Forging the Connection Between Social-Emotional Learning and Education Equity

How to Encourage, Support, and Reward School-Based SEL with Equity in Mind

education equity, social emotional learning, second step, elementary, middle school, early learning

A recent Kappan article suggests seven ways the secretary of education can encourage, support, and reward systematic school-based efforts to promote students’ social-emotional development (also known as social-emotional learning). According to CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning), social-emotional learning, or SEL, is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

Advocates point to research demonstrating the impacts of SEL on positive student development. The Kappan article suggests the following steps for the secretary of education to take with regard to SEL: establish senior leadership, encourage state technical assistance, encourage teacher certification, establish accountability options, honor students’ accomplishments beyond academics, foster collaborative support structures for those implementing SEL, and allocate sufficient funding.

When schools commit to promoting students’ social-emotional learning, they become positioned to engage all education stakeholders and create a safe, equitable, and engaging school climate, so each student acquires and enhances the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they need for interpersonal and life success. Similar to reading, assessment of and expertise in SEL involves an evidence-based, comprehensive, and cross-curricular set of approaches that permeate the school. Yet the Kappan article omits one critical element we would like to point out here: the importance of integrating SEL with education equity.

When schools commit to promoting students’ social-emotional learning, they become positioned to engage all education stakeholders and create a safe, equitable, and engaging school climate, so each student acquires and enhances the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they need for interpersonal and life success.

What Is Education Equity?

The National School Boards Association describes education equity as being achieved when all public schools provide equivalent access to resources and ensure that all students have the knowledge and skills to succeed as contributing members of a rapidly changing global society, regardless of factors such as race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic background, English proficiency, immigration status, socioeconomic status, or disability.

As we look to the future and what our students will need for success in life, it’s time to ask ourselves: what is the real value of SEL if not to improve outcomes for all children? How do we integrate the reality that for all of students’ efforts to build strong social-emotional competencies, there are forces working relentlessly against their success in the form of implicit and explicit bias, underfunded schools, and unsafe neighborhoods? In other words, to quote our SEL colleague Alice Ray, “Social-emotional learning in the absence of social justice—simply isn’t.”

How Can We Effect Change and Implement Education Equity?

Within the schoolhouse walls and in the wider community, we face critical, immediate equity issues—such as the belief that some students are incapable of high intellectual/cognitive performance—and other forms of institutional and structural racism that lead to differential rates of mass incarceration, income inequality, and health outcomes. It’s time we grounded development of students’ social-emotional competence in the goal of effecting real social change in the form of dedicated, informed, and discerning social, civic, and community participation. The opportunities are both rich and right in front of us:

  • Building students’ and educators’ awareness of their own implicit biases
  • Teaching students to exercise growth mindset
  • Setting a welcoming school context, focusing on inclusiveness and acceptance of all students and families
  • Supporting teachers in expanding their own mindsets regarding their students’ capabilities
  • Using SEL as a foundation for restorative practices
  • Building student agency beyond exercising grit and self-determination, to recognize injustice in current and historical contexts while building school climates that make it safe for students to employ SEL—empathy, perspective-taking, self-regulation, and social problem-solving skills—to humanely and effectively address injustice when they encounter it
  • Harnessing young people’s innate sense of justice and activism, enabling them to build their (and our!) capabilities to address inequities in their schools, communities, and broader society

Examples in Schools

At Kellis High School (AZ), student engagement that blends the elements of SEL and social justice is integrated into courses, student leadership, sports, and extracurricular activities. School administrators support faculty to engage special and general education students to develop relationships with students different from them, feel and show empathy, and work together to build social-emotional skills by focusing on social inclusion within the school environment. Students report many personal gains from their social justice efforts, including patience, friendship, and feelings of self-efficacy. There is an intentional focus on engaging students, SEL competencies, social justice outcomes, and sustaining a socially inclusive school climate.

At New Brunswick Middle School (NJ)—a priority school recently named a State and National School of Character—every student is engaged in ongoing action-linked conversations about how to improve the school, community, and wider world. These conversations, which are built into their SEL curriculum and occur daily during advisory periods, help kids learn social-emotional skills to carry out positive actions and give them an opportunity to use the skills.

What Is an Equitable School Climate and How Do We Achieve It?

At its foundation, equity in education requires a physically and emotionally safe and positive school climate in which students are respected and encouraged by adults who hold high expectations. This culture of achievement saturates all aspects of the school, featuring an environment for learning that is culturally responsive and that challenges adults and students to have a strong sense of self-efficacy. In addition, such school climates encourage students and teachers to bring thoughtful debate, listen to and learn from others’ perspectives, and disagree with one another (as well as adults) without fear of reprisal or recrimination. This process is neither clean nor straightforward; inviting students to engage in justice issues can be messy and fraught with difficulty for students and adults alike. But when student agency is unlocked, including providing students with the skills to follow up with their newfound voices, authentic engagement is usually the result.

SEL cannot solve the social inequities that affect our students. These are structural issues to which all educators must be attentive and about which strong advocacy is needed. While this is taking place at a wider ecological level, by linking SEL to equity in schools now, every day, we and our students hone the skills to become the architects of a better world.

About the Authors

Joan Cole Duffell is executive director of Committee for Children, a US-based nonprofit organization focused on research, program development, and policy advocacy in the areas of social-emotional learning and child protection. She can be reached at jduffell@cfchildren.org.

Maurice J. Elias, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Rutgers University, director of the Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab, writes a blog for Edutopia, and is the co-author of The Other Side of the Report Card: Assessing Students’ Social, Emotional, and Character Development. He can be reached at Maurice.Elias@rutgers.edu.

Terry Pickeral is president of Cascade Educational Consultants, a research fellow at the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network, writes a blog, and is the co-author of Weaving Student Engagement into the Core Practices of Schools. He can be reached at t.pickeral@comcast.net.


Learn more about social-emotional learning, the research behind it, and how it benefits students in the classroom, at home, and in their daily lives.