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Social-Emotional Learning Equity

Fix Systems, Not Students: 5 Key Insights for Engaging in Equity Work

As education leaders, we know that engaging in equity work takes focus and commitment.

It also requires us to embrace being uncomfortable; to lean into discussions that require vulnerability and critical self-reflection.

As Dr. Tracey Benson – academic-activist, social justice advocate and author of Unconscious Bias in Schools put it:

"Our inability to have these conversations in our schools is preventing students from building a more equitable future."

This is difficult work. It will create discomfort. But you need to be unequivocal about your commitment to equity and ready to dive deep into the issues that are negatively impacting students.

As part of Panorama’s Virtual Summit this past February, we were joined by over 6,400 educators for several conversations about centering equity and the whole child. Throughout the keynote presentations from thought leaders and workshops hosted by expert SEL curriculum providers, one underlying theme was a constant: we are all walking shoulder-to-shoulder as we work to dismantle the systems of oppression that impact our own lives, our school communities, and our world.

Below, we’ve summarized key takeaways from these conversations. Read about common pitfalls encountered when engaging in equity work, how to adopt an anti-racist framing, and the importance of building adult capacity in order to create equitable, safe and supportive learning environments. 

Free Download: Guide to Conducting an Equity Audit in Your District

1. Start by examining the way you are framing problems. [Tweet This]

When educating students from historically marginalized backgrounds, all of their identities must be taken into account—especially their racial identity. To truly center the whole child in our work to pursue educational equity and anti-racism in education, the way that we frame the problem is key.

An expert thought leader on anti-racism in education, Dr. Tracey Benson's keynote at Panorama's Virtual Summit focused on approaching education equity work in schools with "a clear lens."

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Dr. Tracey Benson, Academic-Activist, Social Justice Advocate and Author of Unconscious Bias in Schools

In order to center the whole child, we must take into account all of their identities, especially their racial identity. This is even more important when we’re serving students from historically marginalized backgrounds. 

When pursuing educational equity and anti-racism in education, framing is key. The way we frame the problem often dictates the way we respond to a problem. 

Some of our normative practices in schools might not be based in an anti-racist framing. To be grounded in an anti-racist framing is to oppose hatred, exclusion, and oppression of historically racially marginalized groups. For example: white racial framing tells us that racism is mainly interpersonal. Anti-racist framing tells us that racism is mainly structural. Interpersonal racism is wrong and it should be addressed; however, that is only the tip of the iceberg. 

When we look at racism through an anti-racist lens, we look at more of the structure that promotes the types of subjugation we see in schools, such as the differences in achievement or graduation rates between different racial groups. The majority of the problem is within the structure and the ways in which we structure our schools to make sure that all students are successful.


2. To build capacity for anti-racist instruction, start with teachers. [Tweet This]

District and school teams often don’t know where to start when it comes to anti-racist teaching practices. Further, without deliberately carving out time for reflection, critically analyzing existing curriculum through an equity lens, and prioritizing professional learning on this topic, nothing will change.

With educators searching for ways to get involved in this work and resources to guide them, a panel of experts from Panorama’s Playbook partner Newsela spoke about the importance of identity development for educators and trends from the field when it comes to building adult capacity for anti-racist instruction.


Alice Montgomery, Professional Learning Manager, Newsela

More and more, there are calls for school communities to come together and engage in conversations with each other about racism, its presence or lack of presence in curricular materials, and to unpack the identities of educators.

We need to reflect on the impact our identities have on attitudes and behaviors in addition to collectively addressing bias and stereotypes within materials that we are connecting students to. It’s about the internal work of reflecting on racial identity.


Brittany Boyd, Professional Learning Manager, Newsela

Diverse texts and culturally-relevant curriculum are important, but educators need to start from within to get a better understanding of how to deliver the material. Teachers may avoid using content that represents diverse perspectives if they don’t feel comfortable talking about subjects outside of their background or pedagogical knowledge. We can have a great article, but once students start to ask questions and share different viewpoints, that’s when situations start to be isolating for students or even traumatic.


Jarrod Denson, Professional Learning Manager, Newsela

There are a lot of factors that teachers need to consider to gain a better understanding of themselves before they feel comfortable delivering an instructional set or any kind of resource that might cover a sensitive subject. There’s a lot of racial identity development work that plays into that. At Newsela, we built our new series of identity development courses to bridge that gap for folks and help teachers have a starting point for talking about what it means to carry their race with them, how this shows up in their classrooms, how what their students carry with them is frequently not the same, and how be in spaces where they’re delivering sensitive content.


Kimberli Smith, Curriculum Specialist, Newsela

[Equity work] is not a one-time thing. You don't just take a PDF at the beginning of the year and check off the boxes. This is work that you are constantly doing.

There are many educators who are aware of how their identity shows up in their classroom practices and the impact of that. But for those who aren't as aware, how do we build their readiness for identity development work and building their own capacity in general? I think it can start with fostering increased awareness. I think that this can be a launching point to help us better understand the privilege and power that's associated with dominant identities and dominant ideas.


3. Implementing equitable SEL programming means moving beyond good intentions. [Tweet This]

In a workshop on how to actively support implementation of equitable social-emotional learning programming, John Norlin, Co-Founder of CharacterStrong and Dr. Clayton Cook, Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota, discussed how districts can move beyond good intentions to effectively create equitable, safe, and supportive learning environments through social-emotional learning.


Dr. Clayton Cook, Associate Professor, University of Minnesota

When we think about the work that we do with students around social-emotional learning, it is fundamentally adult work. It's important to consider where the adults are at and the types of environments they're creating to promote the types of outcomes we want for students.

What I mean by "where are the adults at" is: what are their beliefs, what are their mindsets, what is their own awareness of their cultural lens and the biases they bring into the fray? If you start to really put the focus on the environment, we can see that a lot of SEL is relationship work. The adult-to-student relationship is a core component of implementing equitable, comprehensive SEL programming. It's more than just curriculum and instruction; it's also about how safe, positive, and predictable the environment is. The adults who are in charge of creating those supports are the ones who enable that type of environment.

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John Norlin, Co-Founder, CharacterStrong

If this work was easy, everybody would do it. But you have to have that intentional work and make time for certain things. I think there is a way to do it that leverages implementation science and focuses on systems. Because the system is not just the building; when we talk about creating equitable systems, we often immediately think of building-level policies, but what is the district doing? What is the state doing? What are we doing nationally? Ultimately, we need to be doing this work across the board.

Equity work is nothing new. We should have been paying more attention to this a long time ago. But when it's got this heightened awareness, we can push beyond the good intentions and go to the next stage.


Dr. Clayton Cook, Associate Professor, University of Minnesota

We know that some of our environments in which children exist within are pretty toxic and corrosive, especially in situations where the decision-makers aren't representative of the various subgroups of students. When this happens, they're not getting the types of experiences and supports they need. Children need to feel like a valued, respected member of the community. Yet, we deliver instruction and expect them to engage with it when their environment isn't providing them with the types of experiences they need.

When we think about who creates the experiences for students and what outcomes these produce, we are brought back to the adults. We have to situate the student SEL work on adults and put them at the forefront, because it's their beliefs, it's their mindsets, it's the experiences they create that students actually receive. 

To go beyond good intentions, we have to take a behavior change-perspective and really start to understand what enables people to enact the behaviors they're motivated to exhibit. There's a whole science of behavior change that we can draw from and apply it in everyday school environments to help staff adopt behaviors to create more equitable SEL experiences for our students. Protecting time for planning, providing coaching and monitoring during implementation, giving people feedback, and acknowledging people's energy and effort are all effective ways to do this.

We need to help people go beyond their good intentions and start to enact the practices that create the high quality experiences our students deserve. That's how we get the changes in the outcomes that we want to see.


4. Be aware of common pitfalls and tropes when it comes to equity work. [Tweet This]

When districts and schools begin to engage in equity work, it is common to feel stuck or unsuccessfully try the same practices over and over without moving the work forward.

But equity work is not simply reading a rich text to guide school transformation work or creating a checklist and expecting to see different outcomes. This work should not be viewed as something you can “do” as a one-off or quickly solve. District- and school-level leadership needs to institute structures for reflection, and awareness-building to empower staff and educators to identify problems and analyze them instead of moving straight into “doing.” It’s about going from intent to purposeful action, with serving students at the heart.


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Dr. Tracey Benson, Academic Activist, Social Justice Advocate and Author of Unconscious Bias in Schools

When we approach interventions in school buildings, we need to ensure that we focus on what is within our locus of control. What policies or practices can we change to make the system better? Instead of operating with a deficit-lens, we need to know that it’s not the students who bring issues to our schools; rather, we need to consider how we are serving these students and how we can improve our systems. 

Our interventions must be based squarely in anti-racism and racial equity. When developing interventions, we need to make sure that we are seeing students for their promise and not their problem. It’s our responsibility to meet the students where they are and make sure that our service model is being equitable – socioeconomically and racially.

A popular practice when addressing anti-racism is to hire faculty of color. But we also need to measure what this does for students; that is, what it means for them to have a teacher of color. Because just hiring people with brown skin is not, in fact, anti-racism. We need to know how and why we are doing this, and we need to treat our faculty and teachers of color with respect.


Kimberli Smith, Curriculum Specialist, Newsela

Mistakes will be made. But it's important to ensure that the fear of making mistakes is not keeping you from doing this work. I think a lot of educators have good intentions and will say that they are committed to doing this work. Yet, sometimes good intentions can still be harmful. You can still traumatize a student because your good intentions were not necessarily the best way to deliver the content or the curriculum.


5. An intervention is only as good as its outcomes. [Tweet This]

Some of the most important data that districts and schools collect is from their students and their family members. Instead of looking at broad policies, it's critical for school communities to consider what the students are saying. What are their experiences? What are the perceptions of caregivers in our district? We have a much higher likelihood of disrupting inequitable practices if we elevate student and family member voices and truly honor those voices.

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Dr. Tracey Benson, Academic-Activist, Social Justice Advocate and Author of Unconscious Bias in Schools

When you’re thinking about addressing the needs of historically marginalized communities and developing strategies, ask yourself these two questions to make sure your interventions are framed with an asset-based lens and actually helping the population you’re intending to help:

What’s in it for kids? How will we know?

These two simple questions will put you on the track to developing interventions that actually result in change for students; strategies that actually lead to success for our students. Strategies such as trauma-informed practices, restorative justice, positive behavior support, and culturally-relevant pedagogy should be directly linked to student outcomes. And we need to develop measures so that we know what the effect of these interventions are. We can’t adopt the interventions but overlook the results. Any intervention is only as good as its outcomes.

Topic(s): Social-Emotional Learning , Equity

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