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Do Messages About Social-Emotional Learning Harm Students of Color?

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A few years ago, educators in some districts that promote social-emotional learning told me they'd noticed some inconsistent messaging about the approach. In some schools, SEL was pitched to teachers as a tool for behavior management. In other schools, which were typically full of students from higher income families, it was billed as a way to boost the types of skills graduates will need for college and careers.

Some boosters of social-emotional learning have urged educators and policymakers to be more thoughtful about how they discuss and carry out SEL. That difference in messaging can send messages to students, sometimes reinforcing stereotypes, they say.

Dena Simmons, director of education at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, writes in a post for the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley that she has "been continually inspired" by teachers' "dedication to supporting their students' academic, social, and emotional growth." 

"At the same time, I have been noticing an unfortunate trend among some of the educators—and other practitioners and scholars in the SEL field: When they describe how students of color behaved before they participated in an SEL program, they tend to use words like "rowdy," "misguided," "disengaged," and "violent," as if to highlight the urgent need for SEL programs for "these kids."

In other words, they frame SEL as a sort of savior—one that transforms students of color from being unmotivated, loud, lazy, and uninterested students into motivated individuals suddenly enthusiastic about school and quiet enough to learn...

Here's the problem: While stories about the impact of SEL may feel hopeful and uplifting to educators, parents, and others, they can also convey subtle messages that harm students inside and outside of the classroom."

Students and educators who regularly hear that "failure narrative" can internalize it, creating harmful effects, Simmons writes. She recommends a variety of strategies for "changing the story," including mindfulness practices, more careful ways of discussing the benefits of SEL, and reflection exercises that help educators address their own privilege and biases.

Leaders of districts that have embraced comprehensive social-emotional learning strategies say their efforts are important for all students, regardless of race, behavior history, or family income level. And those efforts involve work in all schools to rethink disciplinary practices, to boost student engagement and motivation, and to teach students the social skills they may use in their post-graduation lives. But those leaders also seem to recognize that there is work to do in how they explain social-emotional learning to others and, at times, to their own students.

Done right, social-emotional learning can help teachers identify strengths that their students already have and to put those strengths to work in the classroom by better linking them to their academic aims, they say.

"It's not about what's wrong with kids, but what's strong with kids," Tim Shriver, board chair for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning told a conference of district leaders in March.

At that conference, Zaretta Hammond, author of "Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain," shared strategies for recognizing and responding to micro-aggressions and implicit bias. You can check out one of Hammond's blog posts about helping students to "create a counter narrative" here.

To address these concerns, some districts have worked to adopt strategies like shifting from an individual narrative of "I can" to a more collective narrative of "we can," helping teachers explore culturally responsive teaching techniques, and ensuring SEL strategies are used consistently across schools.

Teachers should also create opportunities for students to tell their own stories, Simmons writes.

"Importantly, although research has documented impressive benefits of SEL programming, we must be careful about viewing or describing it as a corrective to character flaws in some groups of children, and not others. Despite good intentions, these types of narratives about our young people of color do more harm than good," she writes.

You can read Simmons' post here. And check out her Ted Talk on helping students of color confront "imposter syndrome."

What do you think? What have you noticed about how people discuss social-emotional learning?


Additional reading about social-emotional learning:

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