Committee for Children Blog

Supporting Racial Equity with Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and SEL

The murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, among many others, have dramatically underscored the racial injustices within our country’s systems. Throughout history, race equity has been an issue intertwined in our education system in a multitude of ways.1 On our journey to becoming better and more active allies, we at Committee for Children understand we have a role to play in helping to dismantle interpersonal and institutional racism. As we boldly stated: Words are not enough anymore. We must take action.

We’re committed to improving specific issues related to our priority areas—social-emotional learning (SEL), child protection, and bullying prevention—that disproportionately impact the Black community and communities of color. Each month, our policy experts will answer questions relating to these priority areas and racial equity. Our series has covered exclusionary discipline reform, trauma-informed practices, and will now discuss culturally responsive teaching.

What is culturally responsive teaching?

Culturally responsive teaching goes by many names, and we recognize that these terms can also indicate different approaches across the field. We subscribe to Geneva Gay’s definition: Culturally responsive teaching uses students’ cultural knowledge, experience, and perspectives in instruction to increase relevance and efficacy of student learning.2 Such pedagogy validates and affirms cultural experiences inside and out of the classroom with incorporation of varied instructional styles and multicultural information.3 Teaching that acknowledges and incorporates students’ cultures can improve academic successes and positively affect critical thinking, sense of community, and interpersonal skills.4

Why does culturally responsive teaching matter for racial equity?

The United States education system is marked by racial inequities. As we mentioned in our previous post, experiencing racial trauma can produce negative systemic impacts on academic opportunity.5 Drawing on student strengths has particular importance in racial equity considerations. Positive regard for one’s racial identity promotes academic success and well-being for Black students, who may face discrimination and systemic barriers in education.6 Culturally responsive teaching practices also create a safe and supportive environment by interrupting harmful student behavior (like silencing and teasing), by fostering support between peers, and by providing students with activities to cultivate engagement and a sense of belonging.7 Relating students’ cultural experiences to the classroom strengthens academic achievement and enhances students’ motivation to learn.8

How does this relate to SEL?

SEL and culturally responsive teaching are mutually reinforcing. Both can help build safe and supportive learning environments. Culturally responsive teaching does this through the SEL competencies of self-awareness, social awareness, and relationship skills, and by encouraging teachers to learn about and recognize kids’ distinct backgrounds. SEL builds a safe and supportive learning environment9 with culturally responsive teaching by tuning SEL lessons toward student strengths, such as self-awareness.

How is policy promoting culturally responsive teaching?

Across the country, culturally responsive education legislation is still in its nascency, though there are state and federal examples that support it. These include:

  • This year, Minnesota introduced companion bills (HF6 and SF31) that would require comprehensive plans to improve teaching and learning to include culturally responsive pedagogy. These bills would also establish standards of social, emotional, and cognitive development.
  • In 2019, New York also introduced companion bills (A03648 and S02937) that would establish culturally responsive education curriculum and standards.
  • The federal Teacher Diversity and Retention Act, introduced in 2019, would authorize grants to include culturally responsive teaching as well as SEL competencies in educator certification or preparation.

What can I do to support these efforts?

You can take action in the following ways:

  • If you live in Minnesota or New York, reach out to your state lawmakers to learn more and advocate the legislation that addresses culturally responsive teaching.
  • Consider New York’s Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education Framework as a resource and possible model for state-level work.
  • Sign up to receive action alerts at key times specific to your state from our Policy and Advocacy Team.

1 Darling-Hammond, L. (1998, March). Unequal opportunity: race and education. The Brookings Institution. https://www.brookings.edu/articles/unequal-opportunity-race-and-education/

2 Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. Teachers College Press.

Morrison, K. A., Robbins, H. H., & Rose, D. G. (2008). Operationalizing culturally relevant pedagogy: A synthesis of classroom-based research. Equity & Excellence in Education, 41(4), 433–452. https://doi.org/10.1080/10665680802400006

3 Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. Teachers College Press.

4 Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. Teachers College Press.

Ladson-­Billings, G. (1994). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African-­American children. Jossey-­Bass.

5 García, E. E. & Ozturk, M. (2017). An asset-based approach to Latino education in the United States: Understanding gaps and advances. Routledge. 

National Child Traumatic Stress Network, Justice Consortium, Schools Committee, and Culture Consortium. (2017). Addressing race and trauma in the classroom: A resource for educators. National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. https://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/resources/addressing_race_and_trauma_in_the_classroom_educators.pdf

6 Chavous, T. M., Bernat, D. H., Schmeelk-Cone, K., Caldwell, C. H., Kohn-Wood, L., & Zimmerman, M. A. (2003). Racial identity and academic attainment among African American adolescents. Child Development, 74(4), 1076–1090. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8624.00593

7 Morrison, K. A., Robbins, H. H., & Rose, D. G. (2008). Operationalizing culturally relevant pedagogy: A synthesis of classroom-based research. Equity & Excellence in Education, 41(4), 433–452. https://doi.org/10.1080/10665680802400006

8 García, E. E. & Ozturk, M. (2017). An asset-based approach to Latino education in the United States: Understanding gaps and advances. Routledge.

9 Snyder, F. J., Vuchinich, S. Acock, A., Washburn, I. J., & Flay, B. R. (2011). Improving elementary school quality through the use of a social-emotional and character development program: A matched-pair, cluster-randomized, controlled trial in Hawai’i. Journal of School Health, 82(1), 11–20. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1746-1561.2011.00662.x