Black SEL Leaders Emphasize the Importance of Equity

Stressors on students, educators, and families this past year have highlighted how children cannot learn until they feel safe, connected and know that they matter. Before academics, we must focus on the well-being of the whole child. As part of Black History Month, we are sharing social emotional learning (SEL) resources written by Black leaders in the field of social emotional learning. These resources are essential because SEL should be taught within the context of student’s lives, and many students face injustice and inequity.


Dr. James Comer designed an intervention project for poor Black students at elementary schools in New Haven, CT, in the 1960’s. He hypothesized that “merely focusing on improving test scores alone would not result in a better school or increased academic achievement.” Instead, he emphasized a focus on the whole child, centering on addressing students’ unmet needs, which would lead to improved academic achievement. Read more about how the field of SEL emerged from Dr. Comer’s work in an article by Dr. Byron McClure.



Dena Simmons, Ed.D, former assistant director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, is an SEL practitioner and researcher who speaks nationally about the intersection of emotional intelligence, equity, and culturally responsive practices. She sees SEL as a way to equip students with skills to decrease the violence in our society and build more peaceful communities. Simmons urges educators to be courageous and teach skills that will allow today’s students to become creators of a more just society. She reminds us, “We can no longer avoid discussing topics that make us uncomfortable. Our students, incessantly inundated with divisive rhetoric and reports of premeditated acts of violence (or even themselves targets of violence), don’t have that luxury. SEL has tremendous potential to create the conditions for youth agency and civic engagement and, ultimately, social change.” In her article, Why We Can’t Afford Whitewashed Social Emotional Learning, she offers educators Strategies for Teaching Fearless SEL.

All students benefit from focusing on social emotional learning, but Black and Brown students need SEL support that affirms their racial identities. An Education Trust report, Social, Emotional and Academic Development Through an Equity Lens points out that educators and administrators should examine bias and discriminatory practices so that students of color are not disproportionately punished. The report encourages specific changes to ensure that SEL proceeds with a focus on creating more equitable schools.

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