Social-Emotional Learning Strategies Don't Work for Every Student. Here's What Does.

Throughout this academic year, I facilitated a training session on social-emotional learning (SEL) strategies for educators at a high-needs elementary school. During one of the sessions, a seasoned teacher’s candid remarks struck a chord. He explicitly stated, “I know that that is what the book says we should do, but these kids are from Brownsville. We tried that, and it hasn’t worked.”

At that moment, it dawned on me that traditional SEL approaches might not suffice for students entrenched in adversity, necessitating a more nuanced and culturally sensitive framework to effectively meet their emotional needs.

When I looked for research on the effectiveness of SEL in impoverished neighborhoods serving Black and Latino students, I found limited data. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there is a growing demand for support among black and brown students in these communities, leading to an increase in programs and professional development opportunities for staff. However, these efforts have not effectively addressed the underlying issues.

Despite the availability of professional development opportunities, many programs seem disconnected from the realities faced by Black and Latino students, perpetuating the existing challenges. As a result, the problem persists, and the need for targeted, impactful programs and services remains unmet.

As a Black social work supervisor who has navigated the educational system — and now works directly with students from underserved communities — I intimately understand the chasm between SEL ideals and our students’ lived experiences.

Many of our students, despite their resilience, face immense challenges beyond the scope of conventional SEL strategies. For example, a child raised in an environment filled with violence and neglect may find it difficult to relate to SEL activities that presume stable family structures and access to emotional support.

In this situation, it would be unjust of me to expect children to embrace themselves when feeling overwhelmed or to recite affirmations when they’ve never experienced such gestures or words of encouragement from authoritative figures or felt loved throughout their lives.

I remember several occasions when I discussed coping strategies with students, often suggesting techniques like breathing exercises, journaling, meditation or talking to someone. However, many students have told me directly, “Miss, that doesn’t make me feel better.” Some have tried journaling but struggle to express themselves in writing. Breathing exercises didn’t always help them de-escalate as expected, and meditation seemed irrelevant to their lived experiences.

This disconnect shows the urgent need for SEL initiatives to not only be culturally responsive but also adaptive to the diverse realities of our students.

Collaborative, Student-Led SEL

I am committed to advocating for holistic approaches that prioritize equity and inclusion. I want to ensure that SEL initiatives resonate authentically with every student, regardless of their background or circumstances. Rather than imposing our theoretical knowledge and professional competencies in social work and mental health, we should prioritize student-led approaches.

When I ask students about what they believe they need to effectively cope with stress, I often hear responses like, “I simply don’t know, Miss.” Despite this sentiment, I believe there is still power in giving students the space to reflect, even if their initial response is rooted in uncertainty. By doing so, we empower them to recognize that healing and coping strategies can be personalized and do not have to conform to pre-established norms or expectations. This approach acknowledges the uniqueness of each student’s experience and fosters a more inclusive and responsive environment for their well-being.

Whether through cultural expression, music therapy, peer support groups or other innovative methods, the key is to help students tap into coping strategies that align with their experiences and communities. This personalized approach validates their individuality and fosters a deeper connection between educators, counselors and students.

While research on SEL has provided valuable insights in the past, it’s crucial to recognize that the field is dynamic. Just because there was research conducted before doesn’t mean we can’t adapt and refine our methods to ensure they are inclusive and relevant to all students today. This continuous evolution is essential to meet the unique challenges and realities faced by our students.

Moreover, it’s essential to acknowledge our own limitations as adults and professionals in the field of SEL. Even with our expertise, we don’t have all the answers. At the end of the day, students are the true experts on their own experiences, irrespective of their age. Their insights, perspectives and feedback are invaluable in shaping effective SEL practices that resonate authentically with their lives.

This requires us to challenge existing paradigms, listen intently to our students’ voices and collaborate across disciplines to develop tailored strategies that honor their lived experiences. By doing so, we not only acknowledge the resilience and strength inherent in each student but also create pathways for genuine healing, growth and empowerment.

All in all, we must shift our focus from imposing solutions to empowering voices, ensuring that every student feels seen, heard and valued as we journey together toward holistic well-being and success.

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