A Cord of Three Strands is Not Easily Broken: The Intersection of Identity, SDT, and SEL

Pascal Losambe (March, 2022)

I recently heard of a situation where elementary students were in a classroom and a student made an insensitive comment to a student of color. The teacher addressed the situation, explained its inappropriateness, and privately asked the student of color how he felt about the situation. The child explained that “it felt weird.” Weird? I thought. What did he mean by weird? Weird is one of those “blur” words that can take on different meanings based on a myriad of factors including a person’s culture, background, and lived experiences. The parents of the student were concerned about the situation and wondered how it would affect their child’s sense of belonging in the classroom even though they were grateful for how the situation was handled. As I pondered the event, I started to wonder the extent to which students at different grade levels were being equipped to identify, process, and explain their emotions, especially when it came to matters relating to their identities. 

Over the past few years, there has been a heightened sense of urgency to educate children on topics relating to justice, equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging (JEDIB). In fact, a recent study showed that at-risk 9th grade students of color who were enrolled in an ethnic studies course showed significant academic gains because they had an increased sense of purpose in the academic environment. While you may not have an Ethnic Studies option at your school, you may be able to foster students’ sense of autonomy by facilitating their exploration of topics that connect with their social identities. Several studies suggest that when student exploration is structured appropriately, they tend to become more engaged particularly when they connect with concepts and issues that are important to their personal and social identities. With all that said, it may be important for them to have the skills to express and articulate their emotions and present their points of view in an effective and coherent manner. 

An appropriate program for social-emotional learning (SEL) could be one effective way to equip students with the tools and skills they need to process their emotions. In recent years, there has been a push to use SEL and culturally responsive teaching in tandem. A criticism of SEL is that it has occasionally been used to stifle students of color by consistently asking them to diminish their emotions in situations that affect their sense of identity. But when SEL takes place appropriately, it fosters competence by providing students with the skills to clearly express themselves and become more effective in inviting their peers to empathize and show compassion, especially when discussing issues relating to justice, equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging. 

Let us take this full circle. What if the child in the story above used a word other than weird? Could the educators have been better able to understand his emotions and support him better? What if the child was learning about enslaved people, segregation, and civil rights? Would he have the words to express his emotions? Childhood development studies indicate that children in our schools are actively constructing their identities and are very sensitive to modeled behavior and implicit learning. Developing their SEL skills, especially when they are asked to discuss and process concepts relating to JEDIB, may be essential to increase their sense of belonging and their identity development.