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How to Approach Social-Emotional Development Equitably

By Learning Is Social & Emotional Contributor — October 11, 2018 4 min read

By Tracy Costigan and Jenn Ng’andu

In an earlier post on this blog, Robert Jagers said that he and his colleagues at CASEL are working with others to ensure that “social and emotional learning [can] realize its potential to promote the optimal development of all students, including diverse groups of students.” He describes how CASEL and partners are reexamining the core social and emotional learning competencies to consider how each could more explicitly elevate equity.

The examination he’s describing is so important. Every child should have the opportunity to learn in a healthy school environment, one where their social, emotional, and academic development--along with their physical and mental health--is fully supported. Unfortunately, we know that’s not the case.

Whether because of community factors like poverty, or in-school issues like harsh discipline practices and implicit bias in staff, too many students, particularly students of color and those in lower-income areas, face barriers to a healthy, well-rounded development. Approaching social emotional development through an equity lens means that we must work to eliminate barriers like these for all students, to advance their education and foster longer-term health and well-being.

A new brief from Penn State University’s Edna Bennet Pierce Prevention Research Center synthesizes the research that describes how schools and education leaders can support social emotional development equitably. The authors, Dena Simmons and Marc Brackett from Yale University and Nancy Adler from the University of California San Francisco, describe five key strategies that simultaneously promote equity and support students’ social, emotional, and academic development.


  1. Emphasize school racial and socioeconomic integration. In general, students in more diverse schools have better academic and life outcomes than students attending less integrated schools. For example, in Hartford, Conn., there is a magnet school program set up in part to increase racial and ethnic integration in local schools. These schools are able to provide greater opportunities for social, emotional, and academic development, in part because they have more resources to put toward those efforts, and also have greater teacher retention. Students at those schools have done better academically and have shown stronger social and emotional competencies.
  2. Consider restorative justice practices as an alternative to harsher, exclusionary school discipline. Broadly speaking, restorative justice is a practice that relies more on relationships among students and staff to resolve and respond to conflict, encouraging them to understand and take ownership of solutions. It focuses more on collectively repairing harm caused through conflict that can happen at school, and less on punitive approaches that may or may not build accountability for actions. There is early and promising evidence that these kinds of programs can improve relationships among teachers and students, create opportunities for social and emotional development, and even increase academic achievement. One small study found that teachers who used restorative practices were described as more respectful by students and issued fewer disciplinary referrals to Latino and African-American students, than did teachers who did not use such practices.
  3. Integrate a trauma-informed lens. Nearly half of children in the U.S. have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience, such as violence in their community, parental divorce, or living with someone who has a drug or alcohol problem. The stress that comes with going through traumatic events like these can directly impact a child’s health, and their ability to concentrate and work well in school. But schools that are trauma-informed--that use systems, policies, and practices that are sensitive to trauma--can help students manage their reactions to such experiences. One program in California has been shown to increase awareness of trauma-informed practices among school staff, and lead to improvements in attendance and engagement among students.
  4. Support culturally competent and equity-literate educators. Schools, like the rest of the country, are becoming more diverse by the year. In valuing diversity, being culturally self-aware, and respecting and appreciating other cultures, schools can support educators in creating a welcoming space where all students have a sense of belonging. One way to start this process is to examine school policies and ask whether they might disadvantage certain groups of students, even unintentionally. When schools recognize and take steps to address existing inequities they can build more welcoming environments that in turn support social emotional development.
  5. Take approaches that reduce teacher stress and support educators in implementing social and emotional learning. Teachers who use social emotional learning programs with students report a wide range of benefits, including better interactions with students, improved classroom management, and higher perceived job control. These benefits come partially because effective SEL programs can help build connections between teachers and students and enable teachers to give students greater autonomy. Ensuring that social emotional and mindfulness programs also support teachers is imperative, as they can reduce stress and burnout, an obvious benefit to students.

Schools alone will not fix all of the factors that drive educational inequities. But if we truly want to support students’ social, emotional, and academic development, we have to approach this through the equity lens. The strategies above are backed by research and can start to show us a path forward.

Tracy Costigan is a senior learning officer and Jenn Ng’andu is interim managing director for program at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The opinions expressed in Learning Is Social & Emotional are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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