Inclusive SEL Helps Students Thrive

A curriculum that fails to recognize the racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds of students won’t build social-emotional skills.

Topics: Social Emotional Learning, Equity and Diversity, Health and Wellness

Learning and developing as a student is about more than just memorizing facts, being able to read and write, and solving math problems. Students learn best when they actively engage with content and with others in positive and meaningful ways. Students must also grow in areas of social and emotional development.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which students learn to cope with feelings, set goals, make decisions, and get along with—and feel empathy for—others. SEL is an embedded part of whole-child education, an approach that prioritizes the full scope of a child’s needs.

According to a recent nationwide survey of 2,538 parents and guardians with children in K–12 public schools released by PTA and the CDC Foundation, 88 percent of parents and caregivers said that social skills such as respect, cooperation, perseverance, and empathy should be taught “a lot” or “some” in schools, and 76 percent said the same about social-emotional learning. Only 5 percent of respondents said SEL should not be taught at all.

However, SEL is not immune to the politics of our times. School leaders across the country have faced opposition to initiatives that seek to recognize the intersecting identities of students and representing those identities in the curriculum. The backlash to these initiatives is misguided, though, and it fails to take into account the actual opinions of parents and other caregivers.

Teachers support social-emotional learning, too. According to “Many Teachers See Social-Emotional Learning as the ‘Missing Link’ in Student Success,” a 2019 story in The Hechinger Report, SEL provides kids with the tools they need to succeed academically and beyond. Backed by research and popular support, teaching SEL in schools offers a sensible way to ensure the healthy development of our children.

Pandemic Reveals SEL’s Importance

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed a critical need to focus on the social, emotional, and mental well-​being of children. Schools have responded: 85 percent of public schools encouraged existing staff to address a student’s social, emotional, and mental well-being, according to the National Center for Education Statistics’ School Pulse panel, and 56 percent offered professional development to teachers on how to do so.

The data also show disparate impacts on students with disabilities: Students with individualized education plans or 504 plans have been 25 percent more likely to seek mental health services since the start of the pandemic. While SEL and mental health supports are not the same, SEL can support positive mental health, CASEL says.

The team at the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) understands that social-emotional learning can be particularly beneficial for students with disabilities because it emphasizes relationships and social interactions, helping students develop a sense of safety and belonging. But the research examining SEL initiatives often fails to account for students with disabilities and how they might respond to a particular SEL program or curriculum.

A recent meta-analysis conducted by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the nonprofit EdTogether, “Whose Emotions Matter?,” found that more than 75 percent of 242 studies of elementary school SEL from 2008 through the end of 2020 made no mention of students with disabilities. Fewer than 1 in 10 studies included students with disabilities in their analysis. Nearly three-fourths (71.7 percent) of studies didn’t report student race in their results, and only 1 in 10 reported on the effect of SEL on students by racial or ethnic identity.

All learners have intersecting, varied, and dynamic identities, and we must affirm them. One might infer that an SEL initiative that does not take into account students’ intersecting identities could in fact be detrimental to the success of particular students in a school. For example, a student who has autism spectrum disorder might have different levels of social skills, communication, ability to sustain relationships, and self-regulation. We need to be sure that the SEL approach chosen is inclusive of this disability and fosters growth in all students by making content accessible in multiple ways with proper supports.

Along the same lines, if we implement an SEL approach that doesn’t recognize the racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds of our students, the approach could backfire, according to Dena Simmons, author of How to Be an Anti-​Racist Educator. That’s because perceptions of “acceptable” behavior or social and emotional competence might be biased against individuals with disabilities; those who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC); LGBTQ+ individuals; or members of another historically marginalized group.

Advancing Inclusion

To advance inclusion and equity, NCLD developed a set of principles to guide schools and districts when implementing a new SEL approach. The “7 Principles for Serving Students With Disabilities & Intersectional Identities Through Social-Emotional Learning Approaches” guide should inform the design and theories of action behind any SEL approach to meet the needs of students with disabilities and those with intersecting identities. These principles are:

Principle 1: The approach must seek to help students develop agency and attend to the systemic barriers that impact student agency, self-advocacy, and self-determination among students with intersectional identities. This includes students with disabilities, English learners (ELs), BIPOC students, students who have been impacted by poverty, students who are homeless, immigrant students, and LGBTQ+ students.

SEL can help students understand and recognize implicit and explicit biases, including their own. The SEL approach must empower students to make choices that align with their interests and provide multiple opportunities to convey understanding. As they age, they can develop self-​advocacy skills that are rooted in a deeper understanding of themselves and the ways in which elements of their identities intersect.

Principle 2: The approach must recognize that students have unique assets and individual needs and seek to ensure that students have meaningful, purposeful experiences. Students should be at the center of focus for any SEL approach. The approach must also recognize and address variations in executive function capacity and be age-appropriate. Furthermore, the approach must address issues related to EL status, disability, racial prejudice and bias, or trauma if they are inhibiting the development of key skills and capacities.

Principle 3: The approach must be reinforced within and outside of school to promote opportunities that foster community connectedness for students. Schools can bridge communities and families with school initiatives, encouraging coordination between stakeholders such as school personnel, out-of-school learning providers, case managers, and other community partners. This includes promoting activities that all families can work on with students, and the use of tools that are appropriate and accessible regardless of native language, disability, or other historical barriers to participation within the SEL approach.

Principle 4: The approach should place value on school-level climate indicators, in addition to student-​level SEL indicators. Inclusion, as measured by student reports, is a key indicator in assessing whether the school climate is positive. Students’ skills should also be measured multiple times and in multiple ways, providing a more comprehensive assessment that does not increase student anxiety or skew results. The school can also collect data continuously to define actionable steps that inform the SEL approach and build a positive and inclusive climate.

Principle 5: The approach must prioritize personalization and individualization in both instruction and supports. Educators must be equipped to differentiate instruction for all learners, incorporating accommodations and supports for students with disabilities as needed. Measures used to individualize instruction should not disadvantage learners based on their own identities in the SEL approach.

Principle 6: The approach should provide for positive work environments that build adult capacity and support adult needs, modeling goals and expectations for students. Educators’ social and emotional needs must be prioritized, and schools should provide them with meaningful choices and a positive working environment. A multitiered system of supports for student well-being includes universal positive and proactive supports for all learners (Tier I), and educators must have the resources and explicit professional development to deliver more structured and/or intensive strategies for students who might be struggling.

Principle 7: The approach must prioritize the holistic needs of students, including physiological, safety, and belonging factors. Schools should make an effort to assess all student needs and work to ensure that they are adequately met. Schools can emphasize healthy nutrition, exercise, and sleep habits, while also assessing the depth of needs, including adverse childhood experiences, that might impact these and ultimately inhibit learning.

Designing for Accessibility

Schools across the country have leveraged federal COVID-19 relief funding to support student mental health and well-being, including programs to improve social-​emotional support and mental health, the Council of Chief State School Officers’ COVID-19 Relief Data Project reports. As leaders earmark these funds, it is important for them to intentionally design interventions and SEL programs with attention to accessibility.

Many schools also have funds through Title IV, Part A, of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that can be used to ensure that districts have access to programs that foster safe and healthy students, provide students with a well-rounded education, and increase the effective use of technology. These funds, combined with funding from ESEA Title I and Title II and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, can help support the implementation of inclusive SEL approaches.

There are plenty of examples of schools doing this work well. NCLD wrote about two such schools as part of a larger project on SEL: The GALS Denver Middle School and Genesee Community Charter School. The leaders at these schools say that one of the keys to success was to think about students with disabilities from the outset, rather than try to retrofit an SEL initiative to meet student needs.

Students with disabilities are in every classroom: Three-quarters of students with learning disabilities spent 80 percent or more of their time in general education classrooms during the 2020–2021 school year. As you lead teaching and learning in your school building, we urge you to examine your school’s approach to addressing student social-emotional learning and well-being with the lens of inclusion.

School leaders can be a catalyst for inclusion while collaborating with parents and caregivers to make informed decisions about integrating SEL into the curriculum. It can provide a foundation for environments in which students build lifelong confidence and skills. Consider whether all of your students can access the curriculum equally, and make adjustments if needed. Instruction that affirms individual student identity, agency, and skills will build students’ engagement, well-being, and sense of belonging.

Lindsay Kubatzky is director of Policy and Advocacy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.