Transformative SEL – A Pathway to Equity

COVID-19 has upended schooling and youth well-being in ways that we don’t yet understand. What we do know is that the emotional well-being of our students and ultimately their academic performance has been shown to be diminishing. Amidst the fog of societal trauma from the tremendous stress that so many of us have experienced, questions have emerged: 

  • How will gaps in opportunity widen? 
  • What effect will prolonged isolation have upon students, families, and educators?  

We could continue listing unknowns, but some data points are already available. APA’s Stress In America 2020 report found that 51% of Gen Z teens said, “the pandemic makes planning for their future feel impossible.” Meanwhile, Gen Z adults reported over 10% higher average stress levels than adults, and 34% of those young adults reported worse mental health than at the same point in the prior year.  In addition, students are confronted with vastly different perspectives and experiences related to ethnicity and race, economic inequities, and trauma. These amplified experiences can negatively impact student well-being and their ability to respond to everyday situations with their peers and teachers. Combining the pandemic with the stressors of polarized politics and the specter of white supremacy makes for a complex and challenging landscape for all of us, young and not-so-young, to navigate. As social and emotional learning practitioners we play a critical role. This backdrop pushed us to critically examine our own work at Mayerson Academy. Inspired by CASEL’s equity-focused look at SEL, titled Transformative SEL, and the Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance) Anti-Bias Framework, we embarked on an equity audit of our curricula. Here are a few of the questions we used in our exploration that might also be helpful for you to consider in your educational context:

  • What were our missed opportunities to push educators to think critically about their own practices?  
  • How were we inviting students to bring their own cultural assets to the SEL classroom space?
  • How could we push for classrooms that better unearth and appreciate differences, and use that to develop community-oriented problem-solving strategies?

Two big themes emerged for us through this auditing process, the first of which was expanding our definitions of CASEL’s SEL core competencies. On their surface, the competencies seem innocuous and universal: who would argue that self-management is not an important skill to cultivate? However, a lack of teacher awareness about their own bias or a child’s background could lead to situations where these competencies stifle student development or perpetuate inequity. For example, if a student is not meeting classroom behavioral expectations, a teacher might assume the student is simply not demonstrating proper self-management and that the situation would need to be rectified with a negative consequence, rather that addressing the underlying skills, supports, conditions, or cultural responsiveness necessary for their success. Unfortunately, the supposed universality of the competencies we espoused in our curricula, left open this possibility. Elevated rates of disciplinary actions like suspensions and expulsions for students of color show that taking a culturally responsive and anti-bias approach is necessary. A more expansive perspective of SEL, which grounds the competencies in developmental and cultural awareness, can make this happen.

The second theme we saw was the need for adult SEL. It was apparent that we were asking students to demonstrate skills that we did not explicitly cultivate in our professional learning for educators. CASEL’s SEL Program Criteria Updates and Rationale notes that adult SEL development is crucial for “fostering teacher identity that supports culturally responsive education”. Helping teachers deeply consider their own identities and the identities of their students sets the stage for a learning community that fights inequity and solves problems together. Through activities like Identity Mapping, we’ve already seen progress in our communities of teachers in their willingness to bring their full selves to their classrooms – particularly across lines of difference.

Keeping in mind that equity work is a process, not a destination, we will continue to question, reflect, and refine our approach so that SEL is transformative for schools and communities. 

What small step can you take to ensure your approach to SEL is transformative?  Let’s work together to continue reimagining SEL as a tool for equity in a world that needs more fairness, compassion, and radical justice. Here are some of our favorite resources to get you started: Equity Resources

Guest Bloggers: Indi Ekanayake, Lisa Dillon and Lori Crowe

Thriving Learning Communities™, Mayerson Academy, Cincinnati, OH