Leveraging Adult SEL to Increase Equity in the Classroom and School

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by Dr. Lora Hodges

Schools serve as one of the big four social institutions—along with family, faith, and community—that shape our sense of self and others as well as our notions of worth and worthiness about ourselves and others. Schools contour our concepts of belonging, affiliation, friendship, and fellowship. They hold sway in the preservation or diminishment of our ideas of who we are, who we can be, what is possible for us, how we fit into the larger world, and how we prosper.

School is the place where we achieve, grow, and make lifelong friends. We have some of our most memorable experiences there and gain a sense of accomplishment that fills our hearts in the present moment and paints a picture of tomorrow. School is the place where we become familiar with our own gifts, talents, and abilities, and where we get to explore, imagine, debate, confirm, or reject ways of thinking—new and old. School builds our courage to identify hopes, dreams, and goals that oftentimes chart or influence the course of the rest of our lives.

School carries the potential to transform the lives of our students and ourselves, of people and communities. As educators, we can leverage our own adult social and emotional competencies to foster equity and social justice, not only in our own lives and in the lives of our students but in society at large. The activities and lessons we offer throughout the day—especially in our social studies and history classes—offer rich opportunities for exploring and developing the social and emotional skills that will help to create a more equitable and just world.

Equity in Education

We lay the foundation for supporting equity in the world by supporting it in the classroom. Education is a fundamental human right (United Nations, 1948). Equity in education matters because it provides a framework for fairness and justice and a common scaffold for achievement for all. While learning in classrooms we find the inspiration to become our highest version of ourselves, we experience the freedom to see others and ourselves as equally human, and we create kindness and common good as we envision others and ourselves as capable of contributing more than we take from society. Beyond learning to read, speak, write, and listen well, and beyond learning to work well with numbers and technology—and even beyond expanding our ability to appreciate music, art, culture, movement, and athletics—our schooling experiences add dimension to human virtues such as faith, hope, love, justice, peace, freedom, and righteousness. These same experiences acquaint us with and prepare us to confront and even rectify societal ills such injustice, inequality, oppression, unfairness, and hatred. At a fundamental level, we learn the true meaning of cooperation, the first of the five core SEL C.A.R.E.S. competencies (the others being assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control).

Exercises in historical empathy engage students in the complex work of understanding another, often someone who is distant in time and place. The ability to understand others is foundational to an individual’s capacity to have meaningful relationships and participate

Challenging the Status Quo

It is no wonder that all of us who are invested in the work of this beloved social institution seize every possible opportunity to name and challenge the status quo that diminishes its ability to educate all children well and equitably.

Challenging the status quo simply means identifying new and better ways of educating all students. For educators who have committed to exploring the role of SEL in the classroom, this involves two key steps: (1) developing their own social and emotional skills and (2) providing an environment and related activities in which students can build their social and emotional skills.

The Importance of Educator Professional Development

Continuous improvement in schools and continuous learning for educators empower educators to challenge the status quo. Schools that engage in continuous improvement do so because the school aims to educate all students to high academic standards and outcomes regardless of the differing characteristics of those learners.

Continuous learning is a career-long process to ensure educators are able to meet the learning needs of the students that they teach. Almost every educator is committed to being a continuous learner for the benefit

of all the students they currently teach. Just as learning is a social and emotional process, so is teaching. It makes sense for educators to take the time to develop their own social and emotional competence in order to better serve their students. It’s also backed by research; studies show that increased social and emotional competence in educators leads to a positive influence on student learning (Patti et al., 2015). So how do we bring about this change?

Awareness of Real-World Issues

As educators, we must remain attuned to the real-world issues that we, our students, and their families care about. Understanding current and past events through the lens of their social and emotional impact will help us to develop an awareness of the forces that have shaped our culture, including the role of our schools today.

Take the time to read books and articles about important historical events. Build in moments during your day to read the news. With an open mind, read about issues from a variety of perspectives. You will find that continuously educating yourself in these areas will add to the knowledge that you can share with your students and will enrich your history, social studies, and civics lessons. Weighing opinions, perspectives, and approaches that differ from your own will also help you to expand your self-awareness and your empathy.

Self-Reflection and Educator SEL

Change in social and emotional competence brings on self-reflection, which entails being able to be both a witness and an evaluator of one’s own routine behaviors, attitudes, reasoning, and the beliefs or narratives that sponsor them. Teaching is filled with these routines, and these routines unexamined often maintain rather than challenge the status quo.

When self-reflection as a part of one’s own social and emotional development is taken seriously, it presents a unique opportunity to promote the conditions that lead to improved academic achievement and well-being for all students. Continuous learning that helps educators develop social and emotional competencies—especially empathy, self-control, and assertiveness—can be leveraged to increase equity in the classroom and the school, contribute to educating all students to high academic standards, and bolster the educator’s overall sense of well-being, ability to manage stress, and capacity to support all students.

Assertiveness and Equity

Assertiveness is a healthy way of communicating by using the ability to speak up for one’s self in a way that is honest and respectful while also showing care and respect for other people’s feelings. Developing assertiveness skills in educators has many benefits, including empathetic acceptance of oneself and the ability to manifest relationships based on trust (Postolati, 2017). Studies have found that assertiveness skills promote equality in relationships, prevent feelings of personal helplessness, and contribute to protection against manipulation and the manipulation of others (Peneva & Mavrodiev, 2013). Improved assertiveness skills are related to improved academic outcomes for students.

Growth in educators’ assertiveness skills can also increase equity in the classroom and the school. These skills will empower educators to engage freely with families in an open and clear way and experience less situationally caused anxiety. Building assertiveness skills

can be a lever for equity in the classroom as the focus is not solely on awareness of oneself (Postolati, 2017). It is also one’s responsibility to treat others with respect, to oppose discrimination, to listen to rather than ignore others’ views, and to accept that others have the right to criticize our actions in a constructive manner.

It is worth examining assertiveness in social studies and history classes. Assertiveness focuses, in part, on taking the initiative to do what is right, fair, and just (Center for Responsive Schools, 2019). Students can learn to advocate for themselves and others by starting small—helping a friend in need, for example—and over time include actions that address social inequalities. Meanwhile, in their social studies lessons, students can learn about those who fought for justice in the past and those who lead that fight today.

Empathy and Equity

Empathy is often misinterpreted or mischaracterized as feeling sorry for someone or as simply having a caring or kind attitude toward another. Some might even mistakenly see empathy as a barrier to effective, positive discipline. However, empathy is none of these things. Empathy is the ability to “see into,” to recognize, appreciate, respect, and understand another’s state of mind or emotions.

Changes in an educator’s empathy can support shifts in inequities in discipline, encourage respect, and pave the way for a greater understanding of cultural differences. This consequently improves students’ sense of belonging, engagement, and achievement.

Educators who have developed their own empathy skills are well positioned to work on these skills with their students, particularly in the context of social studies and civic engagement. Social studies inherently lends itself to discussions of empathy as it is full of the diverse stories and experiences of people through the ages. Social studies prompts students to value the perspectives of others, recognize and respect differences in cultural norms, and understand how culture affects behavior and attitudes (Center for Responsive Schools, 2019). An understanding of the lived experiences of others can inspire students to engage in civic action to better their communities.

Self-Control and Equity

The American Psychological Association’s 2012 Stress in America™ report states that 71 percent of Americans believe self-control is a learned skill (APA, 2012). Self-control is also a powerful skill that allows us to manage stress, maintain perspective, preserve hope, and achieve our goals. It is a skill currently being tested by the stress of COVID and concerns about the future, creating a mental health crisis that affects parents, students, and educators equally (APA, 2020).

Growth in educators’ self-control skills can have a positive effect on classroom culture; people who have better self-control tend to be healthier and happier, both in the short and long term (Hofmann et al., 2013). This change can be a lever for creating safe and inclusive

classrooms and schools, where all students feel welcome, supported, and valued, resulting in a sense of academic belonging and an increased readiness to learn.

In social studies classes, self-control can serve as a lens through which to examine the social, behavioral, and moral standards of key historical and contemporary figures. It can also help students create character studies of such figures, profiling their hope and perseverance in the face of obstacles.

This deeper look at leaders, activists, and pioneers through the ages and across cultures can inspire students to become more involved in their own communities.


One of our core social institutions, school is a place of great importance in the lives of both students and educators. It is a place to practice equity and instill a sense of civic engagement in learners, which can be achieved through social and emotional learning and in particular by developing assertiveness, empathy, and self-control, and then linking these competencies to social studies and history lessons. Challenging the status quo in the classroom encourages students to do the same in their communities and gives them the tools they need to be agents of peace and justice in the world.

Dr. Lora Hodges has been Center for Responsive Schools’ president and CEO since July 2012. Lora holds a doctorate in educational leadership and brings a wealth of knowledge, teaching experience, and expertise in organizational leadership and strategy to this position. Lora has also served as a classroom teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent, as well as a District Senior Advisor for the Collaborative for Academic and Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL).