May 18, 2018
Let’s Ensure Equity is at the Heart of Social-Emotional Learning
By Zoë Stemm-Calderon
Director, Education

Across the country our partners are doing incredible work to research and reimagine American classrooms. The end goal, designing classrooms and schools where every student receives an equitable education, sounds deceptively simple, but it has eluded teachers, school leaders and policymakers for decades.

One key finding from this research is that young people need to feel like they are valued and respected in school—like they are vital members of the community, their intersectional identities welcome.

Put another way: In an equitable classroom, every student feels like they belong.

At the same time that research is homing in on the importance of learning environments that support student belonging, social-emotional development is emerging as high priority for families, educators and business leaders. Social, emotional and academic development refers to the skills and competencies that students need to set goals, manage behavior, build relationships and process and remember information. Voluminous research now supports what educators have long known: social-emotional skills are central to learning and to succeeding in our rapidly changing world.

It’s critically important that we do not decouple our findings about how to build equitable classrooms from social-emotional learning, but instead understand that they reinforce and strengthen one another. All of this research holds incredible promise for students of color, indigenous students and other students who have been marginalized, but we’ll only realize that promise if equity is at the heart of the push for social-emotional learning in schools.

That’s why a new paper by the Aspen Institute’s Education & Society Program calling attention to the importance of applying an equity lens to social, emotional and academic development comes at exactly the right time. 

The paper cites several areas to pay attention to if we are to ensure that our efforts to integrate social, emotional and academic development are going to have the impact we aspire to for all young people, particularly those marginalized students we have historically struggled to support. Some recommendations that stood out to me:

Build on strengths: While many marginalized students have experienced trauma—be it through a steady stream of racism in their lives, poverty or violence—we must never approach our work as “fixing” students and fail to recognize their strengths and assets as learners. The science of learning is unequivocal on this point—while trauma can interrupt learning and development, we are also built for resilience if we have access to affirming and responsive relationships.

Respect all cultures: Some approaches to social, emotional and academic development can make students feel as though they are conforming to someone else’s expectations of how they should be, and those expectations are often tied to middle class, white dominant culture. Diverse groups of young people bring diverse cultures and values into the classroom and all need to be acknowledged, valued and respected. Approaches like Native American Community Academy’s that harness community wisdom and ask young people, families and communities to identify what qualities and competencies matter for them, are a great place to start. 

Provide needed resources: Reimagining schools that integrate social, emotional and academic development requires resources—people, time and money. And students of color have long been in schools that are under-resourced with the least experienced teachers. When more resources are available, they often go toward remedial academic instruction instead of providing support for young people’s holistic development. Ensuring our schools are adequately and equitably resourced is essential to ensuring we’re providing social, emotional and academic development that meets the needs of all kids and communities.  

Invest in building adult capacity: This isn’t just about young people. Very few teacher preparation or in-service programs provide training in cultural competence and trauma-informed care that supports educators to create the environments that will enable healthy development for all young people. Without this initial preparation and on-going support, it should not be a surprise that our largely white educator workforce is not consistently creating environments where their increasingly diverse students can thrive. A great model for continuous improvement in this essential component of education is Teaching Excellence Network’s approach, which engages educators in cycles of reflection on evidence-based practices for building responsive classrooms, incorporating feedback from their students and families.

There are several other critically important recommendations in the paper and I would urge you to read it in full. The importance of social, emotional and academic development is gaining traction with parents and in schools, and it is essential that equity is built into the foundation of this work. All our students will be better for it.