Reclaiming SEL

Students are socially, emotionally, and culturally complex beings. Their development is not predetermined, fixed or linear; it is unique to each individual and highly responsive to their environments, cultures and relationships. This means that individuals and contexts mutually influence and shape each other. Students’ brains are continually adapting and changing in response to what they experience and how they make sense of these experiences.

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is a process that can support educators to respond to students’ complexity by dismantling the social and emotional barriers that hinder their ability to grow and thrive, and by focusing on creating equitable outcomes for racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse students. But is SEL currently meeting its very purpose?

In order for SEL to support all students, we need to bring a critical lens to the work and consider how and if curriculum, standardized assessments, instructional practices, discipline policies and social and emotional supports are truly supporting students to become the best versions of themselves. This requires that educators and schools come together to ask and wrestle with difficult questions.

During the 2021 American Educational Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting, I had the opportunity to share space with Dr. Dena Simmons, Dr. Zoe Higheagle Strong, and Dr. Stephanie Carriaga, three amazing scholars and practitioners who are actively developing cultural systems and practices that question and dismantle “white-washed” SEL approaches that hurt Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), neurodiverse students and those coming from low income backgrounds.

The session was focused on decolonizing and redefining SEL. These are a few things that I took away from the conversation:

  • We need to put an anti-racist, anti-oppressive, anti-bias and equity lens to our SEL work. Dr. Dena Simmons reflected on SEL being used as a form of policing to control and manage behavior when implemented in schools serving BIPOC students, while having a college and career focus when implemented in spaces serving White students, “in a system that is not well, if we don’t apply this lens, we are risking SEL becoming white supremacy with a hug.”

  • Emotions are culturally and contextually driven. Dr. Zoe Higheagle Strong reflected on the disconnect between how schools teach BIPOC students to manage their emotions when they experience a difficult situation, such as the loss of a relative, and the reality of how these communities come together to grieve, “in Indigenous communities, when someone dies, we spend time with our families, we spend time away from school. Because when we lose an elder, we lose culture and language. The loss is deep.” BIPOC communities need spaces where they can safely express their emotions, in ways that honor their culture and heritage.

  • Before we talk about students’ emotions, we need to sit with our own feelings. Dr. Stephanie Carriaga shared the need for educators, especially White teachers, to do their internal work and process their own emotions, before asking students to do the same, and for institutions to increase spaces where adults can process these feelings, “our schools need to look at their own window of tolerance and shift their capacity to actually create a container for the range of emotions that our students bring to school.” In order to create this container, adults need to do the work first.

  • SEL is the way we are with each other. Panelists discussed the need to look beyond pre-packaged SEL curricula, which often don’t have a culturally responsive lens and maintain dominant narratives about emotional expression and management. As educators, this means considering not only why we are doing SEL, but also how it is helping students to navigate their social and cultural contexts. Simmons asked “when we sell SEL, what are we selling?”

  • We need to move from the individual to the collective. When we are too focused on the development of individual skills, we see SEL as a destination.  But, as I have written in the past, SEL is a vehicle. We want students and adults to develop their social and emotional capacity to do something: to become the best version of themselves, fulfill their potential, and work towards a more equitable society. We need to move from the individual to the collective, and use SEL practices for a purpose: to question, connect, reclaim and cultivate purpose-driven communities.

The work starts with us. We cannot teach what we don’t practice, and unlearning bias and racism takes time and courage. As educators, we need to continue using and developing our SEL skills to build awareness, question dominant narratives and come together to center SEL in equity and social justice. Then, we will be able to restore relationships and heal in community.

To get you started, check out these resources:

Teaching with the HEART in Mind

Why SEL Alone Isn’t Enough

SEL is Hegemonic Miseducation

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