Culturally Responsive Teaching & Social-Emotional Learning: Instilling the Will to Make Both “Essential Workers”

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It goes without saying that 2020 has been a challenging and overwhelming year for parents, students, and educators. Parents and their children have had to modify rituals and routines at home to accommodate changes in learning. Teachers have had to adapt to distance learning or a hybrid model. And the political and racial unrest of the spring and summer has been an additional stress for many. While the current climate offers challenges, school systems can still offer students an opportunity to learn and to thrive in a positive and emotionally safe environment. One approach would be a commitment to culturally responsive teaching and social-emotional learning, using both as “essential workers” to create an optimal learning environment.

The pathway to raising students who learn at a high level involves giving them the opportunity to learn in a nurturing and caring environment. To nurture means to have empathy and to look past a child’s race, economic status, family make-up, and background. When a teacher cares for a child, they help them to become strong in their identity and equipped with tools to meet the challenges they may face. What is essential at this time is creating a climate where all children can access this learning with few or no barriers. Any obstacle our children face can be detrimental to their ability to fully reap the benefits of their learning.

A culturally responsive approach, one that situates and celebrates learning within the rich cultural contexts of students, may be the key to eliminating obstacles and ensuring that all students can receive the full benefits of social-emotional learning instruction (Irvine & Hawley, 2011; Ladson-Billings, 2009), and coupling culturally responsive teaching with social-emotional learning may be a practical pathway to fully supporting students. While there are no formal frameworks available that merge the two philosophies, there are ways to provide a road map to bring them together for a positive school environment. To do so will require the flexibility to embed both ideas into the school day, an approach that is more about mindset than one-size-fits-all. Achieving this mindset can shift the climate and culture of schools and the lives of children.

Culturally responsive teaching is a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning (Ladson-Billings, 2009). When schools support a culturally responsive approach, they proactively and collaboratively plan instruction to create positive perspectives of all students so that they can access an equitable education. Student-centered teaching is delivered within the context of culture, and when the teacher is willing to understand as much as possible about ways that the child’s culture can be learned and valued. Seeing difference as an asset and using it to build instructional experiences makes learning accessible.

Social and emotional learning is the process through which children acquire the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to thrive in and outside of school. It enables students to learn and practice how to manage their emotions, practice and apply positive skills, and build and maintain positive relationships with others.
When both pedagogies are implemented together, students can gain access to a major gift: an ability to engage in an equitable learning experience regardless of race, gender, background, or any other difference that could interfere. Teachers who take the time to couple these pedagogies together enable children to have greater success and help them understand the differences between equality and equity.

You might hear a teacher say, “I treat all my students the same.” This comment, while positive in nature, can offer a disservice to students who are marginalized. All students are different. If we treated them all the same they would lose their ability to engage in an equitable learning experience. We must nurture and care for each of our students as an individual with their own unique backgrounds and needs, and that requires being purposeful in our desire to learn more about their cultural, personal, and developmental needs.

Building a culturally responsive, social-and-emotional focused classroom requires a commitment to the following rules:

  1. Knowing ourselves
  2. Knowing our students
  3. Knowing our community

By following these rules, teachers help children to frame their thoughts and concentrate on ways to focus on themselves, others, and their environment.

Knowing Ourselves

People have different physical attributes, but we also have different internal attributes that align with our philosophies on decisions, how we pattern our day-to-day activities, and how we see others. An educator’s experiences growing up may be vastly different than that of their students, and it is imperative that teachers consider how personal experiences impact the way they carry bias toward their students.

All of us carry some sort of bias. We can have bias toward what we eat, where we travel, music we favor, and movies we choose to watch. Biases can be intrinsic or learned. They can influence our ideas and philosophies, which could be seen as closed-minded, unfair, and prejudicial. And biases can develop for or against a group, individual, or mindset. When we think of bias, our thoughts and interactions need to be carefully considered.

Knowing Our Students

Students’ developmental needs add context to who they are. As Chip Wood notes, “Only when we know and understand our students can we build the relationships with them that allow us to provide the safe, supportive learning environments that enhance their growth and help them develop into happy, capable adults” (2014, p. 5). Knowing who students are affirms that they are not all the same. It also means that you do see their race, their background, and how they differ from others. We need to know students not only by their test scores and academic capabilities but also by how they see the world, how they think, and what makes them unique. In addition, modeling sincere interest in their stories, their fears, and their wonderings will make students feel included, which is the key to building an inviting space for learning.

Taking the time to research each student is essential to knowing them individually, culturally, and developmentally. As a principal, I required teachers to get to know their students by reviewing students’ permanent files, which are filled with essential information about where they were born, family make-up, and characteristics. Teachers can use nonjudgmental reflections to consider ways they can make learning enjoyable and equitable for their students. Doing so allows teachers to prepare classrooms for students beyond the aesthetics and create more of the emotional environment based on things they learn about a student’s family situation. Teachers need to ask what a student’s abilities are and what challenges they have faced in the past that may hinder their growth. Regardless of what is learned, it is critical not to let these findings create bias. Instead, they should be reflected on. The teacher is the deciding factor on how a child will progress positively in a classroom, and what may have happened at another school or in another classroom may not have any bearing on their current learning experience.

Knowing Our Community

Students are part of our school community; they are not guests. Hearing a teacher say “This is my classroom” speaks against building a collaborative community. Imagine if you were made to feel like you were a guest, unable to be yourself and to feel comfortable in your own space, with no voice in decision-making. Because students are in a school environment daily, it is imperative that we include them in classroom decisions so that they not only value the tools and resources but also know that they are a valued contributing members of the classroom community.

Take a moment to reflect on your school and class environment. Does it mirror a collective and expansive view for students to see themselves as contributors to the environment? Review your school library—is it current, inviting, and diverse? Do the titles reflect different genres, races, and topics that provide insight into other viewpoints? Books that focus on strong diverse characters can serve as role models for children. The media may sometimes promote an image that attaches to stereotypes, and the classroom setting can be an opportunity for students to overcome these stereotypes and to learn, for example, about people of color who were inventors, activists, and leaders.

As school districts continue to build a digital learning environment, it is critical that the stakeholders involved—parents, educators, and students—have frequent conversations throughout the year that offer perspective and understanding about what students need to thrive. Everyone may not be okay: families are losing loved ones, facing issues of financial stability, and coping with the “new” normal way of life. The school, though, can be the one place where children feel loved and cared for, and where their voices can be heard.

Once we make the decision to better understand our role as an educator and the impact we can make, we can open ourselves up to a more inclusive learning environment. Be willing to take a risk and open a book that challenges your mindset. Be willing to get to know students culturally, developmentally, and individually. Be willing to sit back, reflect, and be sure every student is a member of your school and classroom community.

It takes courage to create a culture where children are able not only to learn but also to thrive socially and emotionally. Supporting students to develop and grow is an intentional act that involves knowledge and planning. It is an act that all the adults in the school building should be willing to commit to daily, even if they don’t have all of the skills. Having the skills to do this is teachable. Having the will to do this takes commitment.


  • Irvine, J. J. & Hawley, W. D. (2011). Culturally responsive pedagogy: An overview of research on student outcomes. In Culturally responsive teaching awards celebration (pp. 2-5). Pew Conference Center, Washington, DC.
  • Ladson-Billings, G. (2009). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children (2d edition). Jossey-Bass Publishing Co.
  • Wood, C. (2007). Yardsticks: Children in the classroom, ages 4-14. Center for Responsive Schools, Inc.