How Teachers Can Take a Culturally Responsive Approach to SEL | D2L
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Support an SEL Classroom Culture: There’s Beauty in Differences

  • 3 Min Read

How students express and develop social and emotional skills is shaped by their life experiences, including gender, race, culture, and class. Social and emotional learning (SEL) can’t take place without considering that background. Schools and classrooms need to acknowledge and celebrate diversity, and educators must focus on intentionally incorporating inclusive teaching strategies so students can see themselves as people who belong to and are reflected in the community of learners.

In this blog—the third in our five-part series on SEL—we’ll outline a few simple ways teachers can integrate diversity in SEL practices.

What Is Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) In Schools?

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a behavioral framework that can be used to help children cultivate interpersonal skills and manage their own emotions. It includes five competencies that are distinct from, but also integral to, academic learning—self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Check out the first blog in our series to read more about each of these.

SEL doesn’t function as a designated subject like science or math, nor is it restricted to the classroom. It places a strong emphasis on developing the core competencies across four key settings—in classrooms, in schools, with families and caregivers, and in the community.

How to Take a Culturally Responsive Approach to SEL

Work from the Inside Out

To create a culturally responsive environment for students, educators must help build the capacity to leverage community context in their teaching.

  • Address bias: It’s important to understand our unintentional and unconscious attitudes, as they impact how we relate to students.
  • Be aware: Understand how systems affect students and recognize the sociopolitical contexts in which teaching happens.
  • Ask questions: Reflect on complex issues. What does a classroom look like when it’s inclusive? How can teaching echo student diversity?
  • Continuously learn: Use professional learning activities to better understand the communities in which students live.

SEL Policy Brief promotion

Incorporate Diversity into Lesson Plans

SEL practices and lessons must draw upon students’ unique strengths and experiences to make them authentic, relevant, and reflective of cultural, racial, gendered, and other contexts. Educators should consider ways they can integrate a framework such as Zaretta Hammond’s (2015) levels of culture:

  • Surface: Observable and concrete aspects of culture such as clothing and food
  • Shallow: Unspoken rules and social norms of a community such as nonverbal communication or eye contact with elders
  • Deep: Unconscious assumptions that guide our worldviews, including ethics, spirituality, and well-being

This can give students space to celebrate their own social and cultural identities while they are learning about and understanding others. It can also help students develop relationship skills, social awareness, and empathy and create inclusive and equitable learning environments.

Help Encourage Students to Reflect on Similarities and Differences

A culturally responsive approach to SEL helps provide students with mirrors of and windows into culture. In Emily Styles’ book Listening for All Voices, she outlines how:

  • Mirrors give students opportunities to reflect on their own practices and explore aspects of their own identities. This can be done by asking students engaging questions about their own cultures. For example: How does your family communicate at home?
  • Windows help students better grasp the cultures of others, see how different people conduct themselves, and understand how they could fit into that picture. For example, after reading about someone’s background and life experience, how might they respond in a given situation?

Incorporating both is crucial, as students can’t learn about themselves unless they learn about others (and vice versa).

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