The Missing Link in Social and Emotional Learning

Why Social Justice and Equity Are Essential to Social and Emotional Learning

By: Shannon B. Wanless and Tia N. Barnes

There is much to be proud of in the social and emotional learning (SEL) field, but we are struck by how much work there is to be done to see, value, and address the racial and equity-related dimensions of our field. Social justice and equity play a role in every social and 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 and 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.

CPCK Addition for Parents/Caregivers: How can we place authors of color and books about a widely diverse racial and cultural range of innovators, leaders and role models on our own bedside table and our children’s for reading this summer and beyond? 

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.

CPCK Addition for Parents/Caregivers: How can we seek out news sources, attend local community meetings, and find events outside of our immediate neighborhood that allow our family to interact with differing races and cultures and learn more about how to promote social justice?

Third, our conceptualizations of social and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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 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.

CPCK Addition for Parents/Caregivers: As we enter new communities, how can we deeply listen for the thoughts and feelings of those with differing perspectives to learn? How can we use our inner coach to pause when discomfort wells up knowing that we need to feel through the discomfort — to hang in it — to allow for greater understanding? How can we suspend judgement long enough to allow different ways of thinking to take hold?

Fourth, as schools move toward supporting the social and emotional needs of students, SEL programming must be culturally responsive to support equity in social and 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. 

CPCK Addition to Parents/Caregivers: This also means that authentic communication and dialogue between teachers and families is essential. Schools not only need to open the door, but create open pathways for regular, small, ongoing communication that is safe and judgement-free to offer space for families to contribute their vital knowledge – the culture of their family – to help inform any social and emotional skill building strategies.

Finally, the SEL field is playing a major role in uncovering the importance of teachers’ social and 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 and 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 who 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. As the country mourns yet another black man murdered unjustly, we are taking Dr. Tatum’s advice and reflecting on our own area of expertise: social and emotional learning. In this sphere, we can all do better than we are doing right now. 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 Beth Wanless, PhD, serves as Director of the Office of Child Development and Associate Professor in Applied Developmental Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. Her work focuses on the intersection between scholarship and practice. She also serves as faculty fellow for Pitt’s Center for Urban Education and Motivation Center. Shannon’s research draws on her experience as a former Head Start teacher and Fulbright scholar. Her research agenda addresses real-world challenges in diverse, applied settings, around the world. Applying this approach to a specific field of study, her research focuses on helping early childhood educators use social and emotional teaching practices to improve children’s sense of psychological safety to learn at school. Specifically, the lab focuses on implementation science, social and emotional learning, and increasing teacher capacity to help children of all races and cultural backgrounds to engage in learning. Shannon is a mother to a rising sixth grade son and a rising eighth grade daughter. 

Tia Barnes, PhD, is an assistant professor in Human Development and Family Sciences. In her current role, she teaches early childhood preservice teachers and conducts research surrounding social emotional well-being for minoritized populations. Dr. Barnes received her doctorate in August 2013 from the University of Florida where she majored in special education with an emphasis on emotional and/or behavioral disorders (EBD) and minored in research and evaluation methodology. She then worked at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence where her work focused on classroom environments for students with EBD and examining social emotional learning through a culturally responsive lens. She has published work in several journals including Infant and Child Development, the Journal of School Violence, Aggression and Violent Behavior, and Education and Treatment of Children. In her free time she loves to read, listen to podcasts, and play with her little ones. Find her at or on twitter at @drtianbarnes.

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