Social Emotional Learning & Equity


The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which [they are] being educated.
– James Baldwin


The promise of social and emotional development as a lever for increasing educational equity rests on the capacity of educators to understand that all learning is social and emotional and all learning is mediated by relationships that sit in a sociopolitical, racialized context – for all children, not just those who are black and brown.  Social emotional learning offers the possibility of acknowledging, addressing, and healing from the ways we have all been impacted by racism and systemic oppression and to create inclusive, liberatory learning environments in which students of color and students living in poverty experience a sense of belonging, agency to shape the content and process of their learning, and thrive. This potential will only be realized if we intentionally prioritize educational equity and belonging as a primary goal of social-emotional learning and strategically apply what we know from research on the effects of race and racism, the relationship between culture and learning, and the neuroscience of healthy brain development.

Implications for Professional Learning

To build equity consciousness and capacity, we need to create significant time for professional learning, reflection, and collaboration so that educators have regular opportunities to:

  • increase their own self-awareness of how their various social identities in terms of race, class, gender, language, etc. shaped their own educational experiences and shape their definitions of success and their interpretations of student behavior
  • build their knowledge of and reflect on the history of race, racism, and exclusion in the United States and build their skill for discussing this history with students in the context of lessons and class discussions
  • deconstruct, reflect on, and design lessons that support the active valuing, engagement, and development of the whole child
  • learn about the neuroscience of learning; those signals that trigger a “threat” response especially for students of color as well as strategies explicitly designed to decrease stress and generate a sense of calm and well-being
  • develop a repertoire of approaches for building trust, especially across race, class, and culture.

The table below highlights several pitfalls and recommendations for educators seeking to implement SEL to make progress on equity and inclusion:

social emotional learning pitfalls

Click here to download this chart as a reference tool.

In order for efforts aimed at developing the social emotional and academic development (SEAD) of students to advance educational equity, we must:

  1. Situate our efforts in the historical, socio-political, and racialized context (white supremacy) of education in the United States.
  2. Approach SEL work with the explicitly stated purpose of creating more equitable learning environments and outcomes (not as an afterthought or add-on).
  3. Ensure that educators begin by developing their own self-awareness, social-emotional intelligence and cultural competence; understanding the cultural reference through which they understand themselves and their students, and surfacing and confronting the ways in which they may be, consciously or unconsciously, contributing to the racial vulnerability of their students.
  4. Engage SEL work with the understanding that ALL learning is social and emotional for all human beings. Understanding how our students are situated to opportunity and belonging in our communities and schools is essential.
  5. Utilize SEL practices to facilitate healing from the effects of systemic oppression, build cross-race alliances, and create joyful, liberatory learning environments.
  6. Simultaneously, focus on dismantling policies and practices that reproduce racial inequity and build new opportunity structures and pathways to existing opportunities to create greater equity.

Making progress on educational equity is long-haul work that requires persistent, collective courage and effort. It will require us to dig deep, to reflect, to question, to deal with our own uncomfortable emotions about inequity and about one another. And, yet, to apply the best of what we know about how human beings develop and grow in service of equity holds  tremendous promise for the creation of inclusive, joyful, liberatory learning environments in which our students can discover their unique gifts and talents and thrive. Author Alice Walker suggests resistance is the secret to joy.  As we build our social and emotional development practices in our schools, districts, and communities, let’s resist the temptation to do so without acknowledging the historical legacy of racism and exclusion in our public education system. Instead, let’s apply an equity lens to our collective work, question our fundamental assumptions about how we do school, and together create learning environments in our schools that are humanizing, liberating, and joyful for all of our students.

The National Equity Project’s approach to equity leadership development can support you to bring this vision to reality in your context. Learn how.