Integrating SEL, Equity and Trauma Work for Multiplied Success

Personalized Learning

Integrating SEL, Equity and Trauma Work for Multiplied Success

By Jessica Berlinski     Jul 2, 2018

Integrating SEL, Equity and Trauma Work for Multiplied Success

This article is part of the collection: Social-Emotional Learning: Why It Matters and How to Foster It.

These days it’s hard to miss the compelling evidence that shows social emotional learning (SEL) improves learning and life skills. Educators are also becoming increasingly aware that high numbers of students face trauma that impedes their learning and that understanding and addressing it are critical. They’re also learning that racial inequities hamper the success of certain groups of students, and acknowledging and ameliorating them is necessary if all children are to thrive.

There is great overlap across these three areas: SEL, trauma-informed work and equity. A student of color who cumulatively experiences racist taunts, reduced expectations and micro-aggressions, for instance, is challenged socially and emotionally, experiencing trauma and suffering inequity – all at once.

Below is the latest research that shows your school can’t ignore these three areas of student support, why they should be integrated, and resources to achieve it.

SEL Shows Results

Last year, the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social Emotional and Academic Development’s Council of Distinguished Scientists—leading researchers across character education, emotional intelligence, health and mental health promotion, neuroscience, SEL and mindsets—released a consensus statement to solidify research findings across their disciplines. Most importantly, they agreed that social, emotional and cognitive capacities are intertwined and interdependent. This means that academic learning has its basis in social emotional learning, and that development in one area supports the other. They also agreed that SEL yields results: two sweeping meta-analyses show academic gains, one up to 3.5 years after students’ last SEL intervention, in addition to improved behavior and life outcomes. In sum, SEL shouldn’t be a “maybe” in schools.

Trauma Can Have Dire Effects

There is growing awareness of the seminal ACEs study, which showed that the more adverse childhood experiences or trauma children experience - including physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; family and community violence; and the cumulative impact of poverty, racism, and oppression - the more they’re at risk for negative life outcomes. In the US, two-thirds of children have experienced at least one potentially traumatic event by age 16. When research emerged showing that traumatic stress “hijacks the brain”, making it incapable of learning, trauma became an education problem. Yet, by making educators aware of students’ trauma and giving them tools and strategies to address it, these barriers to learning can be reduced or removed.

With Equity Come Gains

Students of color face increased adversity both outside and inside of school. Outside, they’re more likely than white students to suffer socially and financially. Inside, they’re often the subject of low expectations, micro-aggressions and bias. Zaretta Hammond, in her book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, describes how these biases put students of color at a learning disadvantage and backs it up with neuroscience. Yet powerful research out of the New Zealand Maori population shows steep academic gains when educators “double down” on incorporating cultural identity and relationship work. By leveraging students’ cultural identities and assets, educators can facilitate growth mindsets and learning gains.

Social-emotional skills support student achievement, but embedding SEL into the school day can be complex.

Social-emotional skills support student achievement, but embedding SEL into the school day can be complex.

If you’re launching a new SEL program or enhancing an existing one, these tips will help you avoid common implementation mistakes.

Read more from Newsela.

Why Integrating These Areas Is Necessary

Schools provide a unique opportunity to build kids’ social emotional assets, address their trauma, and move towards educational equity. Many are focused on doing so, but too often they make these interrelated domains of support separate.

“A trauma-informed, SEL, cultural awareness model of supports allows (educators) to create a safe environment to address trauma and SEL skill build, while also tapping into the strengths and opportunities of students’ culture. In this way, prevention assets don’t just build on each other, they multiply,” says Dr. Gregory Leskin, Ph.D, Director at UCLA/Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

American Institute of Research’s David Osher and Juliette Berg, Harvard’s Todd Rose, and Turnaround’s Pam Cantor and Lily Steyer corroborated this in a series of research papers that synthesized knowledge from multiple scientific domains regarding how humans develop and learn. They concluded that relational, environmental, instructional and curricular factors – factors that include SEL skill building, addressing trauma and building cultural competence - must be integrated to produce effective learning.

There are also unintended negative consequences of failing to integrate these domains. These include an exclusive focus on the deficits or trauma of students of color, failing to leverage their strengths and resilience.

Where to Start

Aspen SEAD’s recently released “Pursuing Social Emotional Development Through an Equity Lens: A Call to Action” and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s June report, “Applying an Equity Lens to Social, Emotional, and Academic Development” both offer broad strategies for integration. These include addressing the root causes or trauma underlying SEL skill deficits, such as a lack of impulse control; and ensuring that supports specifically focus on injustice and related trauma. Zaretta Hammond gets more granular in her book’s “learning moves”, which operationalize two of three (SEL and equity). Helping students process content using methods from their own cultural traditions is one example. This practice honors students’ cultural history while modeling how to connect with others. It also makes student learning “stickier”.

There are few evidence-based programs or interventions that successfully integrate the three. Ripple Effects, where I serve as director of K-12, offers a digital program that stands out: it builds SEL, resiliency assets and cultural identity development in its interactive lessons, many of which address trauma. The personalized program empowers students to identify what they think are the biggest challenges in their lives, then choose from nine different evidence-based learning modalities to address them.

“We don’t always know what’s going on with kids - often they don’t want to share,” says implementer Marni Parsons, Director of Student and Family Services at Bright Star Charter Schools in Los Angeles. “Kids want to explore their challenges with Ripple Effects, and almost every lesson encourages them to connect and get help from people they trust.” The program boasts over 430 topics including racial bias, poverty, suicidal thoughts, anxiety and homelessness. Data shows improved behavior and academic gains, specifically in underserved student populations.

Educators can also learn from other educators who are recognizing the value of integration and creating their unique “how-to” maps. Dr. Julie Frugo, Head of School at the high-performing Premier Charter in St. Louis, Missouri is one to watch. She focuses on developing adult culture to achieve equity, address trauma and build SEL skills in her students, who come from 14 different ethnic backgrounds—including a substantive number of Bosnian refugees—and 20% of which have special needs. A multi-tiered system of supports serves as the school’s structure, yet her key to integration is staff development and relationships. “We need to be bonded warriors working together,” says Frugo, “in order to be truly student-centered and do the arduous work of meeting each student’s needs.”

There is a long road ahead to achieve educational equity, provide SEL for all, and address the range of trauma that prevents students from learning. Yet by intentionally integrating these three areas, we can move faster and more efficaciously in our efforts, empowering more young people to overcome their barriers and thrive

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