Time’s up! A call to commit to culturally-affirming SEL practices

Racial equity, justice, and culturally-affirming practices must be at the core of SEL.

As the Founder of Lessons For SEL, I am calling for action to fully commit to Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) practices that are culturally-affirming across the country. I am urging that racial equity, justice, and culturally-affirming practices be at the core of SEL.

The persistent unjustified lynchings of Black persons (such as Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Michael Brown, to name a few), the insurgence on the Capitol on January 6th, discriminatory educational practices and policies, as well as the prevalence of racism and white supremacy culture within education are beyond problematic and lead to inequitable outcomes for Black youth. These are reminders of the reality of unaddressed systemic racism and our nation’s deeply embedded inequities and prejudice that far too often end in unjustifiable, heartbreaking tragedy for a Black individual, their family, and their community.

Now is the time to commit to culturally-affirming SEL practices. Now is the time for district leaders, school leaders, large organizations, and institutions, as well as providers of SEL programs, to unapologetically commit to centering racial equity, justice, and liberation at the core of SEL. To be clear, this call to action demands a commitment that is more than performative, and it requires action.

What are culturally-affirming SEL practices?

Culturally-affirming SEL practices that are action-oriented should address instances of harm and use a strength-based approach to building relationships in a community, affirming self-identity, and recognizing Black children’s brilliance. Such practices require a radical shift away from traditional methods, which reinforce the structures and systems that have led to inequity in the first place.

It’s imperative to move towards human-centered practices, promote empathy, and examine root causes of inequities, rather than continuing in punitive, compliance-driven practices that result in exclusion and inequitable outcomes. Policies such as zero-tolerance, corporal punishment (yes, this is still a thing in at least 19 states), dress codes, and racist hair policies only lead to unnecessary interactions between law enforcement agencies and youth of color. The time is now to shift towards culturally-affirming practices such as The CROWN Act. The Crown Act was created to end outdated and discriminatory hair policies that often lead to Black students’ inequitable outcomes.

Systemic efforts to implement culturally-affirming SEL practices will only succeed if district leaders, school leaders, large institutions/universities, and large SEL providers fully commit to integrating racial equity, justice, and liberation at the core of SEL.

Moreover, culturally-affirming SEL Practices must be rooted in empathy, love, and connectedness at the systems level, rather than compliance and control. Organizations such as Communities for Just Schools Fund, Black Lives Matter at School, NASP, and Teaching for Change, are good examples of those who are doing the work of advancing culturally-affirming SEL Practices that;

  • examine racist policies and ideals and then eliminate racist policies that continue to perpetuate and uphold white supremacy

  • are centered in classrooms, schools, communities, policy, and philanthropy;

  • end the school to prison pipeline and criminalization of youth

  • include anti-bias and anti-racist teacher training

  • provide funding for schools

  • expand health and mental health clinics

  • promote community schools

  • keep girls of color in school so educators can nurture them

  • providing a culturally affirming environment

  • include culturally-affirming curricula

  • utilizes a student-centered approach

Educators should not view such practices as a checklist but rather an ongoing commitment to advancing racially equitable practices that dismantle oppressive forces that lead to injustice. As we enter into Black History Month and recognize Black Lives Matter Week at School, now is the time for so-called “SEL Leaders” and organizations to fully commit to culturally affirming SEL practices.

Four ways to commit to culturally-affirming SEL practices

Here are four actionable culturally-affirming practices that you can commit to today.

  1. Name the problem by calling out systemic racism, racist ideas, practices, and policies.

  2. Examine sources of disproportionality that perpetuate systemic and structural racism, which lead to inequity

  3. Examine ideas, practices, and policies that need disrupting

  4. Promote culturally-affirming SEL practices that lead to equity

1. Name the problem by calling out systemic and structural racism, racist ideals, practices, and policies

District leaders, school leaders, teachers, SEL providers, curriculum designers, and large SEL institutions must be able to identify underlying causes of structural racism and recognize how it systematically shows up in their practices. Effectively recognizing the myriad of ways systemic racism shows up requires work. If you need help, check out the Racial Equity Institute, which provides training and workshops. If leaders and organizations refuse to challenge oppressive systems, they must be held accountable for their complacency and persistent harm to Black and Brown youth. Simply not knowing is no longer an excuse, and doing nothing will not be accepted.

By calling out systemic racism, you can assess how harm is showing up in your school, institution, or organization. Calling out racist practices will allow you to move towards creating authentic space for reflection and repairing instances of inequity. Naming the problem requires acknowledging and reflecting on historical systems of oppression and power while recognizing how racism actively shows up in (educational, housing, and other structural) policies, ideals, and practices. To fully integrate culturally affirming SEL practices, it's imperative to acknowledge racism’s inherited legacy and how it actively shows up inside schools.

2. Examine the root causes of disproportionality that lead to inequity

A culturally-affirming SEL practice is the examination of potential causes of disproportionality, which lead to inequity. I define disproportionality as the “overrepresentation” or “under-representation” of a particular population or demographic group in a specific category (i.e., special education, giftedness, out-of-school suspension, etc.). Sullivan et al. identified several factors contributing to disproportionality, including school readiness, bias in referral, assessment, placement practices, lowered expectations, interpersonal biases, inexperienced teachers, culturally irrelevant curricula, limited family and community involvement, and systemic discrimination for disadvantaged students. According to Skiba et al. (2011), disproportionality may result from a culture gap between staff and students, insufficient training in culturally responsive behavior strategies, and interpersonal biases. Additionally, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are likely to be suspended from school.

As such, it’s important to notice where instances of disproportionality might show up inside of schools. Disproportionate data might show up in the following areas; 1.) special education referrals; 2.) composition of students inside of special education classrooms; 3.) office discipline referrals (who is being referred, what time of day, race, by who, for what infractions, where were referrals happening); 4.) suspension and expulsion data (which students were suspended from school and what was the ratio of students being suspended); 5.) access to gifted and AP classes. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but just to give you an idea of several areas where disproportionality might show up.

Once you understand what disproportionality is, once you notice where it might show up and reflect on the potential causes, you can begin to take action and do something about it! An excellent next step is to start examining the policies and practices that might perpetuate disproportionate practices.

3. Examine racist ideas, practices, and policies that are not culturally-affirming

You must consider the origin of specific ideas, practices, and policies. Considering the source of racist practices is important because some systems still enact policies that have been around for generations. Some of these policies have been around for hundreds of years and continue to evolve. The harsh reality is that such policies derived from slavery and racist Jim Crow policies have undoubtedly led to racial discrimination, segregation, and exclusion. Policy-makers have designed these unjust ideologies and practices to pass generation to generation, making it harder for marginalized groups of people to break free from those constraints. Subsequently, these practices and policies become the status quo while some students benefit, yet others are left behind.

Taken together, you should make it a priority and a routine practice to examine policies like zero-tolerance policies, discipline policies, grading policies, even hair, and uniform policies. Once you commit to routinely examining these practices, you can promote culturally-affirming SEL practices that lead to more equitable outcomes.

4. Promote culturally-affirming SEL practices that lead to equitable ideas, practices, and policies

Let’s be clear; it’s not merely enough to just examine harmful practices and policies perpetuating inequities. You must actively decide to take action that will result in equitable conditions and outcomes. This might include advocating for fully-funded mental health personnel in schools or testifying before the city council on a bill that will lead to more equitable outcomes for students. Another example might include a push to ensure mental health services are available for Black students. A culturally-affirming practice might look like advocating for lower ratios of school psychologists (NASP recommends 1:500) to ensure the equitable delivery of services.

You can also take action by promoting practices that center on healing and justice. This might include shifting away from harsh and exclusionary disciplinary practices towards restorative practices that are justice-oriented. You must prioritize adopting practices, which actively engage a whole community in building relationships and repairing harm through mutual, inclusive dialogue, understanding, and cooperation. When done right, restorative practices can help create a culture established on trust, compassion, equity, inclusivity, safety, and accountability.

Promoting culturally-affirming SEL practices also includes prioritizing connections through relationships, engagement, and involvement in extracurricular activities. Advancing culturally-affirming practices require an emphasis on parental and community support, parenting styles and values, community-centered schooling, and a connection to community resources. If you’re looking for a more in-depth read on culturally-affirming SEL practices, check out this helpful resource.

Call to action

The time for action is now, so here is my proclamation -- time is up for outdated, inequitable policies that have historically marginalized and perpetuated harm to Black and Brown youth. Here is a collective call to SEL leaders, organizations, and institutions to commit to culturally-affirming SEL practices.

Will you answer the call? Sign this call to action by clicking here.

By: Byron M. McClure, Founder of Lessons For SEL