Social-Emotional Learning Strategies With a Focus on Racial Equity

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Since March 2020, we have been living with an increased sense of instability, uncertainty, and confusion as our lives changed significantly with the emergence of a global pandemic. Positioned in this constant state of flux, many of us have become financially, socially, and emotionally insecure as we struggle to survive amidst an illness that not only saddens us but that has increased anxiety, tension, and fear in children and their families. Many have suffered losses, and our youth feel this deeply on a social-emotional level worldwide.

Recent Urgency

The need for social-emotional learning (SEL) and strategies in school has become increasingly urgent for students, whether they are learning virtually, in person, or in a hybrid setup. This is especially true for those students who are dealing not only with the pandemic but with the impact and dehumanization caused by racism and fear as well. The harm is felt deeper when faced with racism, watching the unnecessary deaths of Black and Brown lives on the news, and inequities in schooling, healthcare, and housing. How do we further support students impacted on this deep level? We need to be ready to center their voices and allow them agency. A safe and caring environment needs to be provided where they can discuss what they are feeling and where they know that they are significant and worth hearing.

Glenn Anton “Doc” Rivers, then the coach of the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Clippers, after seeing the shootings of Black citizens and the protests that grew in response to these shootings, shared the feelings and perceptions that have existed for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) in this country and that have been even more visible during the pandemic:

My father was a 30-year veteran of the Chicago police department, and if he were still with us right now, he’d be hurt and outraged by the senseless acts of racial injustice that continue to plague our country. Being black in America is tough. I’ve personally been called more racial slurs than I can count, been pulled over many times because of the color of my skin, and even had my home burned down.

Pickman, 2020

It’s amazing to me why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.

Pina, 2020

We need to be thoughtful about how SEL skills and strategies are implemented in a classroom focused on racial equity and social justice. The Responsive Classroom core belief states, In order to be successful in and out of school, students need to learn SaintSurina set of social and emotional competencies—
cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control—and a set of academic competencies—academic mind-set, perseverance, learning strategies, and academic behaviors (Center for Responsive Schools, n.d.). If we keep this core belief as our focus, we can create and lay a foundation for our students that will enable a supportive community where they know they belong and feel significant. What follows are some strategies and suggestions that can help in making time to teach SEL skills with students and with centering the needs and experiences of BIPOC students.

Building Community

In the Responsive Classroom approach, building community is something that is focused on and embraced when planning the school year. There are many strategies that support building a positive community with all students and specific practices that allow space to center and lift up students of color dealing with issues such as bias, racism, and inequity.

Know Your Students. One of the guiding principles of Responsive Classroom is to inform our expectations, reactions, and attitudes about our students by knowing them individually, culturally, and developmentally. This is a powerful statement when we center students of color and their voices in class. For this to be successful, the teacher needs to become familiar with the experiences of students of color so that the teacher is more aware and knowledgeable. The teacher must avoid getting defensive and passing judgment. When students share difficult topics such as racism, implicit bias, inequities, and injustices, we need to remember that we are being invited into their worlds. Ijeoma Oluo makes this point about conversations on race in So You Want to Talk About Race:

If your top priority is understanding racism better, or addressing an incident involving race, or righting a wrong caused by racism, don’t let the top priority suddenly become avenging your wounded pride if the conversation has you feeling defensive.

Oluo,2020, p. 46

Morning Meeting, Responsive Advisory Meeting, Closing Circle. Beginning the day with Morning Meeting or Responsive Advisory Meeting for 20–30 minutes and ending with a 5- to 10-minute closing circle is a powerful way to communicate to each student that we are glad they came to school, that they matter to the community, and that their thoughts and reflections are valued. This special time of greeting each other, sharing verbally, participating in an activity as a group, and receiving messages and announcements from the teacher affords an opportunity to be in community with each other and develop trust, relationships, and student agency on a daily basis. These meetings can be validating for students and affirm that their experiences, stories, and cultures are welcome in a safe environment. (These in-person get-togethers can be easily adapted for hybrid or distance learning.)

Role-Play. A strategy that involves the thoughts, input, and voices of students in problem-solving a social interaction affecting the class community, role-play allows student agency, sharing, and reflecting where everyone can be heard. Students brainstorm and act out positive and beneficial responses to complex, sometimes uncomfortable, social circumstances and dilemmas. Role-play can also be used before a circumstance arises (e.g., choosing teams fairly) or to revisit something that has happened to prevent it from recurring (e.g., misunderstandings when communicating).

Teacher Language. Reinforcing, reminding, redirecting, and envisioning language can also be modeled and offer support to a student sharing the injustices and racism they experience in the world. By recognizing the student’s strengths, we create the means to respect the student and make room for their voice and experience. For example, when a student shares a sentiment similar to those of Doc Rivers in an environment that is loving and accepting, they can experience the validation of being listened to, heard, respected, and affirmed regarding how difficult living with such negative, harmful experiences can be.

Creating Rules. The process of creating positive rules with the class is another way to offer support to students, especially those sharing the heaviness and discomfort of issues such as injustice, racism, and inequity. When a learning community creates agreements together, it gives them a voice in how they want to interact. This, in turn, offers opportunities for accountability to themselves, to each other, and to the community to respectfully honor the covenant that protects them and their rights to belong and feel significant.

Engaging Academics. When difficult topics such as social injustice, inequity, prejudice, racism, and bias arise during class time, conversations can get uncomfortable. But if we lean into this discomfort, there may be opportunities to learn more deeply about these issues. When the content matters to students, the motivation increases. If we can meet these opportunities with student-directed instruction and high expectations, we can see the emergence of resilient students who feel that their thinking and work is valuable to the whole community and who feel safe to take risks. Interactive learning structures and Academic Choice are strategies that support student engagement in collaborating, discussing, agreeing, and disagreeing— all of which are social skills that can be taught and supported. If we allow for discussions that share perspectives and plan for the voices of marginalized students to be centered, then we can integrate these topics into our academic curricula while working on SEL skills involving collaboration, discourse, perspective taking, and critical thinking.

For example, if a young student reports that a peer commented that their skin is ugly or too dark, an opportunity arises for the whole class to learn about race and differences. Teachers can select texts such as Laleña Garcia’s What We Believe: A Black Lives Matter Principles Activity Book (2020) to share on this topic and to help with conversations among students. Cross-curricular connections can extend students’ learning by engaging them in collaborative small groups to write letters to activists, invite visitors with experience in protesting and marching for human rights to speak to the class, or make posters about the Black Lives Matter principles.

In another scenario, students could explore the Black Lives Matter movement as a way to deal with a microaggression or bias against them. This experience will not only deepen their feelings of being validated, affirmed, and acknowledged, but it could also potentially help students understand and learn about earlier movements—the struggle for civil rights, the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—and what parallels exist between them and Black Lives Matter. Exploring a movement such as Black Lives Matter will allow for self-identity and awareness opportunities along with student-directed exploration and discovery of perspective taking and the analysis of power and position in our society. It will also better prepare students to problem-solve any future microaggressions or biases.

Commit to Doing the Work. Since the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Abery, and others last year, we are witnessing further outcry about the way BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) are villainized because of racism. The urgency to no longer tolerate silence and to share our voices and actions is growing. Many students feel uncomfortable and scared, and do not know how to proceed to improve the circumstances.

If support is needed in moving forward with our words, discussions, and actions, then consider taking workshops on antiracism, implicit bias, and undoing racism. Start with friends and families, in community together. Join a book club whose focus is on racism, bias, and race relations both past and present. Attend a workshop on undoing racism. The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond offer “The Undoing Racism Workshop,” where core trainers delve deeply into racism historically, structurally, and institutionally, along with how it manifests in our interactions with each other and within our communities.

Creating a safe and challenging class where students feel engaged, heard, significant, and that they belong is at the heart of Responsive Classroom practices and strategies. We need to give students the permission to interact and share in culturally affirming environments that support social-emotional learning on all levels. If we work to build our communities based on the individual and collective identities of our students, including those who are marginalized, we can support them with strong SEL strategies that will lift them up and center them when they have experiences, thoughts, concerns, and strong feelings about the biases, injustices, and prejudice against them. This involves our commitment to them, our communities, and ourselves. We can empower our youth to know and believe that they genuinely matter and that they all belong in our class community and world—without the prejudiced, predetermined, noninclusive societal definition of what belonging should look like.