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REL Pacific

Culturally Informed Social and Emotional Learning in the Pacific Region: Prioritizing Local Voices to Meet Local Needs

REL Pacific
Marisa Crowder
July 16, 2018

Student learning reflects more than just the quality of instruction. Negative peer or teacher relationships, feelings of unsafety, or isolation at school can impact students' capacity, or willingness, to learn. To help students develop the social and emotional competencies (SECs) necessary to cope with these stressors, educators have turned their attention toward social and emotional learning (SEL).

students in class

Students working together in class.

SEL refers to the acquisition of knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors that enable individuals to understand and manage their emotions, set and work toward positive goals, build and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.1

Exposure to evidence-based SEL programs not only increases students' positive academic and future life outcomes, it can also decrease negative ones, such as criminal convictions.2 Given the promise of SEL initiatives in education systems, some of the REL Pacific Partnerships have expressed interest in promoting their students' SECs to complement their ongoing efforts under the college and career readiness and success priority area. However, not many evidence-based frameworks exist that are either grounded in cultural values or can be easily tailored to cultural context. Understanding how different cultures perceive and define SECs is essential for meeting needs in different contexts.

Consider emotion management. Some cultures are more likely to value, and rely on, emotional expression during interpersonal communication while others are more likely to value the suppression of emotions during communication.3, 4, 5 Evidence-based SEL strategies that target emotion management may not build SECs in cultures that value varying levels of emotional expression.

So, how can we be sure we are selecting evidence-based SEL efforts in the Pacific region while also addressing their needs? By asking the following question before SEL efforts begin: what does a social emotional-competent student look like to you?

We know from our Partnership members that a socially and emotionally competent student in the Pacific may have different characteristics than an SEC student in Mainland United States. Asking this question at the onset of a project provides the opportunity to identify potentially hidden sociocultural dynamics that are not addressed in the current SEL literature.

For example, some important SEC qualities in many Pacific cultures may include strongly identifying with one's lineage, showing deference to authority, and quickly orienting one's place in the social network. REL Pacific will support Partnerships beginning to work on SEL initiatives by facilitating conversation about SECs in their own cultural contexts, since U.S. mainland-based SEL approaches may not be easily generalizable to the Pacific region. The Partnerships will rely on existing evidence-based approaches to guide these efforts by ensuring that a) identified SECs are actionable and are related to important student outcomes for the jurisdiction, b) SEL approaches align with identified SECs, c) implementation of SEL is done in a way that is sustainable over time, and d) assessments align both with the chosen SEL approach and identified SECs.

By grounding SEL in the local cultural context, REL Pacific can support our Partnerships in promoting their students' success while also placing Partnerships' initiatives at the forefront of the field of SEL as these frameworks continue to expand outside of the United States.


1 CASEL (n.d.) What is SEL? Retrieved from

2 Durlak, J. A, Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students' social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82, 405–32.

3 Falgout, S. (2009). The quiet of the fierce barracuda: Masculinity and aggression in Pohnpei, Micronesia. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 14, 445–453.

4 Matsumoto, D., Yoo, S. H., Nakagawa, S., & 37 Members of the Multinational Study of Cultural Display Rules (2008). Culture, emotion regulation, and adjustment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 925–937.

5 Yuki, M., Maddux, W. M., & Masuda, T. (2007). Are the windows to the soul the same in the East and West? Cultural differences in using the eyes and mouth as cues to recognize emotions in Japan and the United States. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 303–311.