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Social-Emotional Learning Equity

SEL and Equity: Lessons From Senior Leaders at DCPS, Portland Public Schools, and Aldine ISD

"If you are talking about social-emotional learning but not equity, you are not talking about SEL."

—Dr. Lorenzo Moore, Executive Director of Social Emotional Learning and Culture, Aldine ISD (TX)

These powerful words—spoken by Dr. Lorenzo Moore during Panorama's September 2020 virtual meet-up for large districts—ring even more true as we enter an academic year amid "twin pandemics" in the education world. 

Not only are districts responding to towering challenges during the global COVID-19 pandemic, but the nation is simultaneously reckoning with a renewed focus on systemic racism. Supporting students, staff, and the school community has always been complex and multi-faceted—but in our current context, true leadership requires reimagining the way in which we address social-emotional learning (SEL) through an equity lens.

The bottom line: equity is the destination. SEL is the vehicle for how we will get there.

That's why we brought together administrators and educators from 70 of the largest districts in the country to hear from panelists Dr. Lorenzo Moore (Aldine ISD), Brenda Martinek (Portland Public Schools), and Dr. Bren Elliott (D.C. Public Schools). During the meet-up, our panelists explored the state of SEL and equity, their "pivots" and plans for the upcoming school year, and how they are creating tiered infrastructure to support the well-being of their students, staff, and families. 

We'll start by exploring the connections between SEL and equity through CASEL's updated definition for social and emotional learning. Then, explore key takeaways from our district leader panelists and watch the webinar event recording below.



Download the District Leader's Guide to SEL and Equity (includes advice from 30+ district leaders).

SEL and Educational Equity: CASEL's 2020 Definition

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) recently released a new definition for social-emotional learning that reinforces the role of SEL in academic achievement, racial equity, and social justice. According to CASEL:

"SEL advances educational equity and excellence through authentic school-family-community partnerships to establish learning environments and experiences that feature trusting and collaborative relationships, rigorous and meaningful curriculum and instruction, and ongoing evaluation. SEL can help address various forms of inequity and empower young people and adults to co-create thriving schools and contribute to safe, healthy, and just communities."

The new definition more clearly outlines how social-emotional learning can support equity. It also emphasizes student agency while acknowledging that the context and environment in which students live cannot be dissociated from their academic development and emotional development. 

Watch: CASEL's webinar announcement of the new definition

Additional Reading: "Pursuing Social and Emotional Development Through a Racial Equity Lens" by the Aspen Institute

SEL and Equity in Action: Lessons from Senior District Leaders

1. Acknowledge and embrace that equity and SEL are interwoven.

Dr. Lorenzo Moore

Dr. Lorenzo Moore, Executive Director of Social Emotional Learning and Culture, Aldine Independent School District (TX)

SEL and equity are two sides of the same coin. In fact, they’re both on both sides of the same coin. When we set goals to raise the racial consciousness of our entire district, it means that we have to change the mindsets of people.  

One practical way to do this is to infuse equity and SEL skills and competencies in school-wide procedures. When you consider how you deal with misbehavior, SEL and equity should be at the heart of any policy so that we can move away from punitive measures and shift to restorative practices. 

Brenda Martinek

Brenda Martinek, Chief of Student Support Services, Portland Public Schools (OR)

In order to change the hearts and minds of students, staff, and families, we need to be passionate and caring so that others will want to join us in leading this work. As the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said: “Fight for things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”


2. Disrupting the system starts with our own (adult) social-emotional learning.

Dr. Bren Elliott

Dr. Bren Elliott, Chief of School Improvement and Supports, D.C. Public Schools

At DCPs, we have started to prioritize adult self-care. This is an extremely difficult time for our staff. They are trying to teach, lead schools, manage households, and care for others who have been impacted by the pandemic. 

Additionally, to create environments of mutual respect, we have been very clear about what our expectations are in our buildings. How do we want adults to interact with students, and vice versa?

Dr. Lorenzo Moore

Dr. Lorenzo Moore, Executive Director of Social Emotional Learning and Culture, Aldine Independent School District (TX)

There are two words within the definition of social and emotional learning that are important to consider in context: “acquire” and “apply.” If you have not acquired self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making, you cannot apply them. You can’t apply something you don't have. 

When you think about this through the lens of education, it is clear that we have (traditionally) been asking people to do something that they do not have the skillset to do. When teachers are not trained in these competencies and have not acquired these social and emotional skills personally, they will struggle to help transfer them to our students.

Similarly, if we are not aware of implicit biases we hold, we continue to perpetuate systemic racialization in education. That is why when we began our SEL efforts, we started with adults. Building adult understanding, capacity, and buy-in is key. When we think about embedding social-emotional learning within the culture of the entire district, it opens up doors for us to expand the work that we are doing with our students to the caring adults that are educating them. All relationships on campus can be supportive relationships. Our students and staff need to have supportive relationships with everyone, from the bus driver to the principal.


3. Form diverse teams to respond to disproportionalities in data. 

Brenda Martinek

Brenda Martinek, Chief of Student Support Services, Portland Public Schools (OR)

Panorama’s school climate survey has given us baseline data for the past two years to inform our equity work. We chose to look at the survey data, embed it within our school improvement plans, and work with Panorama’s Teaching and Learning team to identify and prioritize strategies to increase students’ sense of belonging and sense of safety.

With our “pilot SEL” schools, we have found that school-wide implementation has been successful in terms of improving student outcomes (vs. individual teachers doing SEL work without full building buy in). In a lot of cases, we needed to pull back and focus on the aspect of buy in before implementing SEL, but it has been far more successful when done deliberately.

Dr. Bren Elliott

Dr. Bren Elliott, Chief of School Improvement and Supports, D.C. Public Schools

One thing we realized is that we need to have more indicators to track student well-being. We are using Panorama to survey students this fall and get an early sense of how they are doing. We also offered some early professional development focused on trauma-responsive practices because we recognize that this is nuanced work. 

We have also learned that it’s important to create more time for conversations about this data and about equity in general. A lot of discussions surrounding equity involve people talking at each other. At DCPS, this meant creating opportunities for adults to have real conversations about race/ethnicity, racism, and its impact on education through racial affinity groups or cross-racial affinity groups.

Dr. Lorenzo Moore

Dr. Lorenzo Moore, Executive Director of Social Emotional Learning and Culture, Aldine Independent School District (TX)

When we start talking about equity, we have to acknowledge that every student is not receiving a quality education. When the Social-Emotional Learning Department at Aldine ISD was first formed in 2017, one in four African American students in third grade were reading at grade-level in our district.

Within our district’s strategic priorities is student achievement. A key factor that we consider is: Are students entering the classroom ready to learn? How can a student come into the classroom ready to learn if they don’t have an appropriate relationship with their teacher; if their teacher does not respect their diversity or background? 

When you see disproportionalities in the data and realize that students of color are lagging behind their peers, it is important to reflect on how much district leaders and goals currently prioritize racial equity and SEL. How are you actively responding to these never-ending and ever-evolving concepts? 

A simple practice is to form a team on every campus throughout the district. This team should be comprised of a diverse group of individuals—ideally, a mixture of staff, teachers, and administrators with expertise in various efforts (e.g., data analysis, special education, trauma-informed education, and interventions). This team should meet regularly to review a number of different data streams, including: social-emotional learning data, discipline data, academic data, and attendance data. 


4. Embed restorative practices, SEL and trauma-informed care into your MTSS.

Dr. Bren Elliott

Dr. Bren Elliott, Chief of School Improvement and Supports, D.C. Public Schools

With the health crisis that we are facing as a nation—combined with the racial violence and ensuing unrest—our district has prioritized trauma-responsive practices.

We know that all of our students will be coming back to us having experienced some level of trauma. For our students of color, we know that the trauma is likely even more deeply rooted. We wanted to be sure that we embedded practices in our schools and in every classroom that emphasized safety and connection to create the conditions for a calm brain. We have a strategic plan, but we totally reprioritized our high-visibility work streams and made a decision to narrow our focus and concentrate on the most essential initiatives for our students. This includes mental health and increasing the quality of tier 1 SEL interventions, specifically trauma-responsive practices. 

We have focused on four trauma-informed practices in particular. We want to ensure that every student is greeted with positive and affirming language each day. We want to ensure that our teachers can intentionally create space for relationship-building while also providing space for emotional regulation for their students. We need to provide space for young people so that they have the opportunity to reflect, become calm, and return to our learning environments. 

We’ve also realized that we have a lot to do to improve how we engage with families. We are hosting a number of “Parent University” sessions to help caregivers feel less overwhelmed and understand how they can be resources to their children when it comes to extending the social-emotional learning work we are doing in classrooms into the home. 

Brenda Martinek

Brenda Martinek, Chief of Student Support Services, Portland Public Schools (OR)

We focus on tiered supports as a pyramid and braid these supports through strong instruction. We know we have to have tier 1 supports as common building blocks. We also know from Maslow’s Hierarchy that we have to provide baseline supports for families and students so that they are able to engage in learning. We have worked to embed trauma-informed practices within our MTSS and have made a bold theory of action that focuses on our Black and Native students. Our district has supported this in everything that my team does—from diverse hiring practices to culturally responsive teaching and trauma-informed curriculum to programs to support the health and safety of our students. When we get up to tier 2 and tier 3, the interventions are not just for academics; they’re focused on how we support students through restorative practices, SEL, and trauma-informed care.

More recently, we have started to emphasize stakeholder input. We have hosted town hall meetings and forums to ask our community members what their greatest needs are. One of the recurring themes we heard was that, because there is so much trauma happening in our nation, our students need mental health support from more counselors and social workers. In response, we funded nearly 50 more full-time qualified mental health professionals into our district. We have also contracted with a number of different agencies and can now pay for tele-therapy services through those partners. No student or family member should be denied access to these services if they don’t have insurance.


Learn More: The District Leader's Guide to SEL and Equity

Topic(s): Social-Emotional Learning , Equity

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