Moving from 'Why" to 'What and How': Critical Starting Points to Nurture Equity-Rooted Social and Emotional Learning

Introduction by Dr Peter Bateman

In the past 12 months or so, AISA has been working to support the wellbeing of staff in our member schools as part of our ‘Wellbeing for All’ programme. In the coming year, we will continue to do this, but AISA will also turn our attention to the social and emotional wellbeing of the students in our schools. A key part of this work will be to support Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (DEIJ). I recently met Nick Haisman-Smith who is Executive Director at the Institute for Social and Emotional Learning (IFSEL). I invited Nick to offer us his perspective on the “How” and “What” of supporting SEL in AISA Schools.


It is an uncomfortable truth that over the years some efforts to bring SEL to school communities may have done more harm than good in dismantling systemic racism and oppression and lifting up the voices and experiences of the most marginalised groups.

Our charge now as educators and school leaders in international schools, is to ensure our SEL practices are Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (DEIJ) rooted; trauma-informed; culturally competent; anti-racist and anti-bias. To do this, we must cast a wide lens looking at the entire school community. There is so much that must be said on this topic, but here are some simple profound starting points for engaging with or deepening your actions to nurture equity-literate SEL across your school.

Engage in a critical analysis of how your SEL curriculum resources may actively perpetuate or actively dismantle systemic racism and oppression. This requires us to listen deeply and understand the diverse perspectives and experiences of current and former students. When we listen, we can start with a mindset that we will hear hard feedback. This type of listening must include humility and curiosity, and if defensiveness arises, it’s even more reason to keep listening. In particular, it is critical to ask if your curriculum promotes and affirms diverse cultures and backgrounds, and resists conformity to any dominant culture. This analytical work also requires us to assess how universal SEL teaching and learning fits into a tiered approach to supporting students who have experienced trauma.

Commit to sustained educator SEL. Anti-racist, anti-bias SEL is as much about the ‘what’ (curricula) as it is about the ‘how’ (teaching practices) and ‘who’ (raising awareness about educators’ identity, bias, and contribution to the creations or reproduction of inequitable practices). Professional development on cultural competence or DEIJ is important, but alone it is not enough to ensure sustained changes and improved outcomes for this work. School leaders must create safe and inclusive spaces where all educators consistently are invited to develop understanding and awareness about aspects of their own identities and how privilege, power and implicit bias may unintentionally be part of their interactions in a school community. In developing these adult Social and Emotional Learning competencies over time through courageous conversations and by reflecting on pedagogies, relationships with students, colleagues, and families, we can move our whole community towards greater equity.

Know that school systems, practices, and structures will need to change. A commitment to SEL requires us all to reflect deeply on the systems, structures, and practices in schools that work in support of agreed goals, and those that pull against them. We must identify those systems that are designed to perpetuate disparities and speak bravely and clearly about why they must change. This is often the hardest part for schools who see some systems and rituals so connected to their history and culture. The question then needs to be, “Who are these systems serving?”. Evolving school systems, while hard, can be incredibly impactful and provides the foundation on which to build truly inclusive communities.

Parents, caregivers, and families are essential partners. Engagement with the wider school community nurtures stronger relationships that are the foundation of systemic, equity-focused SEL. By engaging intentionally and proactively with families, schools can affirm the assets of children from diverse backgrounds and understand the cultures, lived experiences, and values of their families. This in turn can then be part of what informs a culturally responsive SEL curriculum. By sharing with parents and caregivers the same SEL tools and practices that their students are learning, we can encourage all members of the community to feel ownership of their own social and emotional development.

For schools just starting out on their journey as an anti-racist, SEL-rooted school, the framework and questions above should provide some high-level guidance. There is however so much more that must be said that underpins this work. And as you proceed from here, it is important to be mindful of the Equity Traps and Tropes that can undermine your efforts.

Read the full article here, first published in AISA CONNEXIONS.

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