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Report: Can SEL Solve School Inequity?

Social-emotional learning (SEL) experts espouse the approach’s ability to improve student performance and behavior.

But can SEL also boost equity in America’s schools?

A new report from The Aspen Institute’s Education and Society Program encourages school districts to take an SEL-based approach to tackle gaps in education quality among different socioeconomic groups.

The report’s authors spotlight budget disparities for schools that serve majority low-income students or students of color, which they say contribute to lingering achievement gaps between these students and their wealthier, white peers.

According to the report:

“U.S. schools systemically provide fewer resources to students of color and students from low-income families, including less funding, fewer enrichment activities, less rigorous coursework, lower-quality materials and other physical resources, curriculum that doesn’t reflect their background and culture, and unequal access to highly effective teachers. These inequities not only hobble students’ individual chances for success, but also undermine shared growth in an economy where most jobs that pay a living wage require some form of post-secondary education.”

But, while more resources are important, resources alone cannot guarantee a reduction in the achievement gap, the report finds.

To ensure that all students are guaranteed opportunities to succeed, the report says students also need to feel safe, have real connections to educators, and understand the value of what they’re learning.

This can only be achieved, according to the report’s experts, when individual educators and school leaders, as well as the larger school system, understand the inherent bias in their schools. This is where social, emotional, and academic development (SEAD) can help.

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As the report’s authors write:

“Research indicates that teachers, like everyone, are subject to implicit biases associated with race and ethnicity, which can affect their judgments of student behavior and their relationships with students and families. As educators and school system leaders attempt to pursue more intentional approaches to social, emotional, and academic development, the absence of a racial equity lens has led to some challenges with implementation and unintended, negative consequences, particularly for students of color and indigenous youth.”

The report outlines several approaches for districts to take to ensure SEL is implemented with equity in mind.

Here’s a few important takeaways:

    1. Build on students’ strengths. Schools who serve low-income and minority students often focus on the Adverse Childhood Effects (ACE) that many of their students face in their everyday lives–with good reason. But, the Aspen Institute report says schools need to go beyond trying to “fix” student problems and focus on the skills and potential that students already possess. “Educators need to see students, families, and communities for more than their challenges,” the report’s authors write, “and build on their already-existing cognitive, social, and emotional competencies.”
  1. Focus on healthy school cultures and climates. It’s no secret that a positive school climate can have a big effect on student achievement. For students whose lives outside of school are rarely safe or welcoming, a positive school culture and climate can be a game-changer. The report encourages schools to ensure “safe, welcoming, and supportive spaces for students” that celebrate different cultures, backgrounds, and achievements.
  2. Rethink discipline. A major part of the SEL-based approach is a focus on alternative strategies for student discipline. But many schools still approach discipline changes as a “discrete initiative rather than part of a whole school culture and learning environment that promotes social and emotional development,” according to the report. The report recommends that schools take a holistic approach to rethinking exclusionary disciplinary practices, like suspensions, in favor of more restorative measures.
  3. Focus on adult SEL development. Despite the recent focus on SEL, some schools still do not provide sufficient training for educators and school leaders, according to the report–especially when it comes to cultural awareness and student trauma. Along with these disciplines, the report says it’s vital for educators to understand “how to effectively, frequently, and openly communicate with families to build mutual trust, understanding, and support.”


Is your school or district taking an SEL approach to tackle achievement gaps? What strategies do you have in place to improve equity? Tell us in the comments.