Using Social Emotional Learning Practices to Support Equity in Schools

February is Black History Month, a time to celebrate the strides that have been made in our country as we continue to push for both equality and equity. Moments like the landmark Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1954 and the recent diversity drive in New York City schools demonstrate the progress we have made on the path to equality and are cause for celebration. However, there is still a long way to go.

This month serves as an important reminder that there is a critical need for equity in schools across the globe. For example, while black and Latino students made up 37 percent of high school students, they accounted for 27 percent of students taking at least one AP course. It has become clear that despite the progress we have made as a society to bridge the gap of educational inequity, more work needs to be done.

In the past, most efforts focused on educational equity have not included social emotional learning (SEL). However, as the number of children affected by trauma remains high, teachers and school leaders are equipping themselves with the tools to give students the support they need.

Social emotional learning is laying the foundation for safe, supportive, and equitable learning environments all across the nation. In this article, we’ll be discussing various aspects of SEL, trauma and culturally sensitive practices, and how they can be used to create equitable learning environments where all students are given the tools to excel.

What is Educational Equity?

In education, equity is best understood as the right to educational resources and educational rigor, regardless of factors such as gender, life experience, ethnic background, religion, and socioeconomic status.

Equity is critical to a student’s education, as equity helps to create a positive school environment in which students express interest in their education, and are given equal opportunities for achievement.

Among other notable outcomes, equitable education systems increase classroom participation, student motivation, and the availability of resources and services needed for students to thrive inside the classroom. Equitable education systems also decrease suspension rates and chronic absenteeism.

How Can Social Emotional Learning Be Used To Support Equity?

In our whitepaper, Building Equitable, Safe and Supportive Schools: Trauma and Culturally Sensitive Practices For Guidance, published with the Vice President and Institute Fellow at the American Institutes for Research, David Osher, P.h.D., we explore how social emotional learning and trauma-informed practices contribute to the equitable, safe, and supportive learning environments where students thrive. Trauma-sensitive practices and social emotional learning practices are deeply interconnected and together they play a major role in school climate.

Social emotional learning equips students with the tools to excel both academically and throughout life. Examples of the core skills that adults and students gain from social emotional learning include, but are not limited to, self-efficacy, resiliency, and empathy. These skills are incredibly relevant.

More than two-thirds of children reported at least 1 traumatic event by age 16. These traumas are affecting the way students learn, and the way they interact with their teachers and peers. Engaging in social emotional learning practices helps students to overcome adversity, identify and regulate emotions, adopt positive social behaviors, and thrive academically. However, whether or not a student has experienced trauma does not negate the need for social emotional practices in schools. All students benefit from empathy and positive social interactions within the classroom - this is what contributes to educational equity.

Trauma-sensitive learning environments are rooted in empathy, a core tenant of SEL. Empathy can be defined as the ability to share and understand the feelings of another. When we are able to feel and display empathy, we are sensitive to the life experiences, cultural background, and circumstance of those around us. Within social emotional learning, this also commonly includes sensitivity and consideration for student trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).  

Take a look at our white paper, co-authored alongside the American Institutes for Research, Building Equitable, Safe and Supportive Schools: Trauma and Culturally Sensitive Practices For Guidance, to learn more about trauma-informed, culturally sensitive practices and how this knowledge can be used to create safe and supportive learning environments.

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