Social-Emotional Learning and Equity in a Responsive Classroom

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We Just Experienced Trauma

The 2019–2020 school year was an extraordinary one for all students, families, and school staff worldwide. The COVID-19 pandemic caused everyone to experience a rapid shift to distance learning in early spring that created a range of mixed emotions. Educators rushed to learn new and unfamiliar platforms so that instruction could be maintained remotely with minimal disruption to classes. Some students were able to make the shift with technological supports in place and adapted well as online learners. Other students, though, could not shift to distance learning smoothly because they did not have the required devices (or enough devices, for those families with more than one student at home), stable and affordable internet access, or the ability to troubleshoot problems. For some learners, both young and old, the rapid shift to distance learning did not meet their learning styles and needs. Fami­lies had members who became infected with the Coronavirus and in some cases succumbed to it, and many communities nationwide continue to be affected—particularly communities of color, who have seen higher rates of infection (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020).

The spotlight on what many viewed as a second pandemic, structural racism, intensified as videos of unarmed Black and Indigenous People of Color being criminalized and murdered brought intense attention on racial injustice. The impact of these crimes was felt not only in the United States but worldwide.

The school year ended for many students without any resolution to these traumas. As we look ahead to the 2020–2021 school year, we must keep in mind what our students are experiencing. We must be thoughtful about increasing our focus on social-emotional learning (SEL) and equity to help all our students feel the safety, joy, and challenge in their education.

SEL and Equity Focus

Maintaining a focus on social-emotional learning and equity means fostering a sense of belonging and significance (Maslow, 1943). It will involve making sure that we are being culturally responsive to our students—their backgrounds, cultures, linguistic needs, and identities. Centering the voices of our students—particularly with a focus on who they are individually, culturally, and developmentally (a Responsive Classroom guiding principle)—will drive our instruction and give students the agency they need to share their identities more freely. It will build the trust and the relationships on which the class­room community is based. We need to be ready to warmly accept students’ diversity and allow it to remain central in our classrooms. This acceptance will embrace our stu­dents and make them feel safe and cared for. It will open the doors to supporting our students socially and emotionally, and will nurture and value equity for all.

What follows are some thoughts, ideas, and Responsive Classroom practices that I have used and that help me envision start­ing the upcoming school year with a focus on SEL and equity amidst the pandemic.

Student Surveys/Reflections

If we support our students by allowing them to start the year by sharing their feelings about the previous school year, it may help them understand that their new class—whether it is virtual, in-person, or a combination—will be a safe space for them to share without being judged. By feeling safe, students may be encouraged to work through any unresolved feelings about how the previous year ended for them. For example, you can offer students prompts such as “Something I enjoyed about last year,” “Something that I strug­gled with last year,” or “Something I am looking forward to this year” with the un­derstanding that there is no right or wrong answer. Encourage them to reflect by:

  • Drawing a picture
  • Completing a teacher-created survey
  • Writing responses in a journal or note­book
  • Having a class discussion

These activities can help those students who are most vulnerable feel that their voices matter. Let the students know that you will be reviewing their work before sharing. Decide whether you want stu­dents to share their feelings in a partner­ship or a small or whole group. Be sure to check in with students, especially those who share some profound feelings. Be sensitive to their responses and provide your support or that of an adult outside of the classroom if needed, such as a school counselor, social worker, or principal.

Creating Name Tags and Place Cards

Allowing children some time at the begin­ning of the year to focus on their names will send the message that you support who they are and that they belong in this com­munity. Be sure that you ask each student to say their name for you if you are unsure of how to pronounce it. This will help validate them and communicate to the student that they are important enough that you want to say their name correctly. Also, encour­age students to share and express their cultures and identities in activities that reflect on their names. These activities include:

  • Creating and decorating name tags that they can wear on the first days of school.          
  • Creating and decorating place cards for a desk, chair, or bulletin board that allows them to express some of their identity through their designs. Note that sometimes children will ask to be called by their nicknames.
  • Writing descriptive acrostic poetry using the letters of their first names.
Identity Activities

Many students enjoy opportunities to express their identities in creative ways. This also helps their acceptance and recognition in the community. Some identity activities include:

  • Creating self-portraits using multicultural skin-tone markers or crayons, scraps of paper, and material for collaging.
  • Creating circle maps that brainstorm all the identities a student associates with themselves.
  • Writing a narrative story about one or more of the brainstormed identities from their circle map.
  • Creating a paper identity shield of armor, where students symbolically design what each quadrant of their templated shield looks like. Prompts for the quadrants on the shield template can include family, a favorite subject, a special talent, goals, or where they are from. (Be sensitive when choosing this last topic—there may be students who do not know much about their family history or culture.)
Responsive Classroom Morning Meetings

Responsive Classroom Morning Meetings are essential in building community and setting the tone for daily learning. The four components—greeting, sharing, group activity, and morning message—provide the opportunity to get to know everyone in the community, their needs, and their diversity. Morning Meeting builds relation­ships, welcomes students, and encourages a sense of belonging. Consider planning Morning Meetings with their interests and backgrounds in mind. For example:

  • Greetings. Use greetings from other lan­guages, including American Sign Language. Try creating a song or chant based on stu­dents’ names. Use affirmation greetings to accentuate students’ unique qualities.
  • Sharing. Give students opportunities to engage in partner, around-the-circle, and dialogue sharing. Topics could include favorite places, dreams for the future, a favorite holiday tradition, family pictures and activities, and favorite foods.
  • Group Activities. Plan activities that reflect students’ interests (sports, pastimes, music, dance) and cultures. Find out what music they listen to with their friends and families and use it when ap­propriate. Incorporate activities using childhood games they play with their friends and peers in the neighborhood.
  • Morning Messages. Write morning mes­sages that reflect current events hap­pening in the world, in the places where students live, or where their families have originated from. Discuss concerns about the world, but be mindful of students who may have a close association with the con­cern you share (racism, sexism, ableism, gender bias). Visit any social-emotional concerns that may impact the whole group and how they interact with each other. Be sure that students can express their thoughts and feelings safely with­out being concerned about being judged.
Classroom Literature and Read-Alouds

I thoroughly enjoy examining and adding to my library multicultural books that reflect the cultures and backgrounds of my stu­dents. Allowing students to have access to positive multicultural literature validates who they are, their identities, and their heritage. Make sure your classroom litera­ture and read-alouds incorporate different nationalities, races, cultures, backgrounds, economic statuses, health statuses, and gender identities, all of which communicate to your students that their lives have worth and a place in your instruction. Nonfiction literature can include current event arti­cles and biographies about diverse people and those who have made a positive impact. Sharing literature of this type encourages empathy, acceptance, and a better under­standing of diverse perspectives and pro­vides a model for students while encourag­ing them to think critically. As part of their readings, have students engage in partner and small group discussions. Encourage them to question character motivations and explore events in the texts.

There are many engaging books that ad­dress social-emotional learning and equity concerns with which to start the school year. Some titles that I recommend include:

  • The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi
  • Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges
  • Armando and the Blue Tarp School by Edith Hope Fine and Judith Pinkerton Josephson
  • The Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco
  • Wings by Christopher Myers
  • This Book Is Anti-Racist: Twenty Lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action, and Do the Work by Tiffany Jewell
Engaging Academics and Culturally Responsive Teaching

Another important practice that focuses on social-emotional learning and equity is cre­ating academics that are engaging for stu­dents. This involves knowing your students individually, developmentally, linguistically, and culturally, and then planning instruction that will challenge them, allow them to col­laborate and interact with each other, and provide choices in how they learn and what they learn. Academic Choice allows students to plan how and/or what they learn about a given topic, work on their plans, and reflect on that work and their process. Interactive learning structures provide opportunities for them to work collaboratively, autono­mously, and in supportive ways with each other. We can also increase opportunities for students to be reflective about their work and their interactive learning. For example, one reflection activity is to ask students for:

  • Three ideas from their learning that square with their thinking
  • Two questions that they have about their learning
  • One idea or topic in which they want to grow

We should make intentional efforts to share with and teach our students the narratives, writings, histories, and con­tributions of marginalized people and make a point of their importance and con­tributions to the world. We should encourage students to become critical think­ers and questioners about the mainstream curricula to make room for the voice­less and marginalized, those who have been left out of our studies for too long.

Still, if we want to focus our instruction us­ing the lens of social-emotional learning and equity, we must center student voices and the experiences of students of color so that their interests, learning needs, and modali­ties are priorities in the instruction we plan. Students of color also have the historical trauma of being oppressed in our society and attending school systems that have main­tained this racist oppression. Urgent work must be done on the part of educators and leaders to shift away from the policies and practices that continue to oppress students of color and to refocus our curricula, teach­ing practices, and school systems on the values and core beliefs that exist culturally for students of color. Zaretta Hammond writes:

“I don’t want to stereotype cultures into an oversimplified frame but to simply offer the archetypes of collectivism and individual­ism as a way of understanding the general cultural orientation among diverse stu­dents in the classroom. We recognize that individualism and collectivism exist on a continuum. Some cultures are individualis­tic with little or no collectivistic elements, while others might be pri­marily collectivistic with strong elements of individ­ualism. It is simply a start­ing point for building on the shared culture of your stu­dents.”

(Hammond, 2015, p. 26)

This makes me think about the many students during distance learning who strug­gled not only because of the impact of a health crisis, resources they did not have, or an unfair system of ed­ucation, but also because they were forced into a structure of learning that required more individualism from them than they are used to experiencing culturally.

Getting Ready

As we start the new school year, remember that our students have been through con­tinuing traumas. We are facing a new and more challenging way of teaching that can provide opportunities for us to become more focused and intentional in planning our in­struction. Whether we are teaching virtually, in person, or a combination of the two, we can plan classes and provide instruction that addresses the social-emotional learning needs of those students who are most vulnerable due to circumstances beyond their control.


  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, July 20). Health equity considerations and racial and minority groups. Retrieved from
  • Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin.
  • Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396.