The Case for Context

Moving away from “fixing” kids to creating an equitable learning environment.

Topics: Social Emotional Learning, Health and Wellness

Supporting students’ social, emotional, and academic development with an equity lens calls for a shift in focus: from “fixing” kids by narrowly teaching them specific competencies to a broader approach that concentrates on adult mindsets and creating equitable learning environments that support holistic student success.

Studies show a strong relationship between social and emotional skills and academic outcomes, and the hope is that social and emotional learning will contribute to educational equity by benefiting children from low-income communities. But this can reinforce biases by assuming these students don’t have these skills and “just need to learn to work harder,” when in fact, many already do so in the face of systemic barriers. Teaching students self-management and self-efficacy will have little impact if school leaders fail to address an atmosphere that has become toxic due to discrimination or systemic racism.

In fact, such a strategy sends the message that if children can control their behavior and believe in themselves, they can overcome racism, sexism, homophobia, lack of food or housing, or any other disadvantage. Worse, it can put educators and school leaders in the position of continuing that harm. That’s why approaches to supporting social-emotional learning should be based on addressing the learning environments students experience and should make them compelling and meaningful for historically marginalized students.
It is up to adults to provide the supports and resources that all students need—from educators who challenge and believe in their students, to whole-child supports that allow students to thrive, to a school climate and culture in which students feel they belong. Unless leaders address existing harmful policies and practices, and unless adults in schools truly view all students as having the potential to thrive, a sole focus on teaching social-​emotional competencies will become yet another approach that marginalizes students and families of color.

By shifting the focus to address the context in which students learn, efforts to support social-emotional well-being can be used as a lever for equity and for evidence-based approaches that support learning and development for all students.

Changing Adult Mindsets

Adult biases, beliefs, and skills influence their interactions with students in schools and classrooms, and in turn, affect students’ mindsets, beliefs, and skills. Educators’ biases and beliefs about students, beliefs in their own abilities to make a difference, and skills (e.g., classroom management and culturally sustaining pedagogy) influence instructional decisions such as what they choose to teach in the classroom, how they teach it, and how they interact with students.

Focus group participants told EdTrust that all of these experiences matter for social, emotional, and academic development. In addition to teachers and administrators, other adults—bus drivers, cafeteria workers, janitorial staff, security staff, office staff, and others—matter, as well. But all too often, even well-​intentioned adults in schools—like well-intentioned adults outside of schools—have biases and beliefs that can harm students’ development and overall achievement.

To support SEL, educators and school leaders must make the following shifts:

  • From a deficit-based mindset to a strength-based mindset;
  • From one-size-fits-all to recognizing cultural and contextual influences; and
  • From allowing bias to impact students to targeted and continuous efforts to reduce bias.

Biased or deficit-based mindsets are often reinforced when educators’ approaches focus only on teaching social-emotional skills to students without attention to learning environments and other contextual factors. Focus on culture to get the results SEL has long promised.