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Note from Elizabeth - How Can We Ensure SEL Is Anti-Racist

04 August 2020 |

               At the Whole Child Connection, we have been committed to transformation – both of the systems and institutions which serve our young people and the mindset with which adults approach their work. We’ve embraced the definitions and frameworks of national organizations like CASEL and the Aspen Institute and committed to connecting our community with the latest, evidence-based thinking on children’s social emotional development.

                And although we’ve consistently framed social emotional learning as instrumental for the success of all young people and urged a framing of SEL grounded in equity, I know we have not gone nearly far enough. Over the past several months, our team has started to explore the gaps in how we do this work, the gaps in our own understandings, and the gaps in how we talk about SEL. A recent article by Cierra Kaler-Jones of the Communities for Just Schools Fund as well as this explanation about the pitfalls of SEL from the National Equity Project have been important starting points in this conversation.

                Kaler-Jones lays out the ways in which social emotional learning, done poorly and without a deep understanding, can be not only ineffective, but actively harmful. First coined in 1994 by a team of researchers, educators, and child advocates invited to a meeting at the Fetzer Institute, SEL is described as a process for developing the skills that all children need to be successful. And although we stand behind the broad skill categories as critical to success, the implementation of SEL over the past decade has been gravely under-examined as a white dominant, white-driven understanding of what these skills are and what “success” really means.

               Assistant Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence Dena Simmons has warned that “SEL, devoid of examination of the systems of oppression, faces the risk of becoming ‘white supremacy with a hug’.” I would extend that thought to say that without careful examination and implementation, SEL will only perpetuate the racist dialogue that Black and brown children lack skills, have social and emotional problems, or need to be fixed to fit a white standard for “normal.” I don’t have the answers yet. In fact, our team is just starting our internal conversations and reflection about how we might begin to expand on the five social and emotional competencies to more intentionally embrace anti-racist principles. I wanted to share some of our thinking here – to be transparent about where we are headed and get honest feedback on our thinking.

                For example, we're curious if self-awareness should go beyond "building a positive sense of self-identify" to also include building a positive racial identity so that children of color can thrive even when that identity is undervalued or mistreated by society, and so that white children can understand a positive way of being white while also understanding the harm of white privilege.

                We wonder if self-management should include not only the “ability to regulate emotions,” but also the ability to understand where one’s emotions come from, the impact of racism on our emotional responses, and how to harness emotions for positive change and youth agency.

                We are asking ourselves if social awareness might involve not only “appreciating diversity” and “perspective taking, ” concepts that perpetuate otherness and minimize the pain of oppression, but also things like actively valuing cultural and ethnic diversity and creating sustained awareness of the profound systemic, social and emotional harm caused by racist behavior and racist systems.

                We are curious to think about relationship skills as not just limited to “establishing and maintaining healthy relationships with others,” but perhaps also including recognizing the impact of our own biases on our relationships; navigating difficult situations by engaging in critical dialogue; and understanding what it means to truly create safety in relationships with others.

                We wonder if responsible decision making shouldn’t stop at “identifying problems and analyzing solutions,” but also be grounded in an understanding that outcomes are not always the result of responsible decision-making. Some can make responsible decisions and have negative outcomes while others can make irresponsible decisions and still benefit from white privilege. 

               The five competencies are a starting point, but we can’t take them each at face value. Rather, we need to examine each competency deeply for what the words truly mean and how they can be adapted to reflect a broader cultural perspective. I recognize that we are coming to this conversation late and we have much to learn and explore. To that end, over the coming year, Whole Child Connection at Children’s Institute is committed to taking the following actions:

  • We will not accept or perpetuate an understanding of SEL as “behavior management” or “classroom management” or “prevention of mental health problems.” Those interpretations are not only incorrect, but perpetuate a racist dialogue that only certain children need SEL or that some young people have deficits that need fixing.
  • We will prioritize lived experience alongside the traditional evidence-base for SEL to ensure our approach is informed by the experiences of black and brown children, families, and educators.    
  • We will examine our needs assessments, consultation approach, trainings, and resources with an anti-racist lens to ensure our approach does not perpetuate racist structures and systems.
  • We will ask questions, engage in dialogue, and listen…a lot.


At all times, we welcome feedback, thoughts, partnership and suggestions for improvement.


Elizabeth Devaney
Director, Whole Child Connection

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