Including everybody in Social Emotional Learning

In order for schools to genuinely impact student wellbeing, all students must be represented and celebrated, writes Justin Garcia

Social and emotional learning must be done through queer lense

I have taught internationally for ten years and I’ve seen teaching/education trends come and go. After each major international conference teachers and administrators are inspired to implement “the next big thing” at their schools.

One trend that is becoming increasingly common in international schools is SEL (Social Emotional Learning). As with many movements in education, I notice selective implementation guided by bias, rather than by the tenets of SEL. This inevitably excludes minoritized/marginalized students. Schools in international contexts who intend to successfully adapt SEL must adopt cultural and queer lenses. Without these lenses, SEL will not fit the needs of all students.

SEL isn’t new. It was developed in 1994 by CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning) for high schools. SEL centers around five core competencies tied together with “…key settings to establish equitable learning environments that advance students’ learning and development” (Casel.org, 2021). The competencies include self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness.

The benefits of SEL have been documented across decades of research that indicate schools that implement SEL have students with improved academic outcomes, improved behaviors, and increased ability to manage stress and depression. For example, several of my elementary age students struggled with perfectionism that led to anxiety and emotional breakdowns. Using SEL self management methods like self talk, they became better able to manage stressors and they bounced back quickly from outbursts.

International schools have latched onto SEL and started making it the focal point of school initiatives. However, many schools do not consider how intersectional identities play a necessary role in SEL, particularly with our queer identifying students.

“On one occasion, an administrator told me that ‘we don’t cater to special interest groups’.”

For example, two of SEL’s competencies are social awareness and self-awareness. Within those competencies SEL, “integrates social and personal identities” and “[identifies] diverse social norms, including unjust ones”. These competencies directly relate to many queer experiences. Identity plays a role in queer students’ lives, especially when they receive mixed messages from media and school about what their identities “should” be. Queer students are also discriminated against, whether it be through transphobic/homophobic policies, bullying, or physical violence.

Many schools exclude queer identities in SEL for several reasons. Administrators and teachers argue that queer discussions are “inappropriate”, or are fearful of backlash from the parent community. There is no attention to “student need.” On one occasion, an administrator told me that “we don’t cater to special interest groups.”

“Administrators argue that queer discussions are ‘inappropriate’, or are fearful of backlash from the parent community.”

I find this reasoning perplexing because so much of it is a projection of an individual’s discomfort. For example, why worry about parent pushback when parents at our school have never been involved in these conversations? We need to give our parents the benefit of the doubt, and if we’re open and honest with our communication, their level of support may surprise us. What makes queer identities “inappropriate?” If we dig deep, we can reflect on the stigma that queer students face and misconceptions about teaching gender (not anatomy) and sexuality (not sex ed) in classrooms.

One issue I have encountered is that admin implement SEL on their own terms without understanding the different perspectives and experiences of their stakeholders. As far as I know, there is no data showcasing the diversity within international education institutions (if this exists, please share it with me!)

In my experience, administration at schools are typically white, cisgender, and hetereosexual. When operating from a single lens, we neglect the perspectives and experiences of others that should also inform our decisions. They lack lenses of not only queer people, but people of colour.

“It’s important to first understand how the host country’s culture intersects with gender and sexuality.”

Instead of making sweeping decisions that affect entire school communities, administration should be more intentional of their positionality within the school and seek perspectives of their stakeholders so they can make more informed decisions, otherwise they are simply copying and pasting epistemologies that aren’t culturally responsive.

It’s also crucial to understand that models like SEL were created and adopted for US schools. Much of the data surrounding it is based solely on the US context. Simply arrogating SEL and dropping it in international contexts lacks sensitivity and understanding of how the culture in the host country operates. SEL inevitably looks different based on the cultural context of students.

This is even more profound when considering queer identities. For instance, queering SEL does not mean dropping a GSA (Gender Sexuality Alliance) into an international school. A well meaning and enthusiastic admin might see that as a solution, but it’s important to first understand how the host country’s culture intersects with gender and sexuality. In the case of Thailand, being “out” is fundamentally different as it’s much more common for young adults to live with their families. Language surrounding queer culture is also very different. Implementing programs like SEL can create a problem of hypervisibility for queer students, which unintentionally harms them by making them overtly discernable and subjected to scrutiny.

“Without year-long efforts that work towards creating safe and equitable spaces for queer students, a month long ‘celebration’ is all for show.”

In order for schools to consider solutions like GSAs or other ways to support queer students through SEL, administration should reach out to local community organizers for advice and consultancy. For example, M Plus is an LGBTQ+ organization in Chiang Mai that provides outreach to the community, including students and schools, to educate about queer issues in Thailand. Organizations like these are crucial to developing a relevant way for SEL to support queer students.

SEL also indicates that we need to go beyond the classroom and school level when focusing on student wellbeing. In addition to the five competencies, SEL suggests four environments for impacting students; classroom, school, families and caregivers, and communities. This means that supporting all students, especially queer students, should also extend to the greater community. Schools can do this by extending education about gender and sexuality to parents, providing resources for them to learn more about queer experiences. Many schools celebrate pride month, but without consistent, year long efforts that work towards creating safe and equitable spaces for queer students, a month long “celebration” is all for show.

In order for schools to implement Social Emotional Learning strategies and programmes, it is essential to include queer and cultural lenses. Neglecting intersectional identities means that components of SEL are missing. In order for schools to genuinely impact student well being, all students must be represented and celebrated.

This article first appeared in the most recent issue of Wellbeing In International Schools Magazine. The next edition is out next week.