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Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

How SEL Can Help Make Schools Feel More Inclusive

Integrating social and emotional learning and culturally responsive teaching can help build a school culture that celebrates all students.

October 7, 2021
High school students talking in class
FangXiaNuo / iStock

It is clear that creating equity in schools ultimately requires significant shifts at fiscal and political levels. Yet there is much that classrooms and schools can do right now to create environments in which diverse student learners have the opportunity to engage in learning experiences that build social, emotional, cultural, civic, and academic competence. Through this integration—which includes building competencies in CASEL’s five core SEL skills—administrators, in conjunction with school-level and community-based stakeholders, can develop classroom practices that embrace the cultures and lived experiences of all students and adults.

Such practices can lead to the creation of inclusive schools. Educators can create inclusive schools through the following means: fostering a strong school culture, creating classrooms centered around caring and kindness, and encouraging teachers to support students in self-reflection and celebrating themselves.

How All Educators Can Foster a Strong School Culture

School culture grows out from the classroom and into daily life within a school building. It can be strengthened by having teachers focus on the assets and strengths of learners, and providing students with pedagogical and learning approaches that build on their diverse experiences. Doing so can yield a palpably supportive climate steeped in the expectation that all students will achieve academic proficiency.

To create such a climate, students’ learning and academic success can be enhanced by encouraging positive ethnic, racial, and cultural identities. School leaders can have teachers elicit, recognize, reinforce, and celebrate the cultures of all students. They should hold and espouse high expectations for all students, and engage families (and community resources) as important partners in supporting learners to achieve academic and social success. When classrooms lack aspects of diversity, students and teachers can together create plans to introduce and experience other perspectives in the spirit of widening their cultural responsiveness.

School leaders can also have teachers apply, and help students apply, their cultural experiences to classroom learning tasks, and encourage all students to demonstrate awareness of their historic place in society, and in their school and community. In so doing, students are encouraged to display and appreciate the diverse skills, knowledge, and real-life experiences that are represented in the classroom.

How Teachers Can Foster a Culture of Caring

Classrooms are places where students need to be helpful, cooperative, kind, and caring about one another. For 180 school days, students enter classrooms wanting to be successful, recognized, valued, and supported. Teachers can create this kind of supportive environment by creating with students a set of classroom rules or norms for how to treat one another.

Observe existing patterns of caring, kindness, and helping within your classroom, and pay particular attention to discussing how students can help one another and seek out help from adults in the school. Make it clear that caring and kindness are the norm, not the exception, and that no students are excluded from receiving and demonstrating these attributes.

How to Support Students in Self-Reflection and Celebration of Themselves

Teachers can guide students in building social and emotional competencies so that they learn to act in ways that make themselves proud. Teachers can also provide students with equitable opportunities to speak, participate, and lead; to join groups, teams, or clubs; and to be recognized and appreciated. Barriers that perpetuate unequal access and participation should be eliminated to enable access and opportunity for all students.

Students benefit from clear, non-stigmatizing opportunities to express uncertainties, anxieties, and loss, to address the issues they are seeing and hearing about in the media, and to raise questions they want to discuss. Teachers can have students use pair shares, pre-writing, and other means to make sure every student participates.

Some good discussion prompts to help build a supportive classroom:

  • What should you do in my class if you are feeling anxious about an exam, assignment, or project?

  • What should you do if you are feeling distracted, saddened, or angered by losses in your life, either past losses or ones you are anticipating, or events reported in the media?

  • When do you learn best?

  • Who are the people you look up to most—in your family, in the community, in history, or in various walks of life (sports, the arts, government, science, writing, etc.)? Why?

  • What are examples of hope, heroism, and positive moral conviction and inspiration in your life right now? Who or what provides this for you, and what strengths can you draw from them that you can apply to your everyday life?

  • What are examples of mistreatment of people you have seen or heard about recently in your school, based on race, gender, ability/disability, or some other personal characteristic? How about your community? Let’s talk about an example where you acted based on what you saw: What happened? What did you do?

  • Now let’s talk about an example where you did not act based on what you saw: What did you do instead? Why was it so hard to act? How did you feel? What is the lesson learned from those feelings (e.g., hard to take action as an individual; must be very confident about possible action; must be well-practiced and prepared for obstacles; must believe very strongly about what the injustice is; must feel supported in taking an action)?

  • Acts of everyday courage—tolerance, acceptance, reaching out to others—are not simple and do require courage. Who or what are you most or least willing to fight for, and why?


This kind of culturally responsive, supportive environment is the minimum that should be expected of schools in order to prepare all children for participatory citizenship in the 21st century, regardless of students’ backgrounds and their individual abilities or disabilities.

For additional ideas, check out a guide I wrote with Larry Leverett: Addressing Equity Through Culturally Responsive Education and SEL.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Administration & Leadership
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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