This year has seen the United States come face to face with inequity in many of our longest-standing institutions: our police, our health-care system, our democracy itself. Our school communities are no exception. For those of us who work with vulnerable children, the two systems of pandemic-era education that have solidified this fall—one for children who have the resources they need to excel and one for everyone else—are a searing reminder that these same systems have always existed, separate and unequal.
A conversation about policing in America, for example, isn’t complete without acknowledging and addressing that many well-funded schools that serve Black and brown communities police student behavior to a degree that predominantly white schools typically don’t. Much has been written about the potential harm of physical police presence in schools or submitting children to metal detectors as they enter a building. But what if, especially in the era of remote learning, policing can extend beyond the walls and roofs of school buildings, becoming something much more insidious?
Particularly in schools serving low-income children and children of color, where we’ve spent much of our careers, policing can take the form of student-behavior-management techniques masquerading as social-emotional learning. SEL is intended as a framework for learning that teaches students to understand and respond to their own emotions and those of the people around them. Of late, there’s been a renewed surge of interest in SEL as a method for school staff to manage the unpredictability of the 2020-21 school year (an objective that, as educators, we can all sympathize with). But when SEL is pitched to schools as a trendy way to regulate student behavior, we’re missing the point—and the opportunity to equip children with leadership-building tools to use their voices and exercise their agency.
Misuse of social-emotional learning—using it to regulate rather than empower, whether intentionally or not—frequently stems from a failure to design and implement it through an equity lens. Primarily white systems that serve Black and brown children and families sometimes start with the wrong question: “What can this system do?” rather than, “What kind of support do our families want?”
We must ensure that SEL remains a mechanism for positive, relationship-building interactions rather than traumatizing ones.”
The “no excuses” education model often born of this approach relies on order for order’s sake, and, when combined with institutional racism, has begotten a culture where children can be sentenced to juvenile detention for not completing homework. This model offers our children two options: Comply or don’t comply, and the cost of noncompliance is that you simply can’t exist in this space.
As teachers and administrations grasp for ways to make virtual learning feel like “real” school, these dynamics will be replicated—often in arbitrary, ultimately harmful ways, such as some districts’ Zoom policies that are now bringing restrictive dress codes into students’ bedrooms.
Coding behavior management as “order” or “structure” is nothing new in this country. We see it in national calls for “law and order,” and closer to home, when it comes to children of color and neurodiverse children. When we say, “Stop crying. Get back in the line. We don’t do that”—what are we really telling children? Be respectable. Assimilate. Reshape yourself to fit into this institution, because we’re not going to reshape it to fit you and your needs.
It’s a trap we’ve all fallen into. And, of course, children, particularly those who are neurodiverse, thrive on routine and predictability in school, especially at times when so much has been upended. But the structures we create in our schools often feel more about routine for routine’s sake—what feels comfortable for the teacher rather than what centers student voices.
Predictability means something different from “order,” and it doesn’t start with policing; it starts with creating a space for children to establish their own vision of success. Children already know how they want to feel: safe, cared for, respected. Social-emotional learning, applied through an equity lens, helps them express what they need to get there.
So, what does it look like to create an educational space, virtual or in person, that nourishes social and emotional health? At the charter school network in New York City that we hail from, it looks like creating classroom norms that every student contributes and commits to. It looks like, rather than requiring students to turn their cameras on, cultivating a space where they feel safe and comfortable enough to want to. It looks like extending the same practices and the same options toward all students, no matter how they look or how they learn. It looks like realizing that we can’t expect children to succeed in school until they are not only fed, sheltered, and safe but also known, seen, and loved.
Social-emotional learning works—not only because it improves academic outcomes, but also because it helps young people be active partners in their own education. Done right, it grows not just people who can show up to school, remain silent in class, and fill in a bubble on a test but critical thinkers and lifelong learners who leave school ready to live in the world, to be a citizen, and to do equity work of their own. But in order for this vision to become reality for all children, we must ensure that SEL remains a mechanism for positive, relationship-building interactions rather than traumatizing ones.
We know that the children who suffered most during a spring of remote learning were overwhelmingly Black and brown, low-income, and/or neurodiverse. With this school year like no other in full swing—and no guarantee of when the pandemic will abate—it is our responsibility to make sure that the classrooms of 2020 and beyond aren’t simply new theaters in which to restage the same old inequities.
Although many educators are physically farther from our students, our lens into their daily lives and the challenges they face has never been clearer. This year has spurred us to reflect on and reform practices that may be harmful—but changes we make now must extend beyond this moment in time. They must be the foundation of a more equitable school system in this country, one that levels the playing field for every child it serves.
And if we grown-ups need role models in this work, we don’t have to look any further than our students. They already have the answers, if we’re willing to listen.
A version of this article appeared in the December 09, 2020 edition of Education Week as When Social-Emotional Learning Is Misused