From Our SEL Field Notebook: Equitable SEL in Practice A Conversation With Katharine Brush and Thelma Ramirez

By Katharine Brush, Thelma Ramirez

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In this interview, we talk with Katharine Brush and Thelma Ramirez of the Ecological Approaches to Social Emotional Learning (EASEL) Laboratory, based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, about the connection between equitable and effective social-emotional learning. EASEL’s work focuses on social and emotional skills among individuals, examined through the lens of social context and individual interactions. (Note: This has been edited for length and clarity.)

Could you briefly describe what EASEL does and your roles there?

Katie: I’ve worked across several projects designed to strengthen the links between research and practice in the field of SEL. The goal of this work is (1) to provide schools and out-of-school-time organizations with the resources to make informed choices about which programs are most feasible within their particular settings and (2) to identify common strategies of effective SEL practice across programs. This work has resulted in the Navigating SEL guide, which summarizes our findings for practitioners and leaders at schools as well as early childhood education, youth development, and out-of-school time organizations and enables them to look “inside and across” SEL programs to better understand their content and assess fit with district, community, and/or student needs.

Thelma: I support the equity-focused efforts of several projects. Currently, I am leading the Designing Culturally Responsive SEL project, an ongoing multiyear research-practice partnership between the EASEL Lab and Horizons at the Ethel Walker School (HEW). Over the last two years, we’ve developed a set of culturally responsive SEL strategies that were introduced to HEW teachers. This year, we will add student-facing SEL strategies that HEW staff can practice with students in the classroom.

What kinds of feedback have you received about your work? What are you hearing about how schools and other organizations are using the data you provide in the Navigating SEL guide, as well as some of the tools you’ve developed, such as through the Taxonomy Project?

Katie: In terms of how schools and other learning settings are using the Navi­gating SEL guide, we’ve heard about a variety of different applications, from using it to narrow down options and select a program, to learn more about SEL in general, and to figuring out how to use the information in the guide to create and adapt more personalized approaches to SEL where comprehensive programs aren’t feasible—for example, in an after-school tutoring program that already has limited time that it needs to dedicate to homework support but also wants to incorporate SEL ​strategies that will help students build social and emotional skills that support their learning. So I think it’s been a useful resource for both decision-making and general understanding, which we’re glad to hear. 

With regard to the Taxonomy Project, which is now called Explore SEL, users come to the site for a whole variety of reasons. Some are interested in learning more about the basic terminology of SEL and how different frameworks use that terminology, often asking, What is the same and what is different across frameworks? Others use the site with their own stakeholders to make decisions about what their priorities are and where they’d like to focus their work.

I’m very interested to hear your thoughts on the intersection of effective SEL and equitable SEL. Is it even possible to speak about one without the other? 

Thelma: Because the topic of equitable SEL is relatively new, we haven’t really had many opportunities to measure the effectiveness of equitable SEL. While we can’t speak at length about the intersection of effective SEL and equitable SEL, we can speak to the intersection between high-quality SEL and equity in education. In our work, we find that there’s a lot of alignment between educational equity and effective social and emotional learning. And in fact, high-quality SEL programs rely upon many of the same practices that contribute to more equitable and inclusive learning environments, such as (1) fostering a caring and just culture and climate, (2) building student voice and agency, (3) cultivating respect for cultural differences, and (4) emphasizing asset-based approaches to skill development. 

Katie: And we can think about the relationship between high-quality SEL and equity as being reciprocal in some ways. High-quality SEL can advance educational equity by supporting all students to feel welcome, to feel competent at school. At the same time, an intentional focus on equity within SEL practice ensures that SEL remains relevant and accessible for all students. We often talk about SEL as educating the whole child and educational equity as about educating all children. Where they come together is really about educating all children as whole children.

With that in mind, and broadly speaking, what does equitable SEL look like in practice, within the day-to-day life of the classroom? 

Thelma: It’s important to underscore that there is no widely accepted definition of equitable SEL at this time, but there has been a lot of conversation about how it could be defined or how it could look. In our work at the Lab, we’ve taken in the different conversations happening around this topic—about culturally relevant teaching, about the role of social justice in education, and about the need to transform systems in education. And based on these conversations and our own research on what constitutes high-quality SEL, we have extracted principles that can help educators make sense of what equitable SEL looks like today—with the caveat that the conversation about equitable SEL is still evolving. 

Katie: In the Navigating SEL guide and Frontiers in Education article, we drew on multiple perspectives in the field to share what we see as five common principles of equitable SEL: 

  1. Ensure safe and inclusive learning environments that are respectful and affirming of diverse student identities.
  2. Recognize and incorporate student cultural values, practices, and assets. 
  3. Foster positive identity development.
  4. Promote student agency and voice. 
  5. Explicitly address issues of bias, power, and inequality at multiple levels (so not just in the classroom, but at the school level and at the systems level).

Based on these principles, we currently define equitable SEL as an approach to SEL that incorporates the knowledge, experiences, and assets of students from diverse families and communities, and acknowledges and addresses the social injustices, inequalities, preju­dices, and exclusions that students face.

Thelma: So what does this look like in practice? In the most updated version of the Navigating SEL guide, we take each of the principles described above and provide examples of how this can happen in SEL programming. 

If a teacher is looking for ways to recognize and incorporate their students’ cultural values, practices, and assets in SEL programming, they might invite family or community members to share their understanding of an SEL skill or competency or provide opportunities for their students to reflect on the diverse ways that SEL skills can be expressed. If students are learning about goal setting or building self-motivation skills in an SEL lesson, for example, teachers can have them interview family and community members to inquire about the ways they motivate themselves when faced with a difficult goal or ask for advice about working through challenging goals. These types of activity not only draw upon family and community members’ experiences and knowledge, but also enable students to recognize and learn how to make use of their cultural funds of knowledge (knowledge based in their cultural practices and daily routines). 

Another example of how teachers might incorporate students’ assets in SEL programming is by providing students with opportunities to bring their cultures, heritages, and experiences into the classroom through oral storytelling and personal narratives, art, dance, music, and collaborative learning. At the end of an SEL lesson or unit, students might showcase their knowledge of the SEL concepts they learned by using spoken word, hip-hop, or other art forms of their choice to show what they learned. This kind of flexibility allows students to tap into practices familiar to them and leverage the multitude of skills and assets they already bring to the classroom. 

Katie: And if you’re not an educator in the classroom, but are interested in what you might be able to do at other levels or in other settings, we also provide some recommendations for ensuring SEL programming is adopted, adapted, and implemented in ways that are equitable—for example, investing in adult training and ensuring that children and youth are part of the decision-making process. 

We often talk about SEL as educating the whole child and educational

equity as about educating all children. Where they come together

is really about educating all children as whole children.

In your Frontiers in Education article you state that more work is needed to incorporate equity into SEL lessons, but point to areas such as storytelling and the teaching of critical thinking skills where you’re seeing some integration. Could you share your thoughts about the connection between equity and critical thinking? How might the equitable critical thinking skills developed in such lessons transfer into skills that students will need as they move into high school, college, and the workforce?

Katie: While we found that there is an overall low prevalence of equitable SEL strate­gies across lessons, we found that some SEL programs are doing exemplary work in this area and we think—or hope—that this suggests that equity can be more explicitly and intentionally incorporated into SEL lessons. 

Through our content analysis of widely used SEL pre-K–5 programs, we identified potential areas of opportunity which included skill building in domains like emotional knowledge and expression and criti­cal thinking/problem-solving. While this wasn’t happening across most programs, we saw some great ­examples of how some were very intentionally building these skills in more equitable ways. 

Thelma: That’s right. In many, if not most, elementary SEL programs you will often find activities or games that help students find commonalities with each other as a way to build community and relationships. It is much more common in these kinds of lessons to keep the conversation surface level, with students focusing on favorite foods or common hobbies, but we found that some programs actually used this type of lesson to facilitate exercises that illustrate the problems associated with stereotyped thinking. 

For example, in the older elementary grades, one of the activity debrief questions might be about the assumptions students made about what they might share in common with other students based on a group identity (such as gender), and how this could prevent them from identifying shared interests with others around them. Asking questions like What surprised you? Did you find things in common with people whom you did not expect to have things in common? Why did you have these expectations? after an activity like this has the potential to be transformative because it can help students deconstruct stereotypes about themselves and their peers and move them from “celebrating diversity” (which is often the end goal of many of these lessons) to examining our own biases and assumptions.

Katie: And to your question about the transfer of critical thinking skills into high school, college, and the workforce, I think like many of the other social and emotional learning skills, these are life skills that you need to develop to live in a diverse world. In our work in particular, we’ve done some thinking about how building critical thinking skills might help advance equity work. 

Thelma: When we looked for equitable problem-solving skill building in lessons, we looked for ways that lessons might present or discuss critical thinking skills as tools for recognizing injustice, prejudice, and discrimination, often in the service of social action. This might include activities where students discussed fairness and justice at the individual, institutional, and systemic levels; thought critically about stereotypes; or had opportunities to identify problems within their community and make decisions on how to solve them. 

Could you talk about resistance to or misunderstanding of SEL? The issue has become so politicized, especially when notions of equity and social justice are involved. How can teachers implement equitable, effective SEL, while still recognizing the concerns that some community members might have about it?

Katie: One key thing to consider when thinking about social and emotional skills and their place in the classroom is that this body of skills is deeply connected to the processes of learning itself. Just imagine the preschooler who is learning to manage impulses and regulate emotions and behavior, or the third grader who is learning to remember, plan, and organize what they need in their backpack, and the ninth grader who is learning how to navigate complex relationships. These are not controversial things; they are skills that develop in all human beings. They might play out differently depending on the culture or setting, but no matter what, at their core, they are about human development. 

Thelma: What’s interesting is that SEL has only recently become politically controversial. SEL has been widely accepted now for decades, and this is underscored by the fact that all 50 states have SEL standards for pre-K students and most states have SEL standards for K–12. 

In the past year alone, we’ve seen lawmakers and groups across many states try to ban SEL from schools. We’ve heard critics of SEL argue that SEL can lead to student indoctrination or that, at the very least, it pits students against each other and makes some students feel bad about themselves. We’ve also heard from parents that they, not schools, should be teaching their children about morality and they worry that what SEL teaches can conflict with their own values. 

At the same time, we’ve heard from teachers about the need for SEL in the classroom, about the need to focus on fostering connection, community, and relationships as a way to help address the increased grief, anxiety, and depression students have experienced during the pandemic. What this tells us is that there are many different ideas of what SEL is and does, especially from folks who are not working in the classroom directly or are learning about SEL from the media. 

SEL skill building includes things like conflict resolution, problem-solving, organization, focusing attention, collaboration, and emotional awareness and management. These are skills that help all students be successful in life, regardless of race, religion, their parents’ political association. 

The most important thing those of us in the field of SEL can do right now is listen to those people expressing worries and fears. It’s important to first listen so that we can then more clearly communicate what SEL actually is and does.  

What recommendations would you make to someone who is starting out in the field of SEL? 

Katie: Many SEL programs do not provide explicit materials or resources for doing this type of work equitably, so the responsibility/burden to redesign or reframe curricula to incorporate a more equitable and culturally responsive approach often falls on teachers. Because it is often the teacher who is going to interpret the content of the lessons, educating yourself around what is equitable and how you feel about it is important. Figure out what makes sense for you. 

Thelma: Doing this type of work collectively, or in a community of practice, is so much easier than doing it alone. Look for ​other teachers interested in implementing equitable SEL—it’s always great if you can find them in your own school or local community, but if this is not an option for you, there are many resources online and via social media to connect with other educators interested in the same topics. There are Facebook groups for early care educators interested in equity and SEL; there are groups for middle school teachers interested in the topic. You can follow Instagram ­accounts of educators and scholars who are leading this work. At the Lab, we have an equity and SEL working group that meets twice a month to do this exact thing. We share articles of interest, invite speakers to share their experiences, and set goals together.

What do you see as the future of SEL? Where do you see your own research taking you next?

Katie: Providing educators with ways to tailor SEL programming to specific students and classrooms is one area that’s being explored more. A lot of SEL programming and research has focused on comprehensive, skill-building programs, usually involving a sequenced set of lessons designed to promote specific behaviors or skills in students. There’s obviously a lot of value in these programs, but they’re not always feasible for everyone given cost and time constraints, and they’re not particularly easy to adapt to the local context. 

Our team has a variety of projects that have been looking at ways to provide educators with more options and tools for localizing their work, including SEL Kernels (stand-alone SEL strategies that can be integrated throughout the day), various SEL localizing toolkits for folks working in international settings, and the Explore SEL website tools, which have been used in workshops to help organizations use existing frameworks to identify which skills are most important or relevant for their settings.

Thelma: I think about our educators a lot. In my current work, I’m fortunate enough to be able to work closely with teachers and other practitioners. Educators have to deal with students’ social, emotional, and behav­ioral issues all day and often have the least amount of support in this area. 

I think SEL will continue to be just as important and relevant in the classroom in the future as it is today. And I see the need for SEL not just for our students, but also for the adults supporting our students. We need to also focus on adults and adult capacities, and supporting educators to develop a deep understanding of SEL skills and the multitude of ways these skills may be expressed. The more we invest in growing educators’ own understanding of SEL skills, the more the students they’re working with in the classroom will benefit.

In terms of my research, I am hoping to continue to explore the intersection between SEL and equity, including authentic family and community engagement and partnership in social-emotional learning happening in classrooms. As a field, we have failed to draw on centuries of already existing community cultural wealth, such as indigenous cultural practices around relationships, well-being, health, coping, and healing. If we were to begin taking a more culturally grounded approach to SEL, what practices might we draw? And how might our definitions of social and emotional wellness shift?  

Katharine Brush

Katharine Brush is a research associate at Harvard’s EASEL Lab. Her research interests include the effective promotion of social, emotional, and ethical development in school-age children, both in the U.S. and internationally. Katie has an EdM in human development and psychology from Harvard University and a BA from Tufts University.

Thelma Ramirez

Thelma Ramirez is a research assistant at Harvard’s EASEL Lab. Thelma’s research interests include culturally relevant education and the engagement of families in social-­emotional learning. Thelma has an AB in sociology from Princeton University and an EdM in prevention science and practice program from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.