Committee for Children Blog

Social-Emotional Learning from a Culturally Responsive Lens

I have been fortunate to learn from many great people throughout my years in education. Recently, I had a chance to connect with Lea Denny, an advocate for First Nations youth. Throughout the past year, Lea has taught me the importance of culture in the teaching and modeling of social-emotional skills. I'd like to share some of that learning with you, but first, here is a little background on Lea: She is Hawaiian Polynesian, her husband is Oneida and her daughter is Oneida and Ojibwe. Her son attends a Native school.

Lea incorporates cultural teachings of the Medicine Wheel with social and emotional learning. Medicine Wheels have been used for generations by many First Nations people for health and healing. They show how everything is interconnected and part of a greater whole. They can take many different forms, mean many things on many levels, and represent many uses and meanings. One of the biggest strengths of a Medicine Wheel that Lea embraces is its power in facilitating self-reflection, one of the key components of social-emotional learning.

Through her teachings, students develop understanding of the medicine wheel and its meaning and purpose, including the four components: physical, spiritual, emotional and mental. During her lessons, she encourages students to make these connections between mind, body, and feelings with examples, modeling, and practice. These are a few examples of the main ideas of her teachings:

  • If something in our mind is not well it affects our emotions, and vice versa
  • Emotions are okay – it is important to honor one's feelings (both highs and lows)
  • One must know how to ”come down” from experiencing intense emotions (emotional regulation) to find homeostasis and balance within
  • Balance involves staying in touch with the feelings of oneself and others
  • The goal is to get back to being mentally, emotionally, and spiritually connected by recognizing the body's experiences and finding ways of thinking (mental) and doing (physical) to achieve balance (such as calmness)
  • Spiritual peace involves harmony in all of these areas; the goal is to have equilibrium in mind, body, and spirit and to understand one's connection to each of these elements
  • Mindfulness activities are essential:
    • One of her examples: Students listen for the bell, wait for it to drift away, then breathe and allow distractions in their environment to come and go – they allow noises to just be and let them go
  • Students build their own experiences and skills through ongoing self-reflection, such as:
    • Regularly self-assessing in each of the four areas
    • Reflecting on past situations, considering the perspectives and feelings of oneself and others
    • Identifying how the body connects with the mind and spirit at various moments in the day


    This is just one of many examples of how social-emotional learning can be embedded into cultural teachings. Do you have examples or experiences you would be willing to share?