SEL Day: How We Use Love to Create a More Just & Equitable World


Rethinking Our Definition of Love

By Shannon Wanless & Tracy Larson

Last year, one of our social justice mentors, Michelle King, asked us, “What is your working definition of love?” A seemingly simple question ended up unearthing a great deal of complexity. Do we really love all of the children we work with? Or do we withhold love from some of them because they have caused us harm or because we think they do not belong here? Maybe it is time to question our definition of love. Is the kind of love we are practicing right now the kind of love that reflects the just, equitable, and inclusive world we are trying to create?


Most of us realize that the need to be loved is one of our most basic human needs. But what we may not realize is that our need to love others (and ourselves) goes hand in hand with this. We can only truly thrive in loving relationships with each other and in spaces where we feel seen, heard and valued as our true selves. As once said, 

“I think everybody longs to be loved and longs to know that he or she is lovable. And, consequently, the greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving.” (Fred Rogers)

In the name of loving all children, many of us implement SEL or behavior management practices that actually don’t look much like love. We get caught up in ‘one-size fits all’ approaches and preconceived expectations. We have been taught to use early childhood practices that have research evidence behind them or that come in shiny packages with easy to follow 1-2-3 steps, without questioning the values that they reflect. Rather than spending our days expecting children to ‘fit in’ and implementing spelled out practices, what would it look like if we spent our days creating spaces where children feel that “they are loved and capable of loving”? What if we began each day with the intention of being the love that we all need to thrive?

“If you be love, as a teacher, than what you model is the belief- through the everyday things you do - that no human being deserves to suffer any threat to or assault on her personhood. It means that even in the face of a young person constantly calling out, cursing you out, or throwing a chair, you be love in a response that disciplines rather than punishes. You be love by modeling healing over harm. You be love by restoring community instead of excluding from community. (Shalaby, 2017, p172).

What would it look like to respond to a child’s challenging behavior with love? It does not mean ignoring the behavior or making it seem like “no big deal”. Avoiding conflict and confrontation is a fake version of love that prioritizes politeness over authenticity. Love is being willing to explain that the behavior is a problem because it caused harm to someone else, while simultaneously showing the child that we know that they must be feeling harmed too. What is the unmet need underneath the challenging behavior? We will not always be able to figure out the answer to that question. But being the love that each other needs, means that there are no throw away children. We see them, we love them, and we are here to extend love and discipline at the same time--because those are not contradictory ideas. 


“Love is such a powerful force. It is there for everyone to embrace - that kind of unconditional love for all of humankind. That is the kind of love that impels people to go into the community and try to change conditions for others, to take risks for what they believe in.” (Coretta Scott King)

As we create relationships with children, families, and entire communities that are centered in love, our intolerance for inequities inevitably becomes even more pronounced. If we are practicing approaching all people by seeing them, hearing them, and valuing their true selves, it is inconceivable that our society would let anyone go without the material and human resources they need to thrive. Yet in the name of justice, we often take away resources, relationships, and each others’ right to belong in a loving community.

This is even true in the way we treat young children. In the name of justice, we exclude, suspend and expel children, and punish their mistakes by removing behavior chart points, activities, or by taking away rewards. We say we are doing this because we love them and want to teach them a lesson. But are children really learning anything from these punishments, or are we just feeling better when we deliver them because we have harmed them in return for them harming someone else? Do we feel better when we punish because we falsely believe that we have regained a sense of power or control over them and the situation?

What if justice was being love even in the face of harm? By figuring out how to hold each other accountable, while sharing power and letting go of anger and hate? 

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” (Cornel West, 2011). 

If we believe a just and equitable world is a place where every person matters and experiences their humanity as affirmed and valued in community with one another, then we must start practicing this revolutionary place by prioritizing unconditional love with our children. When loving unconditionally, we are able to accept the good and the bad, successes and mistakes, joy and frustration, in both ourselves and others. This type of love will help us build communities where we experience and appreciate both the beauty and faults of being human. 

“Being part of a loving community does not mean we will not face conflicts, betrayals, negative outcomes from positive actions, or bad things happening to good people. Love allows us to confront these negative realities in a manner that is life-affirming and life-enhancing.” (hooks, 2001, p139). 

So what would it look like if “justice was served” with unconditional love and in a way that restores community and is life-enhancing? For us, this is a central question that we hold in the upcoming year. As we look toward SEL Day 2023, we invite all who care for children to consider, “What is your working definition of love?”


Shannon B. Wanless, Ph.D.

Director of the Office of Child Development and Associate Professor in the School of Education, University of Pittsburgh
2021-2022 Chair of the Social Emotional Learning Special Interest Group, American Educational Research Association 

Tracy Larson, Ed.D., N.C.S.P.

Director of Early Childhood Partnerships (HealthyInfants, HealthyCHILD, COMET, SPECS), Office of Child Development, University of Pittsburgh 
Auxiliary Faculty, The LEND Center, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center



2020 SEL Day Post w/ Tia Barnes: The Missing Link in Social-Emotional Learning: Why Social Justice and Equity is Essential to SEL
2021 SEL Day Post:  Reimagining SEL for Social Justice