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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

Want Students to ‘Build a Better World?’ Try Culturally Responsive Social-Emotional Learning

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 29, 2021 19 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways you are incorporating social-emotional learning in your classroom and what are you doing to ensure that it is culturally responsive?

In Part One, Tairen McCollister, Mike Kaechele, and Libby Woodfin shared their responses to the question.

Today, Jennifer Mitchell, Meg Riordan, Ph.D., Amber Chandler, and Bill Adair wrap up this series.

Don’t Use SEL to ‘Increase Compliance’

Jennifer Mitchell teaches English-learners in Dublin, Ohio. Connect with her on Twitter: @readwritetech or on her blog:

Any student or teacher can give countless examples of how our educational system has not only ignored but exacerbated and even directly contributed to mental-health issues for ourselves or our friends, colleagues, and students. Social-emotional learning can literally save lives.

But too often, SEL is sold to teachers as a system to manage students’ behavior and increase their compliance, rather than an essential classroom lifestyle infused with tools they can use to be happier, healthier, and fuller versions of themselves. We must ask ourselves: Do we want our students to tone down who they are to perpetuate the status quo or do we want them to embrace their unique selves and harness their power to build a better world? Do we want them to prioritize work over health and joy or do we want them to build the self- and situational awareness to recognize who they are, what they want, and how to respond to the obstacles they encounter?

Initially, I felt that SEL flowed naturally in my English classroom through literacy and discussions that affirm and explore identity, culture, and empathy. And while that is still a cornerstone of our work together, I realized that my students needed more. After seeing the destructive impact of mental illness, trauma, and racism in so many of my students’ lives, I dug passionately into a variety of SEL approaches. Now, a variety of essential strategies permeate our class culture, pushing us to slow down amidst the pervasive urgency that is so common in schools, to remember that honoring and connecting with each other is essential:

  • A calming box for students to access fidgets, visual timers, coloring/brain puzzle books, and a small binder of grounding exercises and mental-health tips
  • Frequent goal-setting and reflection, including WOOP-style goal-setting for which we brainstorm how to overcome obstacles that might prevent us from reaching our goals
  • Identifying and reflecting on self-talk and how it affects us
  • Tim Kight’s R-Factor system (E+R=O framework): can help students reflect on what they can and can’t control, the power of their thoughts and emotions, how their responses can influence the outcomes of situations, and how individual actions shape the larger culture of a community. (Caution: infused with grind culture! Supplement with discussions of the importance of rest and recovery to keep going in a healthy way.)
  • Marc Brackett’s RULER framework for identifying, articulating, and managing feelings with robust, specific vocabulary; very helpful to my ELs. (Caution: Its packaged curriculum and the Yale organization have decided to eschew cultural responsiveness in favor of an imagined ideal of neutrality, disregarding the systemic issues that impact so many students. As scholars such as Duane et. al (2021) point out, SEL practices (and school in general) can directly harm the students they purport to help, especially when they are not implemented in an environment of social justice that affirms students’ identities and lived experiences.)
  • Exploring the science of the brain and emotions (I was inspired by Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain!), and how that affects us
  • Weekly restorative circles are a powerful space for community-building, processing and sharing emotions, and collective problem-solving.
  • Periodic Story Exchanges build empathy, connection, and perspective-taking
  • A daily organizer routine where we begin and end class by recognizing our feelings, pausing for gratitude, grounding ourselves in affirmations and shared goals, and reflecting on our learning
  • Weekly reflections; quick and powerful!
  • A student-led squad structure that has greatly increased the sense of belonging and community in our class.
  • Frequent opportunities for students to give me feedback

No matter which tools and opportunities educators provide, it’s essential that we constantly reflect and continue learning, just as we ask our students to do. We must listen to the brilliant educators of color who are sharing their expertise and their voices about how white supremacy impacts all aspects of education, particularly SEL work. We must constantly ask ourselves if what we are doing embraces or constrains our students’ identities, emotions, and experiences. Above all, we must listen to our students and make it undoubtedly clear to them that their voices matter, that we are their partners, and that we care enough to keep doing better.


‘A Powerful Approach’

Meg Riordan, Ph.D., is the chief learning officer at The Possible Project, an out-of-school program that collaborates with youth to build entrepreneurial skills and mindsets and provides pathways to careers and long-term economic prosperity. She has been in the field of education for over 25 years as a middle and high school teacher, school coach, college professor, regional director of NYC Outward Bound Schools, and director of external research with EL Education:

Social-emotional learning is a difference-maker. Decades of research show benefits beyond increased academic performance, including: positive self-concept, improved capacity to manage stress, and greater economic mobility. But what does it look like to effectively incorporate social-emotional learning (SEL) into the classroom? And how does SEL work with culturally responsive teaching to support all learners?

First, let’s lay a shared foundation: The Collaborative for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as the process through which people acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions. Culturally responsive SEL must offer opportunities for students to reflect on identity, use relevant topics to foster social awareness, develop decisionmaking through authentic projects, build relationships, and explore society’s varied expectations for self-management—and how to navigate those.

Key to the definition above is that SEL is a process, meaning it must be ongoing and embedded throughout students’ learning experiences. Much like teacher professional learning that should be sustained to be effective, the same holds for SEL. It’s not a one-shot opening circle, occasional workshop, or SEL survey. Building culturally responsive SEL is a process—requiring deliberate design across grade levels and classrooms and inviting collaborative inquiry between youth, educators, and families. It means developing transparent competencies, creating lessons and instructional interactions that spark collaboration and reflection, and educators modeling competencies themselves.

To be implemented effectively, SEL relies on a blueprint at the district, school, and program level. With a blueprint and ongoing professional learning, educators can engage with students to reflect on growth and identify areas of continued opportunity.

Post-blueprint, what does it look like to incorporate SEL that gets to the heart of CASEL’s definition and ensures cultural responsiveness? Below are snapshots that illustrate culturally responsive SEL in action:

Build Relationships and Create Relevance

At The Possible Project (TPP), a youth entrepreneurship and work-based learning program with a mission to advance economic equity, relationships are foundational for SEL and culturally responsive teaching. Building relationships means creating learning experiences that provide opportunities to learn about each other and share our identities. For instance, a virtual learning “opening chat box question” might ask: “What is your favorite comfort food—why?” or “What are you listening to on repeat?” Beginning with inquiry about who we are engages learners, illustrating curiosity and care; it invites a feeling of being seen and valued to bring our whole selves (virtually or otherwise) into a brave and safe space.

But caring about who students are doesn’t stop after an opening question. Learning experiences ignite connections to foster authentic relationships. At TPP, we ground our approach in The Search Institute’s Developmental Relationships Framework, which identifies five elements that promote powerful relationships: Express Care, Challenge Growth, Provide Support, Share Power, and Expand Possibilities. Before students build their businesses individually or collaboratively, they reflect on their passions and interests, practice problem-finding, consider authentic needs, and propose solutions. Our learning process relies on students’ sharing imaginative ideas, showing empathy for others, being willing to take creative risks, and envisioning possibilities that don’t yet exist. Designing real projects that involve students as active drivers signals that we take them seriously, trust them as decisionmakers, and create opportunities to achieve goals and lead their learning. Beyond an opening activity, sustained relationships emerge by doing real work together—helping one another iterate on ideas and giving feedback as draft business plans develop. Rooting learning in topics relevant to students’ lives and identities, such as building their own businesses, creates spaces where culturally responsive SEL helps young people thrive.

Connect to Community and Manage Emotions

While relationships and relevance to students’ lives are essential, other important opportunities to practice culturally responsive SEL include expanding students’ networks and developing awareness of what it feels, looks, and sounds like to manage emotions. We know recognizing, expressing, and managing emotions can be a challenge; we also know that these skills help us interact with others in and out of classrooms and are paramount in the workplace. That’s why at TPP we design learning experiences that bridge our community to the classroom and engage students in reflection to develop awareness of their feelings and behaviors and the connection between the two. An illustration: to promote entrepreneurial mindsets and skills, students interview local entrepreneurs to learn what sparked their business idea, what challenges they’ve overcome, and what they’ve learned running a business. Research indicates that role models motivate us, give us someone to emulate, and teach us how to overcome obstacles. When students see an entrepreneur who looks like them or represents a shared background, they’re better equipped to imagine themselves in that role.

TPP students also connect to community as consultants to local businesses, charged with developing an approach for a social-media campaign or creating materials for an internal Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion resource site. Community-based experiences offer higher stakes—though supported—-opportunities for students to express themselves in professional settings, listen to others, receive feedback, and manage emotions. Conversations about identity and code-switching in the workplace are particularly salient for students of color as research shows they are likely to experience a range of adversities in professional settings. Learning to effectively navigate spaces and manage varied emotions, while maintaining one’s identity, takes place through guided readings and discussion, skills practice, and written reflections. Connecting to community and bridging to workplaces ignites real-world SEL and culturally responsive experiences and offers applied opportunities to transfer skills.

SEL combined with culturally responsive teaching offers a powerful approach for learners to engage in experiences that provide opportunities to reflect on identity and develop skills that apply to career and life. This potent duo—implemented consistently across schools and programs—can equip young people with a strong compass to navigate and persist in shaping their futures.


‘Google Form Questionnaires’

Amber Chandler is the author of The Flexible SEL Classroom and a contributor to many education blogs. She teaches 8th grade ELA in Hamburg, N.Y. Amber is the president of her union of 400 teachers. Follow her @MsAmberChandler and check out her website:

The best approach to social emotional learning in the classroom community is always to take a wide-lens view to make sure that the practices we are attempting to employ are actually beneficial for all students. Some of the beliefs underpinning SEL can lead to a belief that all success is self-determined, especially when we spend lots of time on the concept of self-management and themes like grit and determination. To be culturally responsive, we must also recognize that institutionalized racism, sexism, poverty, and the like prevent success, despite our students’ best efforts.

I take a constructivist approach to social and emotional learning in the classroom. Making meaning together is the only way that we can be assured that we are being culturally responsive. In all the classes I teach to future teachers, I ask the question, “What is the most important data?” and after listening to lots of important facts, I let everyone off the hook. The most important piece of data isn’t something that a standardized test can measure, but rather it is who are the people in front of us? Who are the people in the room? What matters to them? Where are their hearts? Where are their minds? Instead of competing with all their distractions, how can we help them with them?

As simplistic as it sounds, simply asking students to share about themselves is the quickest route to gain the information that will allow you to be culturally responsive. Each fall I send a Google Form questionnaire to students that asks them to classify themselves in a variety of ways (shy or outgoing, talkative or quiet, orderly or disorganized, laid back or stressed). The questionnaire also asks, “What do I need to know to be a good teacher for you?” and “Is there anything I need to know that will help me understand you?” I have started to include the following question as well: “Are there any social issues that are especially important to you? If so, why?” These data points are the most important every year, and students enjoy the attention that I am giving them by letting them know that I care about who is in the room more than I do about the curriculum. Of course the curriculum is important, and armed with these crucial details about my students, I can choose to deliver it in a variety of ways that are best for those particular kiddos.

I also give them the link to share with an adult who knows them well—-I don’t qualify who the adult must be. I’ve gotten results back from former teachers, aunts, coaches, grandparents, and, of course, parents. Taken together, I can get a pretty good picture of the students in my room and I can avoid common pitfalls. For example, one year I learned that I had a student who had lost his brother over the summer. Thankfully, I was able to change what I was planning to teach—My Brother Sam is Dead—to still cover the required information but to also respect the individuals in the room.

As simplistic as these surveys are, they have proved to be one of the best ways to meet the social and emotional needs of students while being culturally responsive to their needs. Students learn quickly that you are constructing the class with them, and they are then more likely to fully participate in their own learning.


A View From Canada

Bill Adair is an educational consultant and practicing high school teacher. He also instructs postgrad classes at Douglas College in Canada specializing in the socioemotional/motivational component of physical literacy. He is the author of “The Emotionally Connected Classroom: Wellness and the Learning Experience” (Corwin Press):

As Canadians, we are currently experiencing a particularly shameful exposure of our past. Throughout much of Canadian history, Indigenous children were forcibly ripped from their families and placed in residential schools designed for the specific purpose of cultural genocide of First Nations peoples. The “lie” of assimilation for the greater good has resulted in profound intergenerational trauma. Much work has been done in the name of reconciliation, but the recent discovery of 215 children in a mass grave at one of these schools has retraumatized Indigenous communities and resulted in painful self-reflection for all Canadians. From the pained heart of survivors, the message is clear. “The education system was the cause of the trauma; it must be the beginning for healing”.

First Peoples Principles of Learning

Promoting First Peoples Principles of Learning is one positive step the government has taken. Indigenous learning is grounded in connection to the well-being of the self, community, and land. It is reflective, experiential, embedded in reciprocally rewarding relationships, and requires the exploration of one’s personal identity. For Indigenous students, this instills a sense of cultural pride in a traditionally marginalized community.

For those pursuing the most progressive SEL practices, Indigenous learning principles serve as a practical action plan. The principles transcend cultural boundaries because they are grounded in the universal human need for connectedness. First Peoples Principles of Learning can be used as a foundational piece to help all children pursue a more connected path to self-awareness while bringing us all closer together. For our small part, our physical education department has embraced and celebrated the concepts that parallel our best practice.

For a brief summary: First Peoples Principles of Learning.

Pinetree Secondary Physical Education - Connection Intentions

Physical education, and in fact all learning, is a highly charged emotional experience where children may experience profoundly different outcomes. It is easy is for student attention to drift toward performance expectations that fall short or social interactions buried in emotional pain. However, when we wrap daily curricular objectives in cooperation, purposeful objectives, playful mindsets, self-reflection or healthy perspectives of challenge, the socioemotional brain responds accordingly, and learning feels amazing. Where our emotional attention goes, our destiny will follow. In a world where children struggle to cope with anxiety, one would hope pursuing the tools to own their emotional experience would be the most important lesson at school.

An authentic connection playbook that guides thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in a healthier intentional manner becomes a valuable tool. Intentional lesson design and assessment are two ways we elevate the importance of healthy emotions and connections. If is worth teaching, it is worth assessing. If it is worth doing, it is worth owning the outcome.

In our physical education classrooms:

· We teach the simple neuroscience and attachment-theory recipe. “What you put in is what you get out.” Even young children can grasp and own this.

o Happy in, Happy out …

o Challenge and support in … Resiliency out

o Anger, shame, fear, isolation in ... Anxiety out

· Daily assessable intentions help students guide their attention toward authentic experiences and emotions. A few examples of “emotionally rewarding” intentions might be

Today I will:

o Be a great peer coach

o Be an amazing cheerleader

o Be passionately playful and fun

o Value challenge, discomfort, and best effort

o Value yourself, value others

o Embrace nature

· Assessments are guided but always self reflective. If we want children to own their emotional experience, the process includes learning to assess in authentic ways.

o If a healthy emotional experience is the most important objective, we allow it to be the most important assessment.

o We never assess skill or performance as a primary objective. Only the commitment and feelings associated with the daily connection intention.

o We target intentions that nurture the capacity of children to freely share and graciously accept healthy emotional energy

· We frequently reference First Peoples Principles of Learning as an inspiration for our learning process.

Talking about SEL objectives is just talk. The human brain is designed to respond to actual emotional experiences. Daily connection intentions support authentic attachment and arm students with their own connection-intention playbook for health, learning, and life.


Thanks to Jennifer, Meg, Amber, and Bill for contributing their thoughts.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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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