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‘Is Social-Emotional Learning Really Going to Work for Students of Color?’

By Dena Simmons — June 07, 2017 8 min read
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As a black educator, trainer, and researcher in the field of social-emotional learning, I am often asked, in confidence, by teachers and school leaders: “Is this SEL program really going to work for my students of color?” I continue to be taken aback by the question and wonder about its genesis, especially since we know from research the benefits of school-based, social-emotional learning for students: improved attitudes and behaviors, better relationships, and increased academic performance

But deeper reflection leaves me feeling conflicted. On the one hand, I recognize the good intentions of educators and their desire for all students to be successful. I also know, from my own experiences as a student and former middle school teacher, that good intentions do not always lead to good results.

—Ryan Lash

The inquiring educator may rightfully suspect that her students of color need teaching and curricula that are responsive to their life experiences. Yet, the question implies that her students need something more, something remedial, in order to be reached. As such, the question inadvertently positions the student as the problem. It highlights the incomplete narrative that children of color are in need of some intervention to save them from themselves. It further reveals the educator’s implicit bias—the unconscious stereotypes about groups of people that drive behavior and decisionmaking—and the need to create and teach social-emotional learning programs within a culturally relevant context.

Without also changing the teaching behaviors, curricula, and school policies that can be assaultive to our students, particularly students of color, incorporating social-emotional learning into teaching will not be enough. Students of color suffer more adversely than their white peers on nearly every measure of well-being—educational, social, financial, emotional, and physical—which impacts them in the long run. As such, there is an urgency to expand the definition and practices of social-emotional learning to ensure that we serve all students more effectively and equitably.

To do so, we must teach and create social-emotional learning content within an equity literacy lens. This means educators should be able to identify inequity and make an effort to create just learning for all students and their families. It will take concerted efforts across financial, educational, health, and political sectors to create equitable school environments for students of color, but educators can begin now by implementing the following practices:

Flex your self-awareness muscles to understand your power, privilege, and unconscious bias.

Self-awareness, or the ability to recognize how emotions and experiences influence behavior, is important for teaching that puts equity and justice at the forefront. As educators, knowing how our identity positions us in a classroom, a school, and the larger community helps ensure that we are not missing opportunities for meaningful connections with our students and their families or inadvertently abusing our power and privilege, especially if we have different backgrounds from our students.

For example, I once had a student steal a phone from another student. When I suggested to the student’s mother that she buy a replacement phone for the other student, she cursed me out. “That’s easy for you to say,” she said. Though I was shocked, she was right. While I had grown up poor in a single-parent home in the Bronx borough of New York City like many of my students, I now had access to social and cultural capital, and came across as insensitive to the mother, who struggled financially. I failed to reflect on how my status as an educated, now middle-class black woman was perceived within a school located in one of our nation’s poorest districts.

Regardless of our background, we can benefit from constantly practicing a keen awareness of our values, emotions, thoughts, and identity. Peggy McIntosh, a scholar on white privilege at Wellesley Centers for Women, suggests reflective statements that can help educators become more aware of their privilege to mitigate unintended harm toward students. And psychologist Robert C. Weigl recommends an eight-step process to support self-study, including describing your ancestry and historical roots and the personal characteristics that are valued by your culture.

Part of this self-awareness must include deliberate reflection on our implicit biases, which can negatively affect student engagement and academic performance. Mindfulness meditation, the moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, is one effective strategy for reflection. In particular, a 2014 study from researchers at Central Michigan University found that loving-kindness meditation, which includes discussing and cultivating love and compassion toward oneself and others, increases social connectedness and reduces bias.

Make social-emotional learning instruction and programming meaningful for students.

School-based social-emotional learning programs have the potential to shift the climate and culture of our schools, but they do not always guarantee that students will apply the skills they learn at school to their lives outside the classroom, especially if those skills seem irrelevant to their realities. About half of the nation’s public school students are youths of color; yet, only 18 percent of the teaching force is teachers of color. Though rarely discussed, most of the social-emotional learning curricula—like much of the education curricula in the United States—is based on dominant white, Western, and individualistic culture. This exclusion likely contributes to a student-teacher disconnect, imposing on students of color a particular set of values and beliefs about behavior, conflict resolution, relationship-building, and decisionmaking.

For example, the emotional education that students receive at school can differ from what they receive at home. Students often learn at school that to show respect, you must look adults in the eyes. Yet, in Asian, Latino, and African cultures, direct eye contact is considered disrespectful. When we teach students that there is one right way to do something, it can send the message that what’s done at home is wrong. Being aware of the different ways certain cultures display emotions, for example, can prevent us from sending students the message that they are inferior for being who they are.

To begin to make social-emotional learning instruction meaningful, allow all students a safe space to critique and to explore the differences of navigating the world at school and at home. What might arise is an opportunity to teach students about code-switching—altering the ways one speaks or behaves depending on a given context—so they can learn that there are multiple ways to be acceptable. Another way to make social-emotional learning instruction relevant to students is to invite them to be a part of creating the curricula. This input can create a safe environment where students feel free to discuss what is happening in their lives and problem-solve around difficult topics like white supremacy, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of injustice.

Build relationships with students, their families, and their community.

Getting to know our students, families, and communities beyond who we believe they are allows us to humanize them and challenges our biases about them. When we build relationships with the students, families, and communities we serve, we not only understand the barriers that marginalize some groups of people and not others, but we also can work in partnership with them toward equity instead of believing we are the sole saviors.

To get to know students, use surveys throughout the year to learn about their hobbies, home lives, academic strengths, areas of academic growth, social circles, favorite foods, and so on. When I was teaching middle school in the Bronx, I took my students out to lunch for one-on-one time and went to recess and gym class with them. By making time for them inside and outside of class, we learned so much more about one another. When we commit to knowing our students well, we allow each student’s uniqueness to shine though. Building relationships with our students also contributes to students feeling more connected to school, which is a preventative factor against risky behaviors and increases students’ likelihood of academic success.

For families, conduct a survey or call home to learn more about them and how you can partner together throughout the year. Establishing communication norms will allow you to share information in ways that are salient to your students’ families and avoid potential misunderstanding. If possible, translating materials for non-English speaking homes can facilitate better communication. Unfortunately, current school-based SEL programs are mainly in English, and this is an area of growth needed to make programming more accessible to non-English-speaking school communities.

Understanding the larger community outside the school is also important, as there are community assets teachers can leverage to support the social, emotional, and academic development of students. I recommend a community-development approach called asset-mapping, which involves taking inventory of religious, political, economic, social-service, and health institutions, as well as the leaders in the community. Once you know what’s available, you can devise an action plan for how you will use local resources to extend learning beyond the four walls of a classroom.

Whether or not a social-emotional learning program is really going to work for students of color depends not on students’ ability, but on the work we are willing to do to ensure that our instruction, curricula, and school policies value and honor our students of color. As educators, we must recognize and respond to the subtle and not-so-subtle inequities that hinder student success. If we teach social-emotional learning in ways that ignore equity, we will woefully fail our students, particularly our most disenfranchised.

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


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