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Equity and Social & Emotional Learning: An Integrated Approach to Change

So often in our school communities, we think of making change by engaging a particular “approach” or program. And, in the field of “school reform”—we have often insisted on one approach or lens as being primary or most essential. This debate has often happened with SEL and Equity work—where, rather than seeing these frameworks as being embedded in one another, the field sees them as discrete or separate domains. From this view, we are either implementing an SEL program OR we are attending to Equity—and if we are trying to do both—they often aren’t overlapping conversations.

Image result for teaching diversity abstract artWe celebrate that there is more conversation about SEL in the national dialogue and in districts across the country—and increased numbers of districts who are implementing SEL standards.  And we feel it is even more essential to raise our collective awareness and shift our practices to address equity issues and to develop our capacity to be culturally responsive.

From our perspective—there is a natural interrelationship between SEL and cultural responsiveness. In our experience, we cannot engage in effective SEL work, without paying attention to the biases, demographic trends, and data that relate to core inequities in the systems. And, we can more effectively work with equity issues, when we also build strong relational trust and the SEL skills and capacities to have difficult and complex conversations about race, class, gender, language, sexual orientation and other aspects of identity.

This month—we invite you to consider how these frameworks or perspectives are intricately and inextricably connected. As we are intentionally building relationships with our students and families—who they are and where they come from matter. Students’ history with systemic oppression and cycles of poverty, wealth and privilege matter. The “achievement gap” arises from a complex set of intersecting conditions— and our work as educators is to interrupt the “predictable outcomes” for students that are historically built into inequitable systems.

Below are some questions for inquiry for you to consider
We hope they will be helpful in supporting you to see the ways Equity and SEL are interrelated.

  • Who speaks and participates in my classes and who doesn’t? Why is this so? What else do I need to shift to interrupt these trends?
  • How can I more intentionally bring in students’ culture and heritage into my classroom?
  • What trends do the discipline data and academic achievement data in our school show about our community?
  • What biases, perspectives and worldviews do I carry about various populations of students that may impact the way I build relationships, create my classroom community, or impact my expectations about who can achieve and who can’t?
  • Are there students that I regularly give up on?
  • What can I do to positively engage the differences in the students I work with? How can I support them to build relationships with each other?
We also invite you to read the new summary of the CASEL report devoted to the growing impact of SEL around the country.




Learning Is Social & Emotional

And an article Why We Can’t Have Social and Emotional Learning Without Equity By Robert Jagers at CASEL

For further reading on how equity affects schooling we suggest having a look at these websites:  


Teaching Tolerance:

Finally, below is an excerpt on one case study from the CASEL report:

Districts are building SEL into their strategic plans and budgets. They are reorganizing leadership structures so that SEL is not a separate priority but is integrated into core functions such as academics, professional development, and equity. They are integrating SEL into the development and implementation of district wide policies on hiring and discipline. They are systematically collecting and analyzing data for continuous improvement. And they are regularly communicating with and engaging multiple stakeholders.

Note: In Sacramento City Unified School District, over 50 schools have adopted evidence-based curriculum and are explicitly teaching SEL lessons across all grade levels. Leadership teams from all K-12 schools were trained on SEL core competencies, restorative practices,and equity. Equity coaches regularly work with schools to support their SEL/equity leadership teams, facilitate professional growth opportunities for staff, model lessons, and support individual teachers.

This blog post was created in collaboration with Barbara Catbagan. Barbara is a retired Associate Professor of Education and current Senior Faculty for PassageWorks Institute. She has spent decades dedicated to bringing transformative and culturally  responsive teaching and learning to individuals and organizations throughout the U.S.

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