Intersection of social-emotional learning & equity vital, says LEE member Dena Simmons | Leadership for Educational Equity Skip to main content

Intersection of social-emotional learning & equity vital, says LEE member Dena Simmons

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    Dena Simmons

Dena Simmons is the Assistant Director at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. She is a university scholar-practitioner, TED speaker, and educator on social-emotional learning, equity, and culturally responsive practices. She sat down with LEE staff to discuss in-depth the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL) & equity in school systems.

Follow Dena Simmons on Twitter (@denasimmons) & Instagram (@denasimmons). Sign up for her newsletter today!

First, how are you doing? How are you practicing self care right now?

Thank you so much for asking. I am doing well for the most part. For one, I feel grateful to have a home, a job, and food to eat during this uncertain, trying, and stressful moment when unemployment is so high. I have been actively focusing on my self care because, for me, it is a revolutionary act in a world that does not distribute care or the privilege to live equally. It is so easy to get overwhelmed and enraged by the news of the health disparities related to COVID-19, the unnecessary death of George Floyd, the obsessive policing of Black people, and all of the resulting pain and suffering in the Black community.

Some ways that I am taking care of myself is by staying connected virtually with friends and family, exercising, and helping educators by posting almost daily #quaranteaching tips on my Twitter (@denasimmons) and then putting them in my stories on Instagram (@denasimmons). When I am not too anxious about whether I washed my hands after touching my mailbox or the railing in my building or whatever else, I work on my upcoming book, White Rules for Black People

What does your work with educators, schools & school systems look like?

I work with teachers all over the nation and world to use the power of emotional intelligence to create a more just and compassionate society. I train educators, do research, and learn with school systems on how to teach, learn, and work at the intersection of SEL, equity, and culturally responsive practice so that all students have the safety to learn in the comfort of their own skin.

Tell us more about the intersection of SEL & equity. 

It is important that whatever we do in education causes no harm. This is true for SEL, which refers to life skills that support people in experiencing, managing, and expressing emotions meaningfully, making sound decisions, and fostering rewarding interpersonal relationships. Too often, however, SEL is implemented out of context, and without an anti-racist and equity lens, I fear that SEL could become white supremacy with a hug. Additionally, the narrative of SEL could be problematic. As I have traveled and worked with schools nationally, I have heard SEL repeatedly discussed as an opportunity for compliance for kids of color or used to show how children of color are deficient in something else.  For white youth and privileged students, SEL is about college and career readiness. Teachers can read more here about applying an equity lens to social, emotional, and academic development in a piece I co-authored and here where I talk about how we can change the problematic narrative and students of color.

What recommendations do you have for school systems wanting to move towards enhancing social & emotional learning and equity in this digital learning environment? 

Create opportunities for SEL development, healing, and self-care for the entire school community by infusing SEL skills into everyday interactions and academic instruction with students online. So, consider how you might lead a community circle virtually or how you create a safe and brave space for students to talk about what they're experiencing and to heal. Two of the #quaranteaching tips I created and shared on my Twitter account that can be used are: 1) inviting students to write a letter to their future selves two years from now where they document how they are feeling about this moment and what they aspire and hope to do so that they can see their resilience, emotions, and dreams in the future and 2) asking students to play the role of an advice columnist where they are helping a classmate cope with some anxiety and fear about the pandemic.

Allow students and families to opt-out of activities. Some students and families are tired and suffering in ways we will never know. We should be flexible and understand that people know what they need while still maintaining high expectations.

Allow for varied methods for students to demonstrate understanding based on what is accessible to them. 

Be careful that you are not assessing privilege at this time. Not all students have access to a quiet place to work, internet, food, support, safety, and technology needed to participate in virtual learning.

Create project-based learning opportunities that are culturally relevant, student centered, and allow for civic engagement, for families to be involved, and that rely on resources already disposable to students and families.

As families take a larger role in their children’s digital learning, what opportunities do school systems have to include parents in their social & emotional learning in equitable ways?

Our work with families is even more important now that we are relying on them to be partners in educating our young people. I talk a little about that in my ASCD article called "Why COVID-19 is Our Equity Check." School systems must support families in supporting the young people in their families either by making material more accessible, providing resources and information with families like blogs or sites that explain the content students are learning, and sharing the SEL practices that students are using in class that could be reinforced at home. While I am a proponent of SEL, it is important that it is not devoid context and that it has an equity and anti-racist lens so that it does not create inadvertent harm. I wrote about that in an article called, "Why We Cannot Afford Whitewashed SEL" and spoke about it in an interview with EdSurge and on stage at the inaugural SEL Exchange conference.

We know that when students return to school, educators will find themselves faced with students who have experienced trauma as a result of the pandemic for a whole host of reasons. How can educators & school system leaders tap into social-emotional learning practices & trauma-informed strategies to address students’ diverse needs?

Everyone has and will face some level of trauma because of this pandemic either through their own suffering or through watching the suffering of others. As educators return to schools, it is important that they are taking care of themselves. There is a famous saying that "hurt people hurt people," and if our teachers are not well or are stressed and burnt out, they have very little to offer to their school community. We know from research that teachers who are stressed and burnt out have less warm interactions with the students and that classroom management and academic achievement suffer. As a result, stressed teachers lead to worse outcomes for students, which is why I always say that teacher stress is an equity issue. After teachers have focused on caring for themselves and healing, they have to create the space and time for student and community healing as well--something I talked about on a panel with Discovery Education. Children cannot learn if they are emotionally hijacked; so, concerted effort is necessary for supporting them with their healing and making sense of the pandemic. 

Additionally, the pandemic has not only revealed, but also heightened deep-seated inequity in our education systems. That said, we need more than practices to alleviate the trauma many students of color and other youth at the margins were experiencing. We need a new system--one that values equity, liberation, and anti-bias practices, one that has healing, SEL, culturally responsive practices, social justice, and civic engagement at the core, so that schools do not traumatize our young people inadvertently.

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