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Promoting Educational Equity Through Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)

September 23rd, 2021

A growing body of research has exposed persistent bias in school discipline practices, policies, and outcomes; special education identification and placement; and academic opportunities, especially for kids of color (Ladson-Billings, 2006; Skiba et al., 2011; Skiba et al., 2008). While bias has been traditionally considered in terms of race, bias is also differentially distributed across several other axes of identity including gender, sexuality, class, and ability.

Students at the nexus of marginalized identities experience multiple forms of intersecting and compounding bias. For example, Black girls encounter race, gender, and class bias in schools that puts them at risk for increasingly disproportionate negative outcomes (Blake et al., 2011; Caldera, 2019).

Though the specific nuances of bias may vary from student to student, experiencing bias can be especially damaging to marginalized students as it can negatively impact self-concept, mental health, and identity development (Allen et al., 2013; Wessler & Andrade, 2006). Schools are encouraged to identify strategies to eliminate bias and promote equity for all students.

Using Social-Emotional Learning to Create Inclusive & Equitable Learning Spaces

Students who participate and are exposed to social emotional-learning (SEL) programs and practices demonstrate increases in social-emotional attitudes, skills, and social behaviors (Durlak et al., 2011).

The implementation of SEL practices and programs have been associated with generalizable and durable positive outcomes for students, irrespective of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or school location (Taylor et al., 2017). However, without an explicit focus on equity, SEL programs can unwittingly perpetuate White hegemony and obfuscate the value and importance of diversity in schools (Gregory & Fergus, 2017).

Instead, educators are encouraged to consider the implementation of transformative SEL programs and practices which consider both youth and adults in schools as active change agents, and builds their capacity to challenge bias and disrupt systems of oppression (Jagers et al., 2019). Developing culturally responsive practices and a strength-based perspective can help educators embrace the changing cultural landscape within the school environment. Educators are encouraged to consider the following strategies when working to implement equity-enhancing SEL programs and practices.

  1. Culturally responsive practices begin with an awareness of one’s own background. Educators must be knowledgeable about their own cultural heritage, values, assumptions, and biases, as these factors greatly affect student learning (Jackson, 2005). SEL curricula and practices should affirm diverse cultures, identities, and student backgrounds. Educators should ensure that their own practices and curricula don’t force students to conform to the values and preferences of a dominant culture that is identified by a school or a curriculum.
  2. Develop positive and inclusive practices within your school community. Educators are encouraged to engage in inclusive and nonjudgmental dialogue with fellow teachers and members of the broader school community, such as parents and members of local community organizations, to identify improved instructional practices, confront issues of social justice and dominance, and develop new competencies and pedagogies to engage students from diverse backgrounds (Howard, 2007). This could include analyzing root causes of disparities and examining disaggregated data to begin to problem solve and strengthen practices that promote equity.
  3. Develop culturally competent practices that integrate effective teaching strategies for students from diverse backgrounds. Educators are encouraged to create a classroom climate of inclusion, respect, connection, and caring with their students. This can be done by finding out as much as possible about their students’ culture, language, and learning styles in order to modify curricula and language accordingly, as well as building bridges between academic learning and student’s prior understanding, knowledge, native language, and cultural dialect so that learning opportunities are meaningfully connected to students’ personal interests and applicable to their lives.
  4. Encourage students to explore their own cultural differences, biases, and values. When teachers integrate diverse experiences and worldviews and foster an appreciation of multiculturalism in the classroom, they communicate to students that they value and care about the different backgrounds of students. Students should be encouraged to share their own cultural differences, biases, and values, especially when they might deviate from those of the majority culture in the classroom.
  5. Allow students to make meaningful contributions and share influence over decisions. Students feel connected and engaged when they are able to make meaningful, consequential decisions not only for the school community but also for the larger community in which the school exists. Allow student voice to be present when planning SEL programs and practices and to meaningfully engage with school- and community-based education leaders. This allows students to challenge inequities they may see or experience as well as productively identify solutions within their schools and communities.

As SEL programs continue to increase in popularity, schools are encouraged to use their resources wisely and efficiently, reach out for support when necessary, promote SEL skills that are socially valid, and encourage all involved in SEL programming to use their skills to promote social justice (Elias, 2019). Utilizing these strategies will allow schools to promote equity and eliminate bias in a sustainable fashion.


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Allen, A., Scott, L. M., & Lewis, C. W. (2013). Racial microaggressions and African American and Hispanic students in urban schools: A call for culturally affirming education. Interdisciplinary Journal of Teaching and Learning, 3(2), 117–129.

Blake, J. J., Butler, B. R., Lewis, C. W., & Darensbourg, A. (2011). Unmasking the inequitable discipline experiences of urban black girls: Implications for urban educational stakeholders. Urban Review, 43, 90– 106.

Caldera, A. (2019). Suspendable and expendable, kicking out and throwing away Black girls: An analysis of a school district’s policies and practices. Texas Education Review, 7(1), 30–47.

Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions: Social and emotional learning. Child Development, 82(1), 405–432.

Elias, M. J. (2019). What if the doors of every schoolhouse opened to social-emotional learning tomorrow: Reflections on how to feasibly scale up high-quality SEL. Educational Psychologist, 54(3), 233–245,

Gregory, A., & Fergus, E. (2017). Social and emotional learning and equity in school discipline. The Future of Children, 27(1), 117–136.

Howard, G. R. (2007). As diversity grows, so must we. Educational Leadership, 64, 16–22. Retrieved from,-SoMust-We.aspx

Jackson, J. H. (2005). Commentary 2: What is multicultural school psychology? In C. L. Frisby & C. R. Reynolds (Eds.), Comprehensive handbook on multicultural school psychology (pp. 14–29). Wiley.

Jagers, R. J., Rivas-Drake, D., & Williams, B. (2019). Transformative social and emotional learning (SEL): Toward SEL in service of educational equity and excellence. Educational Psychologist, 54(3), 162–184.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in US schools. Educational Researcher, 35(7), 3–12.

Skiba, R. J., Horner, R. H., Chung, C. G., Rausch, M. K., May, S. L., & Tobin, T. (2011). Race is not neutral: A national investigation of African American and Latino disproportionality in school discipline. School Psychology Review, 40(1), 85–107.

Skiba, R. J., Simmons, A. B., Ritter, S., Gibb, A. C., Rausch, M. K., Cuadrado, J., & Chung, C. G. (2008). Achieving equity in special education: History, status, and current challenges. Exceptional Children, 74(3), 264–288.

Taylor, R. D., Oberle, E., Durlak, J. A., & Weissberg, R. P. (2017). Promoting positive youth development through school‐based social and emotional learning interventions: A meta‐analysis of follow‐up effects. Child Development, 88(4), 1156–1171.

Wessler, S. L., & De Andrade, L. L. (2006). Slurs, stereotypes, and student interventions: Examining the dynamics, impact, and prevention of harassment in middle and high school. Journal of Social Issues, 62(3), 511–532.


Katie Eklund, Ph.D.

Katie Eklund, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the School Psychology Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Co-Director of the School Mental Health Collaborative. Prior to entering academia, Dr. Eklund worked in public education for 10 years as a school administrator, school psychologist, and school social worker. She is currently a Nationally Certified School Psychologist and licensed Psychologist. Dr. Eklund’s research focuses on school mental health, including early identification and intervention for children with behavioral and social-emotional concerns, social-emotional learning, school safety, and equitable outcomes for culturally and linguistically diverse students.

Bri’Anna Collins

Bri’Anna Collins is a doctoral student in the School Psychology Program at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Her research interests involve strategies to support educational equity, particularly in discipline, achievement, and mental health for Black girls. She is currently a Graduate Research Assistant in the Rural Education Research Implementation Center and School Mental Health Collaborative. She also serves as the Advocacy Chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Association at UW-Madison




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