What’s Culture Got to Do with SEL?

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By Dr. Andrea Smith and Dr. Cliff Chestnutt

Social and emotional learning (SEL) can be a powerful tool for creating caring, socially just, inclusive, and equitable learning environments that support all students in reaching their full potential (Jagers et al., 2019). Systematic implementation of SEL fosters an equitable learning environment in which all students and adults feel respected, valued, and affirmed in their individual interests, talents, social identities, cultural values, and backgrounds (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning [CASEL], 2020).

While SEL alone will not solve deep-rooted inequities in the education system, it can help schools examine biases, address the impact of discrimination and racism, build cross-cultural competencies, and cultivate practices that aid in creating an inclusive school community. SEL strategies can be a meaningful part of a schoolwide approach to equitable opportunities and outcomes for students regardless of their background, race, class, gender, or sexual orientation.

Why Equity-Oriented SEL?

Over the past decade, there has been an increased interest in social and emotional learning. Numerous programs have emerged that explore and facilitate skills that develop personal well-being, strengthen relationships, and support academic success (Greenberg et al., 2003; Weissberg & O’Brien, 2004). Most SEL programs seek to align with learning standards put forth by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). The CASEL framework identifies five core competencies that contribute to SEL:

  • Self-awareness (recognizing emotions, strengths, and values)
  • Self-management (regulating emotions and behaviors)
  • Social awareness (taking the perspective of and empathizing with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures)
  • Relationship skills (establishing and maintaining healthy relationships)
  • Responsible decision-making (making constructive choices across varied situations) (CASEL, 2020; Dusenbury et al., 2015)

While there is growing consensus regarding positive outcomes, SEL programs often face challenges in differentiating SEL approaches in order to effectively address the critical issues of equity, context, representation, and reflection of diverse populations (Durlak et al., 2011; Jagers et al., 2019). As the attention to SEL continues to

expand, there is a significant opportunity to view these efforts through an equity lens (National Equity Project, n.d.).

When schools implement SEL programs, it is essential that they consider issues of diversity and inclusion, placing value on each student’s unique identity and background.

Equity-Blind Notions of SEL

Promoting optimal development of historically marginalized and under- represented groups in K–12 education in the United States has proved to be a perverse, complex, and long-term undertaking due to vast inequities in the education system (Warren, 2014). Acording to Plaut (2010), a color-blind perspective implies that discrimination only exists in the past, and ignores what racial inequality looks like today. This approach argues that we should treat people as simply human beings rather than as racialized beings. However, it also further minimizes the impact of racism and other forms of oppression on various groups and individuals. While we should not judge someone based on race, class, gender, and other characteristics, we should not overlook the injustices or experiences that different groups have historically faced and continue to face in every facet of society.

While there are a growing number of programs (Williamson et al., 2015) that seek to address these inequities both indirectly or directly through SEL, many of them often perpetuate identity blindness, including racial “color blindness.” According to Bloom et al. (2015), identity blindness is when one claims to not see different forms of identity—for example,   race,   gender, or sexual orientation—instead of arguing that they strive to treat everyone equally. Examples of this can be seen in the idea of “grit” or “resilience” as an equalizer— essentially putting the burden on students to “fix” themselves.

This limited understanding of the core competencies of SEL can harm historically marginalized and underrepresented groups by diminishing their sense of self and lived experiences of being marginalized and oppressed. So when schools implement SEL programs, it is essential that they consider issues of diversity and inclusion, placing value on each student’s unique identity and background—alongside teaching students how to effectively manage their emotions and social interactions (Rosario-Ramos et al., 2021).

Equity-Oriented SEL Strategies

SEL can be leveraged to promote educational equity in numerous ways. CASEL (n.d.) has identified five critical areas—identity, agency, belonging, collaborative problem-solving, and curiosity—that schools can consider in their efforts to promote equity. In the following paragraphs, an SEL approach is discussed that aligns each of these five areas with CASEL’s original five core competencies of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. These focal constructs for equity-oriented SEL promote equitable learning environments and offer ways to coordinate practices across classrooms, schools, families, and communities, enhancing all students’ social, emotional, and academic learning.


Identity is key to developing self-awareness competencies and refers to one’s ability to recognize one’s own emotions and thoughts and how their thoughts and actions influence their behavior. Identity is multidimensional (for example, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, religion, values, interests). Each dimension has a level of importance and emotional substance that may alter over time. Intersecting identities are also important to consider (for example, an African American transgender boy leading his school’s yearbook club). Providing opportunities for students to develop positive self-identities can aid in creating a buffer against negative experiences such as racism, discrimination, and bias and promote academic achievement (Shek et al., 2019).


Agency is essential for self-management competencies and focuses on the perceived and actual ability to effect change through purposeful action. While behavior management is vital for classrooms and schools, the agency goes beyond reactive measures and emphasizes proactive measures. Agency further positions students as “experts in understanding and fashioning a world that is more just and equitable” (Jagers, 2016, p. 3). This can include providing students with voice and choice in their learning and career goals and in establishing learning environments that encourage collaboration and problem-solving. Agency also includes collective efficacy, which has been shown to support teachers’ abilities to improve school outcomes for students from under-resourced communities and increase coordinated actions among adolescents and adults that contribute positively to civic life. Collective efficacy addresses students’ confidence and skill in contributing effectively in groups and has a high correlation to the outcomes of the group. As such, there are “I” skills and “We” skills that should be integrated into the classroom (Hattie et al., 2021).


Belonging is a significant factor among social awareness competencies. It builds on experiences of affirmation, value, and inclusion within a group or community. It implies not only feeling recognized but also being fully involved in relationship building and co-creating learning spaces. Having a sense of belonging is critical to each student’s academic, social, and emotional well-being (Gregory & Fergus, 2017). There are many ways in which teachers can foster a sense of belonging. For example, teachers can model through words and actions that every student is valuable and has something unique to contribute to the classroom and society. This can be as simple as highlighting a child who may have learning difficulties but who may also be an avid artist. Instead of focusing on the learning difficulties, a teacher can praise the student aloud or post the student’s artwork in the classroom.


Collaborative problem-solving is focal among developing relationship skills in our global society. Fiore et al. (2017) note, “Collaborative problem solving involves two different constructs— collaboration and problem solving” (p. 2) and is defined as the capacity of an individual to engage in a process between two or more people to collectively solve a problem by sharing knowledge and skills to reach a solution. There is a growing recognition of the importance of collaborative problem-solving across our society. Many companies highlight collaborative problem-solving as an important skill for life and work in the 21st century.

The incorporation of collaborative problem-solving in the Common Core State Standards has brought additional focus to the importance of this and other career-readiness skills. For example, project-based learning encourages student collaboration and problem-solving on interdisciplinary topics relevant to students’ experiences. Teachers can use multiple grouping strategies during the school year to help students apply cooperation and problem-solving skills and gain value from diverse perspectives (Lee et al., 2015). Through this process, students can learn how to:

  • Effectively divide the workload to complete the task
  • Construct research and gather information from many perspectives
  • Respectfully consider multiples solutions from group members, accounting for creative and quality solutions to address the goal of the task (Reese, 2021)


Curiosity is significant for creating responsible decision-makers in the classroom and is crucial for engagement, attention, and learning (Jagers et al., 2019). As educators, it is essential to create an environment in which it is less important to have the “right” answer and more important to create an environment where students can utilize questioning and collaborative discourse so learning can occur. This can be done by modeling curiosity about the world around us through open questioning and project-based learning. A study conducted by Clark and Seider (2020) found a positive correlation among Black and Latinx adolescents between curiosity and involvement in society. In addition, Marilyn Price-Mitchell (2015) suggests several ways to nurture curiosity among our diverse learners:

  • Value and reward curiosity in learners.
  • Give learners practice asking quality questions.
  • Notice when kids feel puzzled or confused.
  • Encourage learners to tinker with materials, thoughts, or emotions.
  • Use current events as launchpads for conversation.
  • Give learners opportunities to show healthy skepticism.
  • Explore a variety of cultures and societies.
  • Encourage curiosity outside of the classroom.


Significant opportunities exist for SEL to address the challenges faced by school districts across the country. While many districts are increasingly implementing SEL, further work is needed to fully implement SEL competencies in ways that support equity in the environment and educational outcomes. Implementing high-quality, research-based programs across districts will be necessary to improve equity, followed by sound policies and an ongoing commitment to continuous research and improvement.

Dr. Andrea Smith is an assistant professor in the Department of Early Childhood through Secondary Education at the University of West Georgia. Her research is focused on the intersectionality of race and class in education, teacher education, culturally responsive pedagogy, and equity. Her scholarship examines these issues by illuminating the voices of youth and adults who have been historically and traditionally marginalized in schools and society.

Dr. Cliff Chestnutt is an assistant professor in the Department of Early Childhood through Secondary Education at the University of West Georgia. Prior to pursuing his PhD, Cliff was a K–8 teacher and math coach. His current teaching and research projects focus on high-leverage teaching practices, culturally responsive mathematics, and equity in mathematics.