The majority of public schools and districts in the U.S. report they are working to support the social and emotional learning of students. But in too many places, the approach is to focus narrowly on changing student behavior rather than implementing practices that build relationships and create learning environments that support positive social and emotional growth. This is especially true in schools and districts that serve large populations of students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, exposing these students to environments that could do more harm than good.

In Social, Emotional, and Academic Development Through an Equity Lens, we layout how to shift the focus away from “fixing kids” and toward addressing adult beliefs and mindsets as well as school and district policies to create an equitable learning environment. School and district leaders must consider the context in which students live. Societal realities (e.g., racism, sexism, homophobia), individual realities (e.g., socioeconomic status, family dynamics, experiences in schools, access to opportunities), and cultural background all influence social, emotional, and academic development.

Our approach is supported by existing research as well as what our researchers learned from focus groups across the country with students and families of color, primarily those from Black and Latino communities. Participants discussed the importance of social and emotional skills; what students of color need to learn other than academic subjects; and what educators and school leaders can do to support social, emotional, and academic development for students of color. As the research in this area continues to grow, and as state, district, and school leaders consider policy changes to support social, emotional, and academic development, the voices of these families and students must be heard and valued.

Without equity-focused policies, the right mindset, and appropriate responses, educator biases (whether implicit or explicit) will continue to unfairly and unjustly marginalize some students. Many students of color and students from low-income backgrounds are seen as “broken” or in need of “fixing,” which undermines their excellence and results in real and harmful consequences when in fact the context in which students learn are what should be addressed. Social, emotional, and academic development should be administered with a students-first approach.

To that end, rather than simply adding on more policies to existing ones, schools and districts should revisit entirely what’s already in place first, and ask whether they equitably foster belonging, give challenging opportunities for students to thrive, and provide the supports students need. Social, Emotional, and Academic Development Through an Equity Lens provides a framework and action items for school and district leaders to undertake this work.

Section 1

Introduction: Re-envisioning Social, Emotional, and Academic Development

More than 90% of schools and districts report they are working to support the social and emotional learning of students. It’s a smart move with good intentions. Schools should play a role in helping students develop holistically, as school is where students spend the bulk of their time learning about themselves, their emotions, and their behaviors, and how to interact with others. What’s more, studies show developing students’ social-emotional competence can improve their academic outcomes, and the conditions for learning in schools affect the development of social and emotional competencies.

Studies also show that social-emotional well-being, as well as academic performance, are both inextricably linked to the overall context in which students develop and the relationships they build over time. Contextual factors, such as societal realities (e.g., racism, sexism, homophobia), individual realities (e.g., socioeconomic status, family dynamics, experiences in schools, access to opportunities), and cultural background all influence social, emotional, and academic development.

Section 2

Social, Emotional, and Academic Development in Context: Why It Matters

The argument for considering context is necessary in all education issues, but it is especially critical for this topic, because the environment in which students are learning (as well as where adults are teaching and leading) cannot be disassociated from social, emotional, and academic development.

All of students’ experiences, including home life, bouts with racism, and cultural background, influence social, emotional, and academic development, and influence how adults perceive students’ competence in social-emotional skills and academics. All learning is social and emotional, whether intended to be or not and whether explicitly stated as so or not. The question is not whether educators and schools influence social-emotional development or not; they do. The issue is whether educators and schools do so in a way that is intentionally and explicitly equity focused, because not doing so may cause harm, especially to those students who may not fit the standard American norms that our current education system reflects and rewards.

These same societal realities influence adult beliefs, expectations, and actions, all of which affect adults’ interactions with students and, in turn, students’ social-emotional development and well-being, and academic performance. Without ensuring students’ learning environments are supportive of all students and do not perpetuate inequities, social-emotional learning efforts that exclusively focus on changing student behavior may do more harm than good by placing the burden on students of color to respond positively to systemic injustices.

But it doesn’t have to play out like this. Across the country, school leaders and educators are working to change the way they see students, how they address student behaviors, and how they support social-emotional well-being at large.

Section 3

Focus Group Findings: How Students and Families of Color Approach Social, Emotional, and Academic Development

In order to make sure efforts to support social, emotional, and academic development truly benefit all students, it’s important to hear and learn from the perspectives of impacted communities. For this reason, we set out to listen to and learn from students and families of color. We held three types of focus groups — students of color, Black family members, and Latino family members. All family members we spoke with had a direct role in their students’ educational journey. Student focus groups consisted of multiple races and ethnicities, including Black, Latino; adult groups included parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. These adult groups (Black and Latino) were separated in an attempt to capture the distinct voices of these communities and their experiences. We asked the following research questions:

How do participants perceive the importance of social and emotional skills and how they relate to success?

Outside of learning academic subjects, what do students of color need to learn to be successful?

What should the school’s role be in supporting students of color to learn the factors participants identified?

How do participants perceive the importance of social and emotional skills and how they relate to success?

To begin this part of the dialogue, we first asked participants to identify how they envisioned success for themselves (if students) or for their children (if family members). This initial question was meant to set a foundation for what participants hoped to achieve through school. Importantly, we found that participants already considered social-emotional well-being and learning social-emotional competencies to be part of how they defined success. We also followed up with a question in our protocol asking participants whether and how important it is for students of color to learn social skills, skills related to emotion and behavior, and any other social or emotional factors participants had already noted. Participants further elaborated on how critical these things are to their definitions of success.

Social-Emotional Well-Being and Social-Emotional Competence is a Part of Success

“I think

play the biggest role, especially understanding your well-being and all of that, because, I mean, if you’re not in a good mental state, it’s harder for you to actually achieve those goals that you put for yourself. Social skills, they’re highly important when it comes to, like, the work environment. And not just in the work environment, but also when you get to college. … It’s important to know how to socialize with other people that don’t necessarily look like you, or don’t share the same beliefs.”

– A Latina student in Oakland, CA

Outside of learning academic subjects, what do students of color need to learn to be successful?

For this second part of the dialogue, we broadened our question to ask what else students of color must learn, other than academic subjects, to be successful in a variety of ways, including academically, socially, in a job or career, or in any other settings. We did not want to narrow our language to “social-emotional skills” for this question so that participants would not feel limited to what they considered or had heard definitions of social-emotional skills to be. We especially worked to probe participants on some of the comments they had made in the first part of the dialogue. The key theme emerging from this conversation was the need for an explicit focus on racial identity development and how it relates to all of the social, emotional, and even academic needs of students.

Identity is the Core of Social, Emotional, and Academic Development

“Knowledge of self — who they are, their culture. They need to learn how to love within.”

– A Black mother in Los Angeles, CA

“And that brings about confidence. If you don’t love yourself, you’re not confident in who you are. If you’re not confident, then you’re not really interested in anything, especially learning.”

– A Black mother in Los Angeles, CA

What should the school’s role be in supporting students of color to learn the factors participants identified?

In the third part of the conversation, we first asked participants whether they trusted schools to teach the social and emotional skills they value, and then asked what schools need to do to ensure students build healthy relationships and confidence, and can celebrate and develop racial identity the way participants had discussed, as well as, generally, what schools should do to support students of color as they strive for success. Although participants felt schools should support social-emotional skill building, most felt that school systems are not currently set up to do so, and especially not for students of color. Participants cited a lack of basic building blocks to create environments where all students succeed, and so, said that they couldn’t trust schools to support social-emotional learning in this way.

“The way schools are structured now, and the way education is structured, it’s not set up for students to succeed in those environments. And not to say students don’t succeed, but not all students do. Some students make it out, but aren’t ready for the world after high school, or even after middle school. So, it’s like you’re not always set up to succeed based on how schools are structured.”

– A Black and Latino student in Oakland, CA

Create Learning Environments Where Students See Themselves and Truly Belong

“You know, not every Latino’s a farmer. There’s Latinos that are involved in law, you know, everything else. So, it’s like, just seeing our culture in the curriculum would be nice, because once we get to college, we know where we come from. So, you’re not gonna necessarily feel belittled
when you see everyone around you is, you know, a different culture, or a different race.”

– A Latina student in Los Angeles, CA

“I think that we should talk about other people, other than just Rosa Parks and Martin
Luther King. … I’ve been learning about that since I was like in first grade. … I had to read myself about people like Malcolm X and things like that. … Why can’t we talk about other people? Because we’ve been reviewing the same information for the past eight years.”

– A Black student in Louisville, KY

Section 4

Shifting the Focus: Moving Away From “Fixing Kids” to Creating an Equitable Learning Environment

As leaders and influencers in the field argue, supporting students’ social, emotional, and academic development with an equity lens calls for a shift in focus: from “fixing kids” by teaching them specific competencies to a broader asset-based approach that includes a focus on adult beliefs and mindsets and the systems and policies necessary to create equitable learning environments that support holistic student success. This does not mean abandoning concern for social-emotional competence but supporting it by improving the learning environment and adults’ social-emotional competence. As with anything that needs to grow, what good is fertilizer if the soil is toxic or the atmosphere lacks the proper elements to thrive?

Changing Adult Beliefs

From a Deficit-Based Mindset to a Strength Based Mindset

From One-Size Fits-All to Recognizing Cultural and Contextual Influences

From Allowing Bias to Impact Students to Targeted and Continuous Efforts to Reduce Bias

From a Deficit-Based Mindset to a Strength Based Mindset


As attention to this topic has increased over the past several decades, social-emotional leaders and influencers have tried to encourage educators and researchers to build on the strengths students already have.34 Too often, however, the implementation of social-emotional efforts has resulted in a focus on identifying the “deficiencies” of historically marginalized students without attention to their strengths.

When social-emotional efforts target only specific competencies students should develop, the conversations often tend to focus on all of the challenges students face and the skills they are “missing.” This is particularly problematic, because while all students could benefit from meaningful social-emotional supports, the students typically being discussed are students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, and English learners, who are already the targets of stereotypes about
race and socioeconomic status. This focus on student shortcomings rather than student strengths inadvertently reinforces these deficit-oriented views of students and become another justification for low expectations. It’s critical that educators maintain high expectations for all students.


Efforts to support students’ social-emotional growth should therefore begin by recognizing the assets students bring to the classroom and figuring out how to build on them both in and outside of the classroom. Many historically marginalized students frequently show tremendous resilience, self-awareness, and metacognition; have experience navigating and code switching in different environments; and have strong family and community connections, multilingualism, and cultural history and heritage. For example, rather than viewing a student who frequently cares for a family member as distracted from school, the student should be recognized for the tremendous responsibility he or she shows outside of academics. With this positive mindset, school leaders can then work with students and their families to identify the unique combination of supports needed for students to exhibit that strength both at home and in school.

From One-Size Fits-All to Recognizing Cultural and Contextual Influences


While many educators know that social-emotional learning is about more than simply skill building, almost all social-emotional work includes a focus on teaching specific competencies to students. All too often, however, educators separate these efforts from context and rely on an underlying assumption that these competencies should look the same for all students. This is inaccurate, and social-emotional learning must center issues of race and injustice.35 What is appropriate management of emotions and behavior in one culture may be perceived as inappropriate by individuals from another culture. Given the culturally diverse population of the United States, it is not safe to assume that all students’ growth in specific social-emotional competencies should appear the same. Educators must recognize these influences both on their students and on themselves, including the impact of privilege or the lack thereof.


It’s important to acknowledge the differences in students’ lives, cultures, and prior classroom experiences. For example, many students of color are already highly skilled at anger management, given their daily experiences with racism, and adults who interact with students should recognize such assets. While all students can benefit from learning to self-manage, educators should be cautious not to stymie the need for students, and especially students whose communities are historically underserved and discriminated against, to also learn to protest and resist against injustice in productive and democratic ways. Furthermore, White students may require differentiated social-emotional supports, such as in learning to be anti-racist, particularly since they have the responsibility to dismantle a racist system that discriminates against Black, Latino, and other students of color and they will need to learn to respectfully work with diverse populations as the country continues to diversify.

From Allowing Bias to Impact Students to Targeted and Continuous Efforts to Reduce Bias


Bias can lead even the most well- intentioned and mission-driven adults in schools to disproportionately view students of color as missing social-emotional competence. Implicit bias may lead an educator to see a particular behavior as inappropriate for Black students but as something to dismiss for White students. This occurs in school discipline practices, where students of color are disproportionately punished for the same behaviors that White students exhibit.37 Similarly, English language learners are often seen as academically at risk by virtue of their home language, rather than recognizing bilingualism as a critically important benefit to their lives and futures. More than this, students who are competent in many of these social-emotional skills are not given the opportunity to practice or show their competence. For example, when a biased teacher does not call on students of color in a classroom, the students are unable to show their belief in their abilities (self-efficacy), the work they’ve put into learning the material (self-management), or their skills to socially engage (relationship skills). These experiences may harm students’ mindsets and their beliefs in their ability to achieve goals, which are critical success factors for students.


Ensuring students are supported socially and emotionally is not a matter of teaching students to feel differently about the harms they experience in school, or how to behave — it’s a matter of addressing the implicit and explicit biases of educators and adults who interact with students. This is especially important for social-emotional learning because, as discussed previously, social-emotional competence is not displayed uniformly across all students. Adopting restorative justice policies, working toward a positive school climate, systematically enrolling native Spanish speakers in AP Spanish, and utilizing culturally sustaining pedagogy, while steps toward progress, are only effective if educators are aware of their biases and are consciously working to reduce these effects on students with professional learning support from their schools and districts. Educators should explicitly state high expectations, build meaningful relationships with students, and welcome students’
cultural values and beliefs into the classroom.

Changing Systems and Policies

Foster Student Belonging

Challenge Students to Reach Their Potential

Provide Academic and Holistic Supports

Foster Student Belonging

All individuals are social learners, or put differently, social experiences are a part of learning. For example, it is critical for students, especially students of color, to see themselves as belonging in learning spaces. When students face stereotypes that make them feel like they don’t belong in academic spaces, they are less motivated to engage academically. Belonging does not merely mean students feel comfortable sitting in a crowd, but that they are comfortable speaking up and that they are heard and valued for their agency rather than punished for engagement and self-advocacy.

To support students’ social-emotional development, educators must believe and project the belief that each student has real value to add and assets to bring to the table, and district and school leaders must revisit a wide range of policies and structures to bolster the sense of belonging for students of color, English learners, and students from low-income backgrounds — who too often receive the message that they aren’t welcome and don’t belong. When educators don’t see the assets that a student is bringing into the classroom, they should interpret that as a function of their own bias or that they are missing some information about the student. The onus is on adults to have the mindset to look for the assets and to reach out humbly to students and families to understand what they are missing. Policies related to discipline, educator diversity, representation in curricula, student-teacher relationships, student voice, and culturally sustaining pedagogy for example, all play a role in whether students feel they belong in schools.

Challenge Students to Reach Their Potential

When bias creeps into schools and classrooms, educators are less likely to believe historically marginalized students can do challenging work. This occurs both through personal biases educators bring with them into schools and through systems and structures that can promote bias, such as tracking. These low expectations impact both the social-emotional development and the academic
achievement of students. Indeed, research shows that when teachers underestimate their students’ abilities, students themselves have lower expectations of themselves, and that this is especially true for Black and Latino students. Educators may mistakenly believe that when students are not engaging it is because the material is too difficult. Easier material, however, doesn’t make students engage more. If
anything, the opposite is true. Providing challenging work for students and encouraging students to reach their potential leads to higher academic outcomes and more positive social-emotional development. School leaders and educators should therefore adopt policies that encourage learning environments where adults have high expectations of students and communicate those high expectations to students and their families, such as automatically enrolling students into advanced
courses based on metrics such as GPA or test scores, rather than only enrolling students based on subjective measures such as teacher and counselor recommendations, which create artificial barriers.

Provide Academic and Holistic Supports

Students need academic and holistic resources that support and scaffold learning. Social-emotional development is integrally influenced by the realities of society, including experiences with race and socioeconomic status. Separating the experiences of students’ lives outside the classroom from their ability to learn within the classroom does a disservice to students. For example, students experiencing food or housing insecurity will not be able to give their full attention to their education unless these needs are addressed. This does not mean school systems need to be responsible for all facets of students’ lives, but they should ask whether and how their decisions provide supports for students in their context. Therefore, school personnel should ensure they are providing holistic supports, as well as connecting students to resources outside of school and including student and community
voice throughout these efforts.

Additionally, supporting students should be seen as contradictory to policies that disproportionately harm historically marginalized students. For example, Black students are much more likely to be suspended or expelled, and so zero-tolerance policies, corporal punishment, exclusionary discipline, and other harmful discipline policies should be replaced with policies and practices, such as restorative justice, that support social, emotional, and academic development.

Section 5

Where to Start: Action Items for Equitably Approaching Social, Emotional, and Academic Development

The work needed to fundamentally change schools to integrate supports for social-emotional well-being into all aspects of schooling will not happen overnight, or even in a single year. Working to reverse 400 years of systemic oppression will require generational change. But school and district leaders can get started by following the list of recommendations below. This is not a comprehensive list; even when fully checked off, the work is not done. School and district leaders will need to continually assess whether their policies foster belonging, challenge students, and provide the supports students need to thrive.

Provide Meaningful Professional Development and Supports

Teacher preparation programs should be held responsible for ensuring teachers entering the workforce have the skills needed to create culturally affirming environments, to build relationships with and understand their students, to support students’ academic success, as well as have mindsets geared toward anti-racism. For teachers already in schools, professional development to support them in developing these skills and mindsets is critical. District and school leaders should provide ongoing high-quality opportunities such as embedded coaching for educators to continually grow in these areas; one-time workshops do not provide sufficient support for educators to practice and improve these skills.

Additionally, professional development on these topics should be provided to all adults in the education system rather than restricted to teachers and administrators. While professional development of this kind can be one of the primary tools to changing adult beliefs and mindsets, it is insufficient without both creating systemic opportunities for educators to build relationships with their communities and making changes to systems and policies, such as in the examples below.

Equity-focused school, district, and state leaders can provide high-quality and ongoing professional development and coaching on:

Engage Parents, Students, and Communities as Pull Partners

By strengthening educator relationships with students, families, and communities, adult beliefs and mindsets will shift through experiences with, and deepen understanding of, the students and communities they serve.53 This includes engaging and being engaged by parents and youth. It is critical that school leaders take on the responsibility of ensuring the voices of students and parents of color, and those from low-income backgrounds and other historically marginalized backgrounds are centered in policy and practice decisions.

Equity-focused school and district leaders can:

Diversify the Workforce

Educators of color are more likely to have higher expectations for their students of color and benefit the social-emotional and holistic needs of students of color. Students of color and White students also feel cared for and academically challenged by teachers of color. Additionally, research shows that Black students who have at least one Black teacher are less likely to drop out of school and more likely to enroll in college, and teacher-student racial matches affect social-emotional and academic skills.59 By working to diversify the teacher workforce and retain diverse teachers, leaders will foster belonging and
challenge students to thrive.

Equity-focused school, district, and state leaders can work to diversify the teacher workforce by:

Ensure Equitable Access to and Supports for Success in Rigorous and Culturally Sustaining Coursework

Because students must be challenged in schools and encouraged to meet high expectations, leaders should ensure all students have access to rigorous, deeper learning and culturally sustaining curricula, and the supports they need to succeed. When students are able to both see themselves in the work and see that schools are challenging them to thrive, what follows is a belief in themselves to reach their goals.

Equity-focused school and district leaders can:

Develop Inclusive Discipline and Dress Code Policies

Discipline and dress code policies have too often been used to further marginalize students of color and disproportionately exclude them from schools.65 When students are pushed out of schools based on arbitrary standards of acceptable clothing or hairstyles, or when discipline policies are used to disproportionately suspend or expel students of color for minor infractions, these students are sent the message that they do not belong in school or that what they wear is more important than what they learn.

Equity-focused school and district leaders should revisit these policies and ensure they:

Provide Access to Integrated Wraparound Services and Supports

In addition to providing academic supports, leaders should work to ensure all students have access to the nonacademic supports they need to thrive. These wraparound supports must be youth and family driven, be individualized, utilize interconnected systems, monitor progress, and be culturally competent. When educators and school leaders cannot provide the health supports students need, they can work with community resources to ensure these students’ needs are met by working collaboratively with community-based organizations and agencies and ensuring that services are integrated.

Equity-focused school and district leaders can work to ensure students have access to wraparound services and supports by: