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Jessica Berlinski

Students from underserved populations do not have the same opportunities for a strong education as their more-affluent peers.

This is the harsh reality that data from Stanford’s sweeping 2009-2013 study bears out. As policymakers and educators struggle with how to shift this phenomenon, social-emotional learning has emerged as a solution to the challenge of achieving educational equity; they certainly comprise part of the solution to this multifaceted challenge.

Defined as the process through which youth and adults learn to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy, build relationships and make responsible decisions, a range of social-emotional learning practices or tools are helping educators level the playing field and close the achievement gap. But is it enough?

Related: New advances in measuring social-emotional learning

To answer this question, let’s look first at an example of social-emotional learning’s focus on student-teacher relationships. Early in her career as a Minneapolis school counselor, Angie Jerabek, founder of the Building Assets Reducing Risks program, saw that students did better when they were known and cared about by adults.

She developed the relationship-centered program around this simple concept. In the Building Assets Reducing Risks model, students take a group of core courses as part of a cohort of students.

These small groups help educators better cultivate connections with students. Teachers also meet weekly to look at student data and surface risks. They then co-create with each individual student a plan for keeping or getting that student back on track.

“We didn’t mean to specifically support a subgroup, yet found that we had twice the effect size in students of color and those that qualified for free and reduced lunch,” Jerabic says.

Related: When personalized learning includes skateboarding: One suburban district’s dramatic transformation

Other tools for social-emotional learning can help put education on a personal level. Low-income and minority students have different and often more challenging life circumstances than their higher-income, white peers. Most also experience some form of trauma. Since no one can learn when their brain is hijacked by trauma, identifying and removing these barriers must be a first step to leveling the playing field. Unfortunately, many social-emotional learning programs are “one size fits all.” For Alice Ray, a founding member of Committee for Children – the nonprofit behind the social- emotional learning program, Second Step, the solution to this problem was the creation of Ripple Effects, the first personalized digital social emotional learning program.

“The Ripple Effects intervention allows students to identify what they feel are their biggest barriers to learning.”

“Context is key,” says Ray. “Everyone needs social and emotional skills but how and when to use these skills differs based on your trauma. If you’re being molested, you don’t need more empathy. You need to manage feelings of shame and learn how to stand up for yourself.”

Related: Would students learn more if they were grouped together like Little League teams?

Ray saw great potential in technology’s ability to build social-emotional learning skills personalized around the unique issues of each student. The Ripple Effects intervention allows students to identify what they feel is their biggest barrier to learning. They then direct themselves through 13 different skill-building exercises, such as interactive lessons or games, around that topic. By virtue of its online access, it also allows teachers and counselors to reach more students.

“It evens the playing field for those schools [that] use it wisely,” says Los Angeles Unified School District Social Emotional Learning Wellness Director Asia Dove, who has used the program with struggling students since 2012. In randomized control trials, the program has reduced suspensions and increased academic outcomes, particularly with low-income and minority youth.

Another tool that is crucial to social-emotional learning are the continued professional development programs that assist teachers in use of practice. Sacramento City Unified School District had been implementing social -motional learning programs for several years, yet student data still revealed that minority students had higher rates of suspension than their peers. “We had to ask ourselves tough questions,” says Social Emotional Learning Director Mai Xi Lee of her staff. “Unless we do that, no beautiful program, no set of protocols is going [to be impactful].”

Related: What happens when a regular high school decides no student is a lost cause?

To help the district with this work, Lee reached out to the National Equity Project. The Oakland based group works with educators in school districts across the country to help them examine their bias and create equitable, inclusive, multi-cultural school environments.

The group led Sacramento City staff through 12 days of training last summer. “It was an opportunity to reflect on our data and the institutional things that may be in place that hinder some kids” says Lee, adding, “For instance, we saw that students of color weren’t well represented in honors classes. So we asked ourselves — what is teacher expectation like? Is there intentionality to be more thoughtful about our honors courses being more inclusive?”

The district does not yet have data on their efforts. “The process is slow — mindsets are hard to change – but social emotional learning is absolutely needed to have these difficult discussions. The value of the integration [of social emotional learning and coaching for equity] is critical for us,” says Lee.

Inequity is a deeply rooted, socio-cultural issue with many causes. Given that, there’s not going to be one solution, and the process of achieving equitable education opportunities for all youth is going to be just that: a process.

Although-social emotional learning alone won’t “fix” all of these problems, it does provide a place to start.

Jessica Berlinski is a consultant, advocate and social changemaker with over a decade of experience leading organizations dedicated to supporting students through academic and social-emotional learning tools and programs, with a focus on helping educators and organizations leverage technology to achieve educational equity and realize their implementation, awareness-building, assessment and scaling goals in social-emotional learning.

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