SEL Day 2020: The Missing Link in Social-Emotional Learning

Why Social Justice and Equity is Essential to SEL

By: Shannon B. Wanless and Tia N. Barnes

On SEL Day 2020, we are taking a moment to reflect on our hopes for the future. There is much to be proud of in the Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) field, but we are struck by how much work there is to be done to see, value, and address the racialized and equity-related dimensions of our field. Social justice and equity play a role in every social emotional experience, but the majority of our research and practice still takes a colorblind approach. Without directly discussing, researching, and designing initiatives with equity at the center of our agenda, we are at risk of ignoring the powerful and ever-present role that racism and oppression play in social-emotional development. On the other hand, when we do welcome equity into our focus, we have the opportunity to enrich our field and to bring its strengths to social justice challenges such as becoming aware of our biases, standing up to inequities, and disrupting systemic injustices. Below are several ways that the SEL field could embrace this challenge by centering equity and justice at the heart of SEL. 

First, the field needs to recruit, retain, and value the voices of SEL scholars of color. This is particularly important as the population of children in the United States rapidly becomes less white. We need scholars of color who can bring unique experiences and solutions to further develop the field and support this changing child population. For those in academia, examine ways that you can improve your recruitment and retention efforts for scholars of color. For those in the field at large, examine whether voices of SEL scholars of color influence your work, and if not, ask yourself why. Make efforts to seek out and include a greater diversity of voices in your syllabus, on your bookshelf, and in your reference lists.

Second, as members of the SEL field, most of us did not experience formal education in social justice and equity. This is a gap in our training and we must commit to our own personal development and learning in this area. Social justice and equity should not just be buzzwords that we throw around but principles that we infuse in our life and our work. This includes reading broadly; engaging in workshops, classes, and conferences focused on social identities that we are less familiar with; and joining communities who are learning about social justice. It is essential to engage in this work with others so that we can build our tolerance for being called out and called in. Invite colleagues, students, and practitioners to join you in these spaces and make a point to model vulnerability and a willingness to challenge yourself, even in moments of discomfort.

Third, our conceptualizations of social-emotional skills suffer from a lack of awareness of the central role that our social identities - race, culture, class, gender, ability status, and others - play in the way we value, express, and learn these skills. Enriching our conceptualizations of social-emotional skills must occur so that our research and practice may be meaningful for the children and families we serve. It is important to note, however, that authentic conceptualization can only develop when we are conducting research with colleagues and with communities that represent a broad range of social backgrounds. Moreover, seeing the fullest conceptualization of each social-emotional skill helps us to recognize the role that those skills could play in fighting racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of oppression. Over time, we will be able to see how harnessing the power of fully seen social emotional skills may help us raise a next generation that is prepared to use SEL to fight inequities (e.g., see work on using bullying prevention to address prejudice by Dr. Jasmine Williams). Examples may include (1) Awareness of one’s own social identities, (2) Management of biases, (3) Awareness of others’ social norms and their nuances based on intersectionalities, (4) Ability to build relationships with people of different identities, and (5) Making responsible choices to stop discrimination and inequities. To truly support the SEL development of all children, we need a paradigm shift that not only focuses on the challenges faced by children but also on the strengths and resilience of each child.

Fourth, as schools move toward supporting the social and emotional needs of students, SEL programming must be culturally responsive to support equity in social emotional outcomes for all students. To support cultural responsiveness, schools can review SEL content and determine how to make it relevant and empowering to their unique student population before delivering the content. SEL delivery cannot be one-size fits all. It includes skillfully presenting social-emotional instruction in a way that acknowledges and honors the lived experiences of students and includes frames of reference that are familiar to students so that SEL is personally meaningful. 

Finally, the SEL field is playing a major role in uncovering the importance of teachers’ social-emotional skills and how to support their development. The field has given less consideration, however, to the way teachers’ social identities and experiences with privilege and oppression influence their ability to enact SEL teaching practices, particularly when teaching children of different races, classes, and identities than themselves. To provide SEL instruction in a culturally responsive manner, educators need both cultural competence and social emotional competence (e.g., see work on using SEL skills during classroom conversations about equity by Kamilah Drummond-Forrester). When we help teachers to reflect on their positionality and how it plays out in their teaching, we may be enhancing the relationships they will have with their students and families, strengthening the efficacy of their social emotional teaching, and helping teachers see and counter the biases and exclusionary practices they are at risk of utilizing with their students of color.

We see promising signs that the SEL and social justice fields are getting acquainted. For example, at the national level, there was increased focus on the topic of equity and greater visibility of scholars of color at the 2019 SEL Exchange. And at the 2019 business meeting of the SEL Special Interest Group in the American Education Research Association, a national group that we are both part of, there was a panel of scholars speaking about the ways their SEL research links to race and equity. There are scholars that are navigating the intersection of SEL and social justice (see SEL and equity work by Dr. Dena Simmons). Locally, we also see similar movements. For example, at the Office of Child Development at the University of Pittsburgh, our SEL program (HealthyCHILD) and our racial identity program (P.R.I.D.E.) are working together to find new ways to address everyday SEL challenges in early childhood classrooms, with a racialized lens. Finally, a new tool for teaching preservice teachers about race called My Racial Journey is being woven into our preservice teacher education courses at University of Pittsburgh and University of Delaware, as a way to expand future teachers’ own racialized thinking. There are more examples of people who are linking SEL and social justice and equity, and we are hopeful that they will inspire others, as they have inspired us.

In Dr. Beverly Tatum’s book, Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, she describes her efforts to teach university students to reflect on their own “spheres of influence” and to consider how they might improve the ways race is conceptualized, lived, impacted, and changed in each of those circles. On this First Annual International SEL Day, we are taking Dr. Tatum’s advice and reflecting on our own area of expertise: social-emotional learning. In this sphere, we can all do better than we are doing right now. Before SEL Day 2021, join us in committing to set aside time and make safe spaces to grapple with your colleagues about ways we can strengthen the equity gaps in the SEL field and to raise a generation of students and teachers that are prepared to use their SEL skills to fight for social justice.




Shannon B. Wanless, Ph.D.
Director of the Office of Child Development and Associate Professor in the School of Education, University of Pittsburgh
2020-2021 Chair-Elect of the Social Emotional Learning Special Interest Group, American Educational Research Association 

Tia N. Barnes, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Human Development and Family Sciences, University of Delaware
2020-2021 Past Chair of the Social Emotional Learning Special Interest Group, American Educational Research Association