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Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

A Pathway to Better Social and Emotional Learning

Realizing that expectations for the expression of emotions are shaded by gender and race can help teachers provide more effective SEL.

May 5, 2021
Gregg Vignal / Alamy

Social and emotional learning (SEL) has the potential to equip young people and adults with the necessary skills to lead productive, healthy, and purposeful lives. However, SEL needs to take into account the social, cultural, and gender expectations that influence students’ ability to develop these important social and emotional skills.

An important SEL dimension is self-awareness, and within this competency the ability to name, interpret, and appropriately communicate feelings. I support honoring your emotions, which means approaching feelings with respect and treating them as friends with important messages, rather than as enemies that we need to fight.

But not all emotions are created equal, and not everybody has the freedom to express the full range of emotions.

We have different expectations for boys and for girls. Although boys are wired to tune in to their feelings just as much as girls, parents tend to encourage their daughters to share their feelings far more than their sons. Boys may be told, “Be tough” or “Don’t cry.” In addition, social expectations for specific emotions differ between boys and girls. While boys are expected to show less of the tender emotions, such as sadness or anxiety, they are encouraged to externalize emotions such as anger, contempt, or disgust—therefore, confirming societal gender roles for males to be assertive, individualistic, independent, and even aggressive, while girls are expected to hide their anger and be compassionate. For nonbinary children, these expectations are especially harmful, as these children are often asked to conform to one or the other, instead of having the freedom to express the full range of human emotions.

Cultural backgrounds and family values influence how we express emotions. Families have rules when it comes to expressing emotions, even if these are communicated in subtle ways. For example, imagine a parent storming out of the room every time a child is upset. The child may interpret that to mean that anger is not an acceptable emotion and may try to suppress it in the future.

Social expectations for expressing emotions also differ based on race and ethnicity. For example, when Black students express anger, they are more likely to be disciplined at school than their White peers. Or when students of Asian descent are asked, “Why are you so quiet? Speak up more,” they are sent the message that their cultural values and/or communication styles need to change for them to assimilate into the dominant culture.

When teachers implement SEL programs and principles, they can build awareness about these societal expectations and how they condition students to suppress or overexpress their feelings. Then they can work with students to explore the full range of emotions, so that students can feel free to express their feelings in and outside of the classroom, and question these norms.

It’s important for educators to build their awareness and examine their biases and how these may influence their expectations for behavior and emotional expression in their SEL and academic lessons.

3 Keys to Building Awareness

1. Learn about yourself. Educator self-knowledge is the basis for SEL. Educators cannot teach what they don’t understand, practice, or intentionally model for their students. As you engage in this process of self-reflection, think about the following questions:

  • What have you learned about emotional expression and communicating feelings based on your gender identity? Think about an experience when your gender identity influenced your emotional expression. Now, describe a time when you intentionally expressed and communicated feelings in a way that felt authentic to you.
  • What did you learn about sharing and communicating feelings growing up? What did you learn about emotions that has supported you in your life, and what have you learned that hindered you?
  • What have you learned about emotional expression and communicating feelings based on your race and/or ethnicity? Is that the same for other races and/or ethnicities? Think about a place and/or group where you can fully express your emotions. What are the characteristics of this space?

2.  Examine your bias. SEL implementation that centers students’ experiences and is focused on equity begins with educators identifying their unconscious bias. This is a process not to make teachers feel guilty but to uncover the values, habits, and attitudes that are internalized over time and may be harming educators’ ability to express their emotions and/or create a safe space for others to do the same.

Examining bias requires that we consistently reflect on our feelings, thoughts, words, and actions, and how they impact others. Then, we must make more intentional decisions that are aligned with our goals as educators. Use the reflection questions outlined earlier, but this time changing the focus from you to other groups with different gender, family, and/or racial or ethnic identities.

3. Learn about each student and their life experiences. Many students of color, LGBTQ+ students, neurodiverse students, and those coming from low-income backgrounds experience microaggressions in and outside of school on a regular basis. These insults and denigrating messages show the implicit biases that students and adults carry, which negatively impact students’ academic, social, and emotional growth. When students have to face hostile environments, they use most of their cognitive and emotional skills for dealing with these challenges rather than for learning.

In order to create safe and supportive environments where students can fully express their humanity, educators need to acknowledge the challenges that these students face. It requires a commitment to proactively dismantle racism and discrimination and intentionally work to counteract and reverse implicit bias. Otherwise, asking students to share their emotions becomes “white supremacy with a hug,” in the words of Dena Simmons.

Being able to name, interpret, and communicate feelings is a building block to developing students’ self-awareness. However, social, cultural, and gender expectations for emotional expression influence students’ and educators’ ability to freely express themselves. Educators can counteract these implicit norms by engaging in self-reflection, examining their biases, and intentionally learning about their students’ lives.

You can read more about these strategies in my book, Teaching with the HEART in Mind.

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  • Culturally Responsive Teaching

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