Let’s talk about what we know about social and emotional learning from the research.
SEL is understood as an interrelated set of cognitive, affective, and behavioral skills and strategies that underscore how we learn, form, and maintain supportive relationships; make empathetic and equitable decisions; and thrive both physically and psychologically.
Students today are more anxious, less connected, and more likely to have experienced trauma—a threat to their safety, agency, dignity, and belonging—than they were two years ago. And these experiences have been most profound for students marginalized by race, ethnicity, and ability. These students are more likely than their peers to have had their learning interrupted, be underserved, experience the loss of loved ones, and have their household income negatively impacted during the pandemic.
Fortunately, a significant portion of the $190 billion allocated by Congress to the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund must be specifically used to “respond to students’ academic, social, and emotional needs and address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on underrepresented student subgroups.” Accordingly, three-quarters of states list SEL or mental health as a top priority in their plans for ESSER funding, according to a recent review from our colleagues at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
We know that high-quality, systemic SEL can help students identify emotions from social cues, set goals, consider multiple perspectives, and problem solve. We also know that SEL can reduce bullying and school suspensions and improve academic performance and school climate.
But what research hasn’t yet established is how—or even whether—universal school-based SEL programs serve students with disabilities and students of color, who are among the most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, the evidence for SEL’s impact on racially- and ability-marginalized youth is murky at best and nonexistent at worst because we haven’t looked deeply enough. And that’s a big problem.
To be honest, education research is riddled with descriptions of school-based interventions that, once studied, are revealed to inequitably serve students with disabilities and/or those of color. To quantify the extent of this problem, teams at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the education nonprofit EdTogether reviewed the current evidence describing whether SEL interventions are inclusive and representative. Our recent findings were nothing short of devastating.