Schools across the country are adopting social-emotional learning (SEL) standards as an approach to creating school communities that are safe and positive climates for learning, as well as a foundation to set students up for success in school and in life. In theory, this is a step in the right direction — we want schooling spaces where students, families, educators, school staff, and all those who come into contact with the school building feel safe, affirmed, and supported. We want schools that foster emotional support between students, staff, and communities, where there’s a trust-building approach rather than school hardening, and we want restorative justice, rather than the policing, punishment, and criminalization of Black and Brown students.
However, these SEL conversations, practices, and curricula are too often based on white, cisgender, patriarchal norms and values which further enact emotional and psychological violence onto Black, Brown, and LGBTQ+ youth of color, in particular. The current narrative around SEL is that students must manage and regulate themselves and their emotions, conform and constrict their identities, and not express their fullest, most authentic selves. As school districts begin to devise plans for back-to-school, we must re-examine how we talk about and teach SEL.
While visiting classrooms in a middle school this year, I perused how every classroom had the same print-out displayed on the wall. The poster detailed the five core competencies of SEL, as defined by CASEL — self awareness, self management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. As an example of social awareness, the signs read, “Keep your hands to yourself and don’t take other people’s property.” While social awareness should be about unpacking bias, having critical dialogue about social issues, and collectively crafting justice-oriented solutions, this white-washed version, as Dr. Dena Simmons reminds us, made me wonder: whose social norms are we abiding by and adhering to?
In Dr. Monique Morris’s newest book, Sing a Rhythm, Dance A Blues: Education for the Liberation of Black and Brown Girls, Morris tells the story of Esperanza, who as part of the EMERGE program in Oakland, California, was scheduled to speak at a national conference on Chicana/Latina girls in the juvenile justice system. When it was almost time for her to speak, she became anxious and started to cry because of the pressure she felt in being vulnerable enough to share her story, while also processing through a traumatic experience from the weeks prior. One of her classmates went up to her and started braiding her hair, which soothed her. As Morris describes it, both girls were breathing in tempo as Esperanza grappled with unlearning which stories have been regarded as valuable and important in the public sphere.
Doing hair has long been used as a cultural practice of building communal and ancestral ties in Black and brown communities, which, within the context of the classroom, young people would get in trouble for. A part of SEL should be teaching about consent and encouraging students to assert their right to say “no,” with no questions asked. If schools are built on deep relationships, and consent is embedded in the framework of relationship-building, we truly learn how to be self aware, recognize how others want to engage with us, like needing our hair to be braided as a soothing gesture, and honor and respect others who may not want to be touched or triggered by physical contact. A culturally-affirming social-emotional learning relates students back to their ancestry while recognizing and addressing trauma.
Another part of the school visit that struck me was that there was dedicated time during the school day, between the first two periods, for “SEL Time.” The educator took out a piece of paper to share the talking points that were given to each teacher and pulled up a picture of the brain on the screen. She then asked students to do a “brain dump” of everything they knew about the brain.
This is promising — the idea that there is dedicated time during the school day, where time is always of the essence, to dive into collective learning around SEL. The short-coming, however, is that SEL should be embedded in all of our interactions with each other and with young people, not just relegated to an add-on. True SEL is about understanding our relationships with ourselves and with others. It’s to know ourselves as holistic human beings, and to be able to see the humanity in others to fight, together, for the world we deserve, which is rooted in equity and justice. We can’t do this or do this well if we compartmentalize SEL to being just a portion of our day.
There are ways to learn about the brain science of SEL that are culturally-affirming. Educators and students could learn about how certain emotions are exhibited, like anger, when there is a perception of danger and it triggers a person’s flight or fight response. Threats, like racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and the continued violence against Black and Brown people, build up. We could talk about how when the amygdala is overworked from the stress of responding to these threats, it makes a person more likely to react to triggers. We could discuss historical trauma, where intergenerational trauma manifests when a cultural group is historically and systematically oppressed. We should have critical discussions about the systems of historical oppression, their implications, how to interrogate them, and how to heal from them.
Healing, for Black and Brown young people, should be centered in SEL. We must not lose the importance of co-constructing spaces with young people to lean into creative expression and joy — to shift conversations to what Dr. Shawn Ginwright calls a healing-centered perspective, where young people are reminded that they are not just their trauma, but rather all of the ways they continue to dream, imagine, hope, and grow. Let them dance, sing, laugh, play, scream, organize, and encourage all the brilliant ways they show up. SEL devoid of culturally-affirming practices and understandings is not SEL at all.
When students are in classrooms, the curriculum and the space is often not culturally affirming, and is psychologically violent to their family, ancestors, and contributions. Dr. Bettina Love says, “We teach students about their oppression, but we don’t teach them how their ancestors resisted.” When teaching about Black history, the curriculum often starts with enslavement, but leaves out the contributions of how enslaved people defied and resisted captivity, even if that meant risking their lives. It dismisses Black history to one month or a few figures, when Black people have been the architects of the fabric of our nation. It leaves out the strategic organizing efforts that continue to persist, and stops at the Civil Rights Movement, as if we have nothing still left to fight for. It enforces dress codes that call natural hairstyles a distraction and disruption, while reinforcing cisgendered expectations and understandings of clothing expression. When learning about indigenous nations, we’ve been taught that they peacefully gave up their land and are a people of the past, without informing us of the violent conquest of European colonizers and how indigenous people continue to demand the rights to their land that was and continues to be stolen. These are just a few examples of the “spirit murdering” of Black and Brown students.
Young people are angry about this, and under the guise of capitalism, the dominant workforce development framework of SEL encourages young people to stifle the very emotions that have long contributed to a history of resistance, so that they can contribute to society as a worker. SEL has long been about decreasing ‘problem’ behavior. Even the terms ‘manage’ and ‘regulate’ are words commonly associated with transactional business tactics. SEL has even been described in examples as “calm down and rewrite that angry email,” “empathy is at the root of customer service,” and “don’t cry at work.”
Righteous anger has long been used as a tool to fuel movements that have and continue to propel our nation forward towards justice. To tell students to not harness their anger is to tell them their rage isn’t warranted. As Audre Lorde told us about anger, “Focused with precision, it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change.”
Are we asking young people to empathize with the oppressor? Are we asking them to only feel and express emotions that make white people comfortable to further enforce the status quo? With previous definitions and understandings of SEL we are not asking students to feel, we are asking them to accommodate white supremacy. Much of the onus and responsibility is placed on young people to change, rather than the system.
What we see now with SEL is a covert form of policing or an excuse to further use disciplinary tactics when Black and Brown young people make school staff uncomfortable by not complying with ruled expectations. 6-year old Kaia Rolle, a Black girl, was placed in handcuffs after having a tantrum at Lucious and Emma Nixon Academy in Florida — for expressing her emotions in developmentally-appropriate ways. Even at six years old, her body was marked as a threat for expressing her pain as a side effect of sleep apnea. As an early childhood educator, I’ve held my fair share of crying children, wiped away an ocean of tears, and felt the sadness and frustration of not being able to solve their sorrow. To deem any child as a threat for voicing their challenges is deplorable to me.
We are not fulfilling the true promise of SEL if we continue to use it as another form of policing under the empty promises of words that feel and sound good. As Dena Simmons said, SEL devoid of examination of the systems of oppression faces the risk of becoming “white supremacy with a hug.” Some of these systems will not be able to hold SEL because they were built on control. The history of schooling in the United States shows us this, where the factory model of education persists, which pushes standardization, devotion to nationalism without loving critique, and obedience. This leaves little to no room for creativity, for reflection, and for questioning of authority.
This is further exacerbated by the presence of police officers in schools. The origin of policing in the South was to return enslaved people who ran away and to terrorize enslaved people to not revolt. Coupled with the troubled history of schooling, this is a dangerous and lethal combination that fails Black and brown students again and again. When students express their emotions, just as Kaia Rolle did and so many others do, they are met with physical, emotional, and psychological violence. It is no accident that the system operates in this way because it was not built for Black and Brown students to thrive, let alone survive. We have to decouple SEL from its controlling nature or it will remain yet another tool of oppression.
Cierra Kaler-Jones is the Education Anew Fellow with Communities for Just Schools Fund and Teaching for Change. She is also a Ph.D. candidate in minority and urban education at University of Maryland — College Park.