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Identity-affirming social-emotional learning

Social-emotional learning (sometimes called SEL) that’s culturally responsive helps students to develop the intra- and interpersonal skills they need to flourish throughout their life. Explicit, whole-school efforts to teach social-emotional learning and to reinforce skills in daily school life have a positive impact on academic achievement and on student social, behavioural and emotional wellness.

What is social-emotional learning?

Positive mental health and well-being are important for all students in order to build resilience and thrive.

School Mental Health Ontario helps the province’s school boards to support them.

Focusing on positive mental health and well-being, within safe and inclusive school settings, helps all students to thrive.

Implemented in a culturally responsive way, it can perhaps prevent or reduce future mental health problems.

What does it take to generate positive and sustainable outcomes for students?

There are three key components:

  • A mentally healthy, culturally responsive, school and classroom environment
  • Evidence-based programming
  • And training and implementation support

One of the most powerful evidence-based tools is social-emotional learning or SEL.

SEL is the process of learning and developing skills to recognize and manage emotions. Cope with stress. Strengthen identity. Solve problems. Enhance positive relationships and think critically.

Research shows that when students engage in high-quality SEL at school, those results are significant.

Moreover, participation in SEL leads to strong gains in academic achievement.

SEL also has a cumulative effect. When all students in a class or school learn and practice these skills, their sense of belonging within the classroom, school and community improves. Everyone tends to communicate in more positive and thoughtful ways, and they show respect for diversity of thought, culture, language, faith, identities and expression.

Educator reflection about the learning environment with opportunities for input from students and families is a critical part of culturally responsive instruction and assessment.

There are many approaches to support SEL at school.

One of the most well-known resources is the foundational work of the Collaborative for Academic and Social-Emotional Learning. We adapted it for easier implementation in Ontario schools

Consider how to weave these six SEL skill categories into everyday classroom practice.

One, self-awareness and sense of identity.

Two, identifying and managing emotions.

Three, stress management and coping.

Four, positive motivation and perseverance.

Five, relationship skills.

Six, critical and creative thinking skills, or executive functions.

When caring educators introduce and model these skills throughout the school day, students can be more equipped to manage their struggles.

So, how can you introduce SEL?

Just as other approaches to skill development, use a clear sequence, engage active learning, keep the focus, and name and reinforce the skills in an explicit way.

Ensure that you provide ongoing opportunities for learning and reflection, with a strong anti-racism antioppression stance guiding the classroom climate.

When you decide to introduce SEL, think about your students’ developmental stage, and the way skills are expressed across culture, gender and other diversities represented in your school and classroom.

That will help students to see themselves within SEL activities.

Parents, families and caregivers may choose to reinforce these skills at home. Students also may want to provide input to how social-emotional learning skills can be used to create a culture of inclusion and belonging across the school.

A school-wide approach ensures that:

  • school leadership is fully involved as SEL is introduced and maintained
  • staff participate in quality professional learning and model SEL in their instructional practice
  • data and observations about SEL progress inform planning and practice
  • SEL opportunities are woven into the fabric of the school’s culture and learning activities; and
  • all partners work together to create welcoming, respectful, and safe learning environments

Together, you can demonstrate a commitment to mental health and well-being, equity, safety and inclusion. That’s what happens by building SEL into classroom and school life.

This powerful approach can help all students to be successful today and be ready for life’s challenges and opportunities.

For more on social-emotional Learning, and mental health promotion, visit the School Mental Health Ontario website.

Social-emotional learning and equity

Culturally responsive social-emotional learning considers students’ lived experiences, as well as racial and other disparities that exist within the school, school system and society.

An August 2020 report from The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL)  explains the potential for social-emotional learning to cultivate knowledge, beliefs, practices, and relationships that:

  • Help individuals, groups, and institutions examine and interrupt inequitable policies and practices
  • Create opportunities for students, families, and educators to co-construct more inclusive, student-centred school environments
  • Reveal and nurture the interests, talents and contributions of children, youth, and adults from diverse backgrounds
  • Create more fertile learning environments and improved developmental outcomes for all individuals

How to implement culturally-responsive social-emotional learning

As the CASEL report mentioned above highlights, there’s an opportunity for social-emotional learning to help us dismantle oppressive structures and create a more equitable school system and society.

Be a learner first

While there’s evidence that social-emotional learning has the most significant benefits when introduced early in a child’s development, the learning doesn’t stop. We develop our social and emotional skills throughout life, and so, you’re both a learner and a guide.

Be gentle with yourself as you acquire knowledge and skills. Remain humble and curious, remembering to examine your biases along the way. Look for opportunities to learn from and build on the strengths of students and families, peers and other professionals in your system, including the equity team and members of your mental health leadership team.

Tips for implementing culturally-responsive social-emotional learning

Social-emotional learning is only effective when introduced within safe, welcoming and inclusive classrooms and schools. A culturally-responsive approach to social-emotional learning demonstrates awareness of and respect for the social and cultural identities of all students. Understand that racism, oppression and disparity exist, and students’ experiences with racism and oppression at school can affect the way social-emotional learning is perceived.

There are many resources available, including our resources mentioned below, that will help you implement social-emotional learning. As with other areas of the curriculum, it’s essential to consider your students’ strengths and experiences when planning how to use the resources. 

Here are some factors to keep in mind to implement impactful, supportive, anti-racist, and anti-oppressive social-emotional learning:

  • Understand that there are nuances across and within cultural groups; one statement or idea does not apply to everyone. Allow opportunities for cultural self-expression and ways of knowing.
  • Make sure your examples are inclusive. For instance, be sensitive about using a heteronormative stance (e.g. referring to families as having a mom and a dad).
  • Be sure to provide students with support and tools to challenge oppression and be careful not to blame or place the onus on students to navigate oppressive, racist and discriminatory spaces. For example, research shows using positive thoughts can influence our emotions and behaviours in helpful ways and can support reframing negative events. While it’s helpful to learn about positive thinking and reframing, they are not the solutions to oppressive practices and shouldn’t be presented to students in that way.
  • Take a strengths-based, co-learning approach. Social-emotional learning is a co-learning process where student ideas and strengths are honoured, and new ideas are explored together.

Six common elements of social-emotional learning

Six common elements were identified through a review process of existing evidence-based programs. Learn more about this process.

Identification and management of emotions

Students express emotion in a variety of ways based on their personal, social, and cultural lived experiences. Together with students, you can learn how thoughts, emotions, and actions are related. You can explore how to identify emotions, different ways to manage and express feelings, and model and practise responding to others with compassion while honouring social and cultural identities.


Stress management and coping

Students face a range of challenges that are relative to their personal, social, and cultural lived experience. They also have existing ways of coping. Through instruction and modelling, you can help students practise new and bolster existing coping strategies. Be sure to consider sources of stress and examine and address structures that reinforce inequitable conditions that add stress to individuals and entire communities.



Positive motivation and perseverance

Positive motivation and perseverance skills can help students approach challenges in life with an optimistic mindset and remain hopeful even when their circumstances are difficult. Explore and practise strategies that build on students’ strengths. Be careful not to present these skills as the solution to oppression and other systemic issues. Instead, talk about the role of motivation and perseverance in advocacy and collective action to remove barriers within the classroom, school and system.


Healthy relationship skills

Healthy relationships are at the core of developing and maintaining mentally healthy, equitable and caring learning environments. You can help students learn to understand and appreciate diverse perspectives and identities, to empathize with others, to listen, and to resolve conflict respectfully. Focusing on healthy relationship skills can benefit class culture and students’ sense of belonging.


Self-awareness and sense of identity

Exploring self-awareness and sense of identity is a chance for courageous and supportive conversations about strengths, difficulties, preferences, values, lived experiences, ambitions and more. You can create a safe environment where you co-learn with students, affirm cultural heritages and where students practise advocating for their needs. Having a sense of who they are, in the context of culture and community, may help students see how they matter and can contribute to the world around them.


Critical and creative thinking (executive functioning)

Executive functioning skills such as planning, task focus, creative problem-solving and time management help students get organized. These skills increase students’ success with academic tasks and can also help them manage other complex challenges in their lives. You can model and teach these skills, and create opportunities for students to learn and practise the skills individually and together with their peers.


Resources to support social-emotional learning

Benefits of social-emotional learning

When all students in a class or school learn and practise social and emotional skills, their sense of belonging within the classroom, school and community improves. Everyone tends to communicate in more positive and thoughtful ways, and they show respect for diversity of thought, culture, language, faith, identities and expression.

CASEL provides an overview of research on the outcomes of social-emotional learning. In general, supporting social-emotional learning can

  • increase academic achievement
  • improve behaviour
  • yield impressive return-on-investment, in terms of educational as well as health/justice outcomes
  • support equity and inclusion