April 28, 2021

School districts across the country look to social and emotional learning (SEL) programs as a remedy for racial disparities in exclusionary discipline. If they can prevent the behaviors and conflicts leading to punishment, schools reason, equity will be achieved. But too many SEL resources teach self-regulation while ignoring the racialized violence, oppression, and unjust social structures that contribute to students’ anger and disaffection. Acknowledging this shortcoming, some SEL scholars and programs contend that SEL must be leveraged to build youth capacity to advocate for social justice.

However, this is only one half of the work. Schools that promote student activism must also be prepared to respond to students’ calls for change. The Ladder of Student Involvement outlines a gradient of student participation in schools consisting of eight rungs:

8. Student/adult equity
7. Student-led action
6. Student-adult equality
5. Consultation
4. Information
3. Tokenism
2. Decoration
1. Manipulation

Schools that involve students at the highest rungs of the ladder facilitate strong relationships between youth and adults and build structures and systems that facilitate student participation in decision-making. Students who feel heard and validated by their schools’ leadership will likely connect more deeply with the adults who facilitate that engagement.

East High School in Rochester, New York, has built responsiveness to student voice into their governance structure. East’s governance council includes at least one student as a full voting member, in addition to the principal, teachers, and family representatives. All council members must be present for a vote to take place, guaranteeing that students’ perspectives are accounted for in decision-making.

“The student has as much say as I do,” explained superintendent Shaun Nelms in a recent conversation. “For students at East, it’s ‘nothing about us without us.’”

Another strategy for fostering strong relationships between students and adults is ensuring educator diversity. Research indicates students of color are more connected to school when they are taught by even one same-race teacher, yet the diversity of educators lags far behind that of public school students.

To address this challenge in Connecticut, the Regional Education Laboratory Northeast and Islands at EDC, in collaboration with the Region 2 Comprehensive Center, is working with the Connecticut State Department of Education and 11 pilot districts to increase the diversity of its educator workforce.

By welcoming and responding to students’ calls for change, schools can simultaneously affirm students’ leadership and transform their own structural and cultural inequities.

Additional resources:

Meg Caven’s research explores the relationship between education, social inequality, and social policy. She is particularly interested in the implementation and effect of school discipline reform.

 

SEL

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