Why your school’s SEL curriculum needs a revamp

Next-gen SEL centers on equity and what matters to students today. Here are four pillars upon which to focus your efforts.
By: | April 13, 2021
Components of Social and Emotional Learning.
Patrick Cook-Deegan is the founder and CEO of Project Wayfinder.

Patrick Cook-Deegan is the founder and CEO of Project Wayfinder.

SEL is flourishing. Schools nationwide have adopted curricula to help students better understand themselves and their innermost feelings. However, many SEL practices are stuck in the past. Students are now in dire need of curricula that enable them to navigate today’s socio-political landscape. It’s time for a new generation of SEL curricula — SEL 2.0 —  to meet students where they’re at and empower them to find their places in today’s world.

For the latest iteration of SEL education to equitably serve students, it will need to move past perfunctory check-ins and engage students’ realities. As we see it at Project Wayfinder, next-gen SEL curricula will be built upon the following pillars.

1. Connection to real-world events

Without a strong connection to reality, SEL will cease to engage and fail to survive. Students are talking. Educators must join them.

For our part, Project Wayfinder has created an anti-racist toolkit to help students process and contribute to discussions of racial justice that followed the George Floyd case last summer. Similarly, revamped SEL curricula must embrace difficult conversations and encourage students to envision their growth and potential within today’s world.

2. Engagement of racial inequity

Research shows that SEL curricula have performed poorest among male students and students of color. In the US, roughly 50% of students are male, and 50% are students of color. It’s no secret that SEL is an historically white-dominated field. Established curricula reflect the ideologies and lived experiences of their creators, not necessarily those of learners.

Teaching mindfulness to freshmen in Oakland public schools, I found that nearly all pre-packaged SEL curricula were dead on arrival with my young men of color. But when I started connecting SEL to their interests and experiences, they began to see themselves in the material, and the lessons stuck.

Many SEL curricula haven’t given students the opportunity to engage in learning that authentically reflects their experiences. This is why next-gen SEL treats diversity, equity, and inclusion as integral programmatic components, addressing issues of identity and oppression including bias, stereotyping, code switching, privilege, and more.

3. Movement toward action

SEL has traditionally centered understanding of the self and one’s emotions. Next-gen SEL considers this a jumping off point for more.

In accordance with CASEL’s Strategies for Equitable Education, future SEL curricula will also explicitly encourage students to “develop collaborative solutions to community and social problems,” empowering them to become agents of change.

We at Project Wayfinder take precisely this tack in our Purpose curriculum, which culminates in a Purpose Project for which students apply learnings about themselves and their worlds to plan meaningful action on issues of personal importance.

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4. Student engagement as the gold standard

When SEL first hit the education scene, research was required to justify its use. As a result, many SEL curricula were reverse-engineered from research to practice, often leaving students behind in the process. But if students are too disengaged to benefit from SEL, then what’s the point?

Next-gen SEL recognizes that curricula must reflect student experience to be relevant, exciting, and, ultimately, effective. It uses student engagement in tandem with research to optimize curricular iterations and student outcomes.

Chi Kim, CEO of Pure Edge, Inc. and CASEL board member affirms this:

The neuroscience is clear. When children feel they don’t belong, they automatically enter fight or flight mode, which dysregulates their systems. This very real connection of the head and heart will hopefully have a profound impact on pedagogy.

Our young people deserve to be seen, heard, and valued. Next-gen SEL enables learners to apply SEL competencies, find purpose, and create a world of belonging.

Built upon the work of SEL pioneers and bolstered by these four pillars, next-gen SEL will support students in transformative work that reflects their pasts and helps them determine their futures.

It’s now time for educators to inspect their curriculum and ask how next-gen SEL can more fully and equitably serve their students.

Patrick Cook-Deegan is the founder and CEO of Project Wayfinder. He is a leader in reimagining adolescent education through the lens of purpose learning.