ways to promote family interactions.

Some example ways to support students' SEL in using these approaches are to write a letter to a family member that describes a book the student is reading, learn a new skill with (or from) an elder and journal about the experience, or teach a family member how to do a math problem and reflect what went well, what did not go well, and what could be done differently next time.

It is important to note that culture is not prescriptive. Within individualistic and collectivistic cultures, individuals can adopt either model of self.21 The patterns described here reflect research on averages across cultural groups. In reality, cultures are dynamic systems that help us make sense of our world and change as the world around us changes. Ultimately, the key ingredient to ensuring effective culturally relevant SEL practices that will support all students will be to develop positive relationships that provide insights into ways that will promote students' personal and academic wellbeing.

Additional Resources

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Footnotes:

1 Statista (2020, April). Thinking about your everyday life, since the COVID-19/coronavirus pandemic, have you made any changes to your general lifestyle? https://www.statista.com/statistics/1105960/changes-to-the-general-lifestyle-due-to-covid-19-in-selected-countries/

2 Lee, J. (2020, April). Mental health effects of school closures during COVID-19. The Lancet: Child & Adolescent Health. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanchi/article/PIIS2352-4642(20)30109-7/fulltext

3 Lessard, L. & Schacter, H. (2020, April). Why the coronavirus crisis hits teenagers particularly hard: Developmental scientists explain. Education Week (Opinion). https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2020/04/16/why-the-coronavirus-crisis-hits-teenagers-particularly.html

4 Human Rights Watch (2020, March). US: Address impact of Covid-19 on poor. https://www.hrw.org/ news/2020/03/19/us-address-impact-covid-19-poor#

5 Strauss, V. (2020, April). Why covid-19 will ‘explode’ existing academic achievement gaps. The Washington Post (Perspective). https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/04/17/why-covid-19-will-explode-existing-academic-achievement-gaps/

6 Brady, L. M., Germano, A. L., & Fryberg, S. A. (2017). Leveraging cultural differences to promote educational equality. Current Opinion in Psychology, 18, 79–83.

7 Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (2010). Culture and selves: A cycle of mutual constitution. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 420–430.

8 Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (2010). Culture and selves: A cycle of mutual constitution. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 420–430.

9 Jagers, R. J., Deborah, R. D., & Borowski, T. (2018). Equity & social and emotional learning: A cultural analysis. Measuring SEL (Frameworks Brief). https://measuringsel.casel.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Frameworks-Equity.pdf

10 Schraml, K., Perski, A., Grossi, G., & Makower, I. (2012). Chronic stress and its consequences on subsequent academic achievement among adolescence. Journal of Educational and Developmental Psychology, 2, 69–79.

11 Tharaldsen, K. B. (2019). Winding down the stressed out: Social and emotional learning as a stress coping strategy with Norwegian upper secondary students. International Journal of Emotional Education, 11, 91–105.

12 Popa, B., Guillet, L., & Mullet, E. (2014). Cultural differences in the appraisal of stress. Psicológica, 35, 745–760.

13 Martinex, K. G. (n.d.). Influences of cultural differences in the diagnosis and treatment of anxiety and depression. Anxiety and Depression Association of America (Blog). https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/influences-cultural-differences-diagnosis-and-2

14 Tanap, R. (2019, July). Why Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders don't go to therapy. National Alliance on Mental Illness (Blog). https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/July-2019/Why-Asian-Americans-and-Pacific-Islanders-Don-t-go-to-Therapy

15 Center for the Study of Social Policy (2018). Strengthening Families: A Protective Factors Framework. Retrieved from https://cssp.org/our-work/projects/protective-factors-framework/

16 Lessard, L., & Schacter, H. (2020, April). Why the coronavirus crisis hits teenagers particularly hard: Developmental scientists explain. Education Week (Opinion). https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2020/04/16/why-the-coronavirus-crisis-hits-teenagers-particularly.html

17 Tharaldsen, K. B. (2019). Winding down the stressed out: Social and emotional learning as a stress coping strategy with Norwegian upper secondary students. International Journal of Emotional Education, 11, 91–105.

18 Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (2010). Culture and selves: A cycle of mutual constitution. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 420–430.

19 Lykes, V. A., & Kemmelmeier, M. (2013). What predicts loneliness? Cultural difference between individualistic and collectivistic societies in Europe. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 45, 468–490.

20 Ladson-Billings, G. (2014). Culturally relevant pedagogy 2.0: a.k.a. the Remix. Harvard Educational Review, 84, 74–84.

21 Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (2010). Culture and selves: A cycle of mutual constitution. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 420–430.