SEL as a lever for Equity
In order to best respond to these questions, first I think we need a clear definition for what we mean by Social Emotional Learning (SEL). SEL is the process by which children AND adults develop and experience foundational inter/intrapersonal skills around these key competencies: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, Responsible Decision Making, and Growth Mindset. This definition is based on the work of the Collaborative for Academic Social Emotional Learning (CASEL Core Competencies) and the work of Carol Dweck (Growth Mindset). Social Emotional Learning is the Universal approach to a positive climate/culture, a lever for deepening adult mindsets and equity, and a necessary precursor for Restorative Justice.
What we know from a growing body of research, through such organizations like CASEL and others, is that when leaders and teachers prioritize social emotional learning, students thrive and school climate improves. With the plethora of online SEL resources available, the one thing that has been the most impactful for distance learning has been the power of teacher/student relationships. The strong relationships teachers had with their students prior to the school closures enabled them to transition much more successfully, with more students engaging in distance learning.
What we’ve learned during this pandemic and the stay-home order is the necessity of SEL skills as a lever for equity and deepening connectedness/belonging amongst our communities. Given the traumatic impacts of COVID-19 on our social, emotional, physical, educational and economic health, having SEL tools to help us manage anxiety, navigate through uncertainty with a degree of hope, and maintain connections with others while socially distancing is more essential than ever. Also, the impact of COVID-19 on our communities of color, both in the disproportionate rate of illnesses and deaths in our African American community as well as the racially charged violence and rhetoric against Asian Americans, should serve as a reminder that injustices persist and education has an opportunity to offer a counter narrative. Our students, families, and staff will look to us for support, care, validation, and belonging. If we lead with social and emotional learning, we can create safe/calm spaces of healing, routines and rituals that are trauma-informed, community dialogue that aims to build/bridge/restore, and increase a collective efficacy for moving forward. We will not be returning to “normal” and we shouldn’t: “Normal” was not accessible or equitable for everyone before COVID-19. This is an opportunity to re-imagine a new normal and social emotional learning can lead the way to this new world of inclusivity and belonging for all. It’s time to prioritize people before content.
In order to integrate social emotional learning into our work, both for distance learning and for when we re-enter into physical space together, there will need to be a clear commitment from leaders and an allocation of resources. Leaders who commit to SEL will deepen their understanding of what social emotional learning looks as a universal approach to teaching and learning (SEL is much more than emotional or mental health), regularly communicate SEL as a priority and lever for equity, set high expectations for how adults treat each other across the system, embed into a continuous improvement plan, and consistently model the SEL practices that strengthen community and relationship building. In addition, there has to be dedicated resources allocated to support the capacity building and on-going supports needed to implement and integrate SEL into all systems. District expertise is important and must be cultivated to lead learning across the system. There needs to be on-going professional learning opportunities for ALL staff to develop their own Adult SEL as well as strategies to support students and families, including the integration of SEL into academic content and instruction. In addition to professional learning opportunities and on-going supports, school sites will need SEL evidenced-based curriculum and additional site resources to ensure they are providing Whole Child supports- including Trauma Informed strategies, Culturally Responsive practices, and Restorative practices. Social Emotional Learning can be powerful lever for equity, but it requires a serious leadership commitment and dedication of resources.