School systems across the country are struggling with finding ways to combat persistent inequities. These inequities are often found in student resources, access to opportunities as well as funding, and typically lead to disproportionate outcomes. Many district and school leaders are beginning to seek out anti-racist practices, strategies, and frameworks to address systemic inequities in student resources and outcomes.
The time to commit to these practices is now because research has demonstrated that when adults engage effectively in culturally-affirming practices, it helps students feel respected, valued, and part of the school community. When adults understand and respect diverse cultures, lived experiences, and values, they can help students form meaningful relationships by concentrating on culturally affirming SEL activities (Hubert, 2014; Martell, 2013).
As we celebrate Black History Month, now is the time for district leaders, school leaders, large organizations, and institutions, as well as providers of SEL programs, to unapologetically commit to centering racial equity, justice, and liberation at the core of SEL. Now is the time to advance high-quality, systemic SEL in ways that benefit school districts and communities in their broader attempts to achieve educational justice and excellence.
What are culturally-affirming SEL practices?
Culturally-affirming SEL practices that are action-oriented should address instances of harm and use a strength-based approach to building relationships in a community, affirming self-identity, and recognizing Black children’s brilliance. Such practices require a radical shift away from traditional methods, which reinforce the structures and systems that have led to inequity in the first place. Culturally-affirming practices are critical to creating supportive learning environments that promote all students’ social and emotional learning.
When should districts begin implementing culturally-affirming SEL approaches?
For starters, districts should develop an systematic approach for strengthening adult social, emotionaland cultural competence before implementing any significant student-focused SEL initiatives. When leaders become familiar with best practices and benefits of social emotional development that centers culturally-affirming practices, then they'll do a better job of implementing SEL across schools within their district. SEL can not be siloed into a single department or treated as a stand-alone effort but should be embodied in all the district’s work.
To help leaders get started building a solid knowledge base through an equity lens, educators should use resources like the Guiding Questions for Educators: Promote Equity for SEL document. This document provides educators with questions to reflect and explore SEL through an equity lens. Leaders with a solid knowledge base in SEL that is grounded within an equity lens will work more actively to promote and prioritize culturally-affirming SEL practices in the district and classroom. By building up a strong knowledge base, districts stand a better chance of implementing, integrating, and sustaining equitable SEL practices.
SEL must be leveraged to help youth from historically marginalized race/ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
Building SEL competence is one of the first moves towards the district-wide implementation of SEL. Again, take advantage of resources like the Guiding Questions for Educators document to reflect on the core SEL competencies within an equity lens. It’s critical to examine the core competencies within the context of race and culture. You can use this resource, developed by Wendy Turner and Lessons For SEL, for additional considerations for SEL within the context of race.
It is also important to build support starting with the superintendent, board members, and others who are personally responsible for leading essential components of SEL implementation within the district. Next, begin spreading awareness of SEL to wider groups of central office staffers to help promote and develop a foundational level of SEL knowledge. Developing SEL skills can be a continuous process, with varying phases and approaches depending on the roles, responsibilities, and needs of staff members. Adults must first prioritize developing skills such as acceptance, appreciation, empathy, and perspective-taking in addition to personal attributes, skills, assets, cultural beliefs, and histories. Simply put, districts should strive towards increasing their knowledge of SEL on an ongoing basis. By making it an ongoing practice of increasing SEL knowledge, educators can begin noticing and reflecting on SEL practices that are culturally-affirming.
By noticing and reflecting on SEL practices and its systemic implementation, school districts may develop equitable practices that decrease opportunity gaps and promote inclusion within the school community. When equipped with the right tools and strategies, districts might better assist schools with implementing culturally affirming and appropriate evidence-based policies and practices to support school communities.
Culturally-Affirming SEL Implementation
Let’s be clear, the objective of SEL implementation is to create environments that foster social and emotional development for all students. Implementation must include establishing mutual trust, inclusive learning environments, predictable routines, interactive instructional methods, culturally responsive activities, and authentic family and community partnerships.
Adults must be able to focus on their strengths, biases, the assets and capabilities of others and discuss strategies for identity development and cultural competence. Importantly, school and district leaders must involve students, families, and communities in social and emotional development as authentic stakeholders.
Now is the Time for a More Transformative SEL
Now is the time to move towards a more transformative SEL, which centers culturally-affirming practices. Transformative SEL refers to a process whereby students and teachers build healthy, respectful relationships founded on an appreciation of similarities and differences, learn to examine root causes of inequity critically, and develop collaborative solutions to community and societal problems. SEL must be leveraged to help youth from historically marginalized race/ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
Finally, districts must use SEL as a lever to support marginalized students who are traditionally furthest from opportunity to actualize their fullest potential as contributing members of an increasingly complex and diverse global community.