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Social-emotional learning

A focus on social-emotional learning programming is common at tier 1. Momentum for social-emotional learning has increased in recent years with growing recognition of the value of schools as a setting for mental health promotion.

Why this is important

  • Schools are places where students learn subject-specific content and skills, and they also have an important role in helping with social-emotional development and helping young people to reach their life goals.
  • Students spend many hours at school and, as a result, learn a great deal about social and emotional functioning in the school setting. Much of this learning is implicit, meaning that students observe and model those around them.

Benefits associated with social-emotional learning

Educators have supported child development as part of good pedagogy for decades. In 2020, the Ontario Ministry of Education updated the curriculum to include social-emotional learning as a distinct component, and in 2023, social-emotional learning was included as one of 11 requirements for student mental health in PPM 169: Student Mental Health.

  • Social-emotional learning helps to place an explicit focus on developing students’ social and emotional skills, formalizing the learning so that it is more likely to have a positive and sustained impact.
  • With escalating concerns about child and youth mental health challenges, schools have become an important venue for helping young people develop the knowledge and skills to understand and support their own mental wellness.
  • Social-emotional learning is one way to offer young people agency, through practising skills that can help them to manage stress, solve problems, help others, and amplify their voices.

Social-emotional learning is associated with a range of positive outcomes, as determined by research globally. Young people who engage with high-quality social-emotional learning have better mental health and academic outcomes than matched students who do not.

Cautions about social-emotional learning

While building skills in social-emotional learning at school can yield important benefits related to mental health, well-being, and academic achievement, significant and serious concerns have been raised about the impact of social-emotional learning on students who are racialized, marginalized, and underserved by the education system when this programming is delivered without attention to identity and wellness.

Students who experience oppression or racism or who do not see themselves reflected in the teaching of social-emotional learning may not benefit from this instruction and, in fact, may be negatively affected or further harmed. The Ministry of Education has directed that educators are not to evaluate or report on social-emotional learning skills because of the negative impact this can have on particular groups of students.

  • Social-emotional learning does not address the larger systemic issues, including racism and oppression, that operate within school systems.
  • Social-emotional learning approaches can be individualistic in nature and rooted in personal skill development, which may be incompatible with worldviews that prioritize collective and community forms of care. An exclusive focus on personal skill development also ignores other contextual realities for students that may be influencing their thoughts, emotions, and actions at school (e.g., socioeconomic considerations, learning challenges, experiences of bullying, homophobia, racism, etc.). The limitations of social-emotional learning in this regard need to be understood.
  • Education systems have been rooted in white ideologies and perspectives for so long, educators may not immediately recognize biases towards Western ways of knowing and being as they are so ingrained in our school cultures. A focus only on skill-building from this perspective can leave racialized and marginalized students feeling misunderstood, undervalued, and questioning core strengths and values that should be celebrated rather than ignored.

How to support social-emotional learning that’s culturally responsive and identity affirming

There is an opportunity to use social-emotional learning as a tool to advance understanding and action toward anti-racist, anti-oppressive education more generally, using a culturally responsive, identity-affirming lens to inform social-emotional learning.

Social-emotional learning from a culturally responsive and identity-affirming lens is focused, developmentally appropriate teaching and practice of individual and group social-emotional skill-building that centres students and their cultures, identities, lived experiences, and collective well-being.

Through co-learning and lifting of strengths and resources, social-emotional learning can offer a range of meaningful strategies for flourishing in school and throughout life when:

  • we see students through an asset lens that affirms who they are and experiences they bring to school
  • we recognize different worldviews and approaches to social-emotional development
  • we acknowledge the deep impacts of racism, oppression, marginalization, and colonization on student wellness
  • we respond with a focus on equity, human rights, social justice, and liberation as cornerstones for social-emotional learning instruction
  • we prioritize student voices, leadership, and agency

To truly reach its potential for every student and to avoid harm, social-emotional learning must be delivered in an identity-affirming manner with explicit and caring attention to ensure:  

  • anti-racist and anti-oppressive school and classroom conditions for learning. Schools must name and address contextual factors that perpetuate racism, oppression, and marginalization and lift these burdens from students so they may meaningfully participate in learning.
  • educator capacity-building through ongoing supportive professional learning. Educators must be not only well-versed in social-emotional learning but also aware of ways in which these practices can unintentionally harm students. Educators must reflect on their positionality, privilege, and unexamined biases to ensure that social-emotional learning is not used in ways that place additional responsibilities on students who are racialized and marginalized.
  • the use of programming and materials reflective of the cultures and identities of the students served, and that uplift student strengths, perspectives, and ways of knowing. Educators should consider differentiated approaches to social-emotional learning that take into account various lived experiences and worldviews, community caring, and culture.

Professional development for effective social-emotional learning

For efforts to promote mental health literacy and wellness at tier 1 to be effective and used with a culturally responsive and identity-affirming lens, there needs to be adequate time and space for reflective professional learning. Learning should focus on:

  • understanding social-emotional learning in the Ontario context (e.g., the social-emotional learning competencies noted in the Ontario curriculum, made-in-Ontario resources to support social-emotional learning, instruction designed for the diversity of students in Ontario schools, awareness of the colonial and racist history of education in Ontario)
  • examining and disrupting systems that perpetuate colonialism and white supremacy at school (e.g., understanding the impact of historical and present injustices that continue to affect the wellness of Indigenous, Black, racialized, and marginalized students; ways educators can contribute to the school and classroom climate that assume a strong anti-racist, anti-oppressive stance)
  • the impact of bias/lived experience on the delivery of programming related to mental health promotion (e.g., understanding your positionality and privilege, identifying and checking your biases)
  • knowing students and families (e.g., understanding student cultures and intersectional identities, responding to students’ unique needs, and ensuring that students see themselves reflected in the curriculum)
  • examples of mental health promotion and literacy in action that highlight a strength-based, culturally responsive, and identity-affirming approach

Shifting how we think about social-emotional learning

Identifying and “fixing” what is wrong with students.Taking a broader strengths-based approach that includes a focus on adult beliefs and mindsets as well as the systems and policies necessary to create equitable learning environments.
Focusing on student mindsets, beliefs, and skills.Focusing on adult biases, beliefs, and skills that influence their behaviours in learning environments, as well as school and school-board policies and practices.
Assuming that the situation of students who have been marginalized and underserved will change if they learn self-management and emotional regulation.Addressing the environment that persists when systemic racism and oppression go unaddressed.
Starting from a deficit-based mindset.Cultivating a strengths-based mindset by recognizing students’ assets and figuring out how to build on them. This includes centring students as drivers and co-developers of their learning.
Assuming that problematic behaviours can be eliminated by enforcing consequences.Supporting students to develop key skills and strengths and encouraging the development of healthy relationships with peers.

Clarke, A., Sorgenfrei, M., Mulcahy, J., Davie, P., Friedrich, C. & McBride, T. (2021). Adolescent mental health: A systematic review on the effectiveness of school-based interventions. Early Intervention Foundation.

Darling-Hammond, L., & Cook-Harvey, C. M. (2018). Educating the whole child: Improving school climate to support student success. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.

The Education Trust. (2020, August). Social, emotional, and academic development through an equity lens.

Yoder, N., Ward, A.M. & Wolforth, S. (2021). Teaching the whole child: Instructional practices that integrate equity-centered social, emotional, and academic learning, American Institutes for Learning.