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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. Through systematic social-emotional learning, from the early years to secondary school graduation, students can build knowledge and skills in the following areas:

  • identification and management of emotions
  • stress management and coping
  • positive motivation and perseverance
  • healthy relationship skills
  • self-awareness and sense of identity
  • critical and creative thinking (executive functioning)

Explicit, whole-school efforts to teach SEL and to reinforce skills in daily school life have a positive impact on academic achievement and on student social, behavioural and emotional wellness.

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 potential 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, avoid taking a heteronormative stance (e.g. referring to families as having a mom and a dad).
  • 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. Be sure to provide students with support and tools to challenge oppression.
  • Take a strengths-based, co-learning approach. Social-emotional learning is not about educators telling students how to cope and behave. It’s a co-learning process where student ideas and strengths are honoured, and new ideas are explored together.

Six common elements of social-emotional learning

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.

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 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 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.

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.

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.

Learn more about social-emotional learning

Educators and school leaders can take our online course to build your mental health literacy. It includes a module on social-emotional learning.

How to embed social-emotional learning in your classroom and school

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

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We will continue to expand our resources based on input. Please send us your ideas for topics to cover so we can meet your professional learning needs.