Conditioned to Feel

When Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is taught in the vacuum, without regard to the social, cultural and gender norms that impact students’ and adults’ ability to fully express their emotions, it can actually cause harm. There are dominant narratives about which emotions are “appropriate” to express that are damaging to a healthy development.

For example, the fact that girls are encouraged to express tender emotions, while boys are encouraged to externalize anger or disgust, following societal gender roles. Or when Black students express anger, they are more likely to be disciplined at school than their White peers. The question is, are we reinforcing these roles and stereotypes through our SEL lessons?

The goal of SEL is to remove barriers to learning and nurture healthy development for children and youth. Within this goal, educators have a big responsibility to question and help students unpack (sometimes unlearn) the societal expectations that limit our growth as human beings. 

In A Pathway for Better Social Emotional Learning, a recent Edutopia article, I wrote:

“Not all emotions are created equal, and not everybody has the freedom to express the full range of emotions.”

In this article, I discuss how race/ethnicity, family background and gender impact our ability to fully express feelings. There are other reasons, but these are some examples that can help educators to consider if and how they can incorporate and question these expectations in their SEL lessons or advisory meetings.

Then, I provide 3 strategies to avoid falling in the pitfall of an SEL taught without context. It starts with the adults: considering how these expectations impact educators themselves, examining their learned biases, and learning about students’ experiences. Check it out:

A Pathway for Better Social Emotional Learning

There is a pathway for better SEL when we question and examine the societal expectations that condition students and adults to suppress or overexpress their feelings. Educators can counteract these implicit norms by engaging in self-reflection, examining their biases, and intentionally learning about their students’ lives.

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