SEL equity: 9 changes educators should make

Cultural differences can lead to students being punished, The Education Trust's researchers say
By: | August 6, 2020
A new report from The Education Trust suggests social-emotional and academic shifts schools can make to support Black and brown students equitably. (GettyImages/fstop123)A new report from The Education Trust suggests social-emotional and academic shifts schools can make to support Black and brown students equitably. (GettyImages/fstop123)

Students of color will need social-emotional learning supports that affirm Black and brown identities as schools reopen during COVID pandemic and the anti-racism movement, says a new report from The Education Trust.

Social-emotional learning programs that focus solely on changing student behavior by teaching them to regulate their emotions are insufficient, says the report, “Social, Emotional and Academic Development Through an Equity Lens.”

When adult biases and discriminatory policies are not addressed, cultural differences can lead to students being punished, Education Trust researchers say.

For example, a white student might be praised for self-advocacy when speaking out about an unfair situation or policy while a Black student taking the same action is reprimanded for being “defiant” or “talking back,” the report says.


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“School and district leaders must examine their own learning environments to see if they are equitable, listen to and learn from the experiences of families and students of color, and make communities and students of color full partners in decision-making,” said Nancy Duchesneau, lead author and P-12 research associate at Ed Trust.

The report encourages teachers and administrators to make the following changes to support Black and brown students equitably:

1. Shifting the focus from “fixing kids.”

Educators should set high expectations for students of color while taking a broader SEL approach that recognizes the assets students bring to the classroom and their potential.

2. Addressing bias in adult perceptions.

Educators must identify their own explicit and implicit biases and actively work to dismantle systemic racism based on race, language, gender, immigration status, and other factors.

3. Move on from a one-size-fits-all mindset. 

Educators must recognize “cultural and contextual influences” to value differences in students and accept that what works for one child may not work for all.


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The report also offers six policy recommendations for creating equity in social-emotional and academic development:

  • Provide meaningful professional development
  • Diversify the leadership and teaching workforce
  • Ensure equitable access to and supports for success in rigorous and culturally sustaining coursework
  • Ensure inclusive discipline and dress code policies
  • Ensure access to integrated wraparound services and supports
  • Engage students, parents, families and communities as full partners

“When instruction starts again for students—in whatever form that may take—school and district leaders must meaningfully center students’ identities and well-being,” said John B. King Jr., Ed Trust president and CEO and former U.S. secretary of education,”by prioritizing access to: outstanding, diverse and caring educators and leaders; safe, supportive school climates; school counselors and mental health services; and rigorous, culturally relevant curricula.”