#Ophea100 Learning Series: Rethinking Social-Emotional Learning | Ophea.net

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#Ophea100 Learning Series: Rethinking Social-Emotional Learning

Monday, September 13, 2021 - 23:41

As Ophea celebrates a century of fostering healthy active living, we know our work is far from done. This August, we collaborated with subject matter experts and hosted an equity-informed practices learning and discussion series. Join us each month from September to December, as we provide a recap and recording of each session.

I used to think… But now I know…

I used to think about SEL [Social-Emotional Learning] as a tool to unpack racism in our educational environments, but now I know SEL is ALSO the oppressor's tool. (Audre Lorde: The Master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.") - in the absence of awareness we ARE causing harm. - Webinar Participant

“At first I thought I did the very best I could to provide an anti-racist community in my class. But now I know it is important to always listen to the background and this is a journey of learning and growing rather than covering a topic in the curriculum.” -  Webinar Participant

"I used to think teaching students SEL skills at school was really imp[ortant] for their well-being and success at school. Now I know that it can be harmful and be used as a tool to force compliance. – Webinar Participant

I used to think SEL was inclusive but now I know it is important to think more critically around SEL and the delivery of it to our students. - Webinar Participant

On August 16, 2021, Ophea hosted a webinar that provided the opportunity to explore and question what we might know and think about Social-Emotional Learning in the Health and Physical Education Curriculum. This webinar was called Rethinking Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and asked educators to collectively rethink SEL, our role in delivering a curriculum with SEL expectations, and how it may be taught in a way that disrupts institutionally racist and oppressive roots. This webinar left participants feeling reflective, disrupted, and wondering where to go next.

We would like to thank the co-presenters:

  • Royan Lee, a teacher with York Region District School Board and currently seconded as a Student Achievement Officer for the Ministry of Education.
  • Deniece Bell, a Health and Physical Education teacher with the Peel District School Board and Ambassador at Ophea.
  • Andrea Haefele, a Health and Physical Education teacher with the York Region District School Board and currently seconded as a curriculum consultant at Ophea.

View the full webinar on our YouTube channel!

SEL skills are something that all of us, regardless of age or ability, need on an ongoing basis, and this is especially true for our students. However, what are the implications of teaching and assessing SEL in an institution such as education, that has been founded and maintained based on colonial and racist foundations? Now, is a pivotal time in education and more so, in Health and Physical Education, to recognize and acknowledge the history of SEL and where we must go to enact positive change in  students’ lives.

This webinar provided educators across Ontario with a safe and inclusive space to engage in discussion. Educators were encouraged to critically reflect on the practice of teaching and assessing SEL through these questions:

  • Why is SEL important?
  • Who is SEL important for?
  • What is the purpose of teaching and assessing SEL in schools?
  • What unintended consequences might SEL in schools cause?

From there, educators were taken through quotes and images to help support learning more about the aspects of SEL that we need to collectively rethink in order to create the conditions for an anti-oppressive Health and Physical Education program. Examples of the quotes include:

  • “SEL should be embedded in all of our interactions with each other and with young people, not just relegated to an add-on. True SEL is about understanding our relationships with ourselves and with others. It’s to know ourselves as holistic human beings, and to be able to see the humanity in others to fight, together, for the world we deserve, which is rooted in equity and justice. We can’t do this or do this well if we compartmentalize SEL to being just a portion of our day.”1
  • “Let them dance, sing, laugh, play, scream, organize, and encourage all the brilliant ways they show up. SEL devoid of culturally-affirming practices and understandings is not SEL at all.”1
  • “With previous definitions and understandings of SEL we are not asking students to feel, we are asking them to accommodate white supremacy. Much of the onus and responsibility is placed on young people to change, rather than the system.”1
  • “When the cultural traditions of people of color are policed in this and other ways, there is no such thing as focusing on the whole child of color. #period.”2
  • “[S]idestepping the “larger sociopolitical context” in which students live keeps them from developing skills to confront hate and injustice. Ignoring that background, she said, could turn their teachings into “white supremacy with a hug.”3

The norm has been creating the right environment at school and promoting, replicating that environment at home and in the larger community, but what if we pause and consider what it might look like to have the community and home brought into the school? Welcoming change, changing the system, and accepting the whole student might be the direction we need to take SEL.

Participants were reminded that this session was only the beginning, but that the work can start here and now, and starts with all of us. This school year is a chance to begin again; actions speak louder than words and students can all play a role in creating an anti-racist environment, even if they do not yet fully understand the concept.

A Place to Begin: Deconstructing SEL

When SEL is taught and assessed in a way that does not account for the diversity of our students, it can be more harmful than helpful. In rethinking and disrupting what we know about SEL, it can be helpful to come into the conversation with pillars to guide the discussion and learning process. Royan shared this three-pillar model that was developed and used within the York Region District School Board. These pillars may also serve as a foundation for your classroom:  

  1. Humility: We will… Prioritize listening to understand, focus on the impacts of policies, structures, and actions over intentions, and check ourselves when we think we know it all.
  2. Dissonance: We will… Sit in struggle and uncertainty rather than run away from it, remembering that it is a privilege to do so, and work together to maintain a brave space rather than a comfortable one.
  3. Acceptance: We will… Accept that the institution of Education has been founded and maintained for colonial purposes, and NOT expect people with intersecting marginalized identities in our space to “prove” this.

Next consider these three questions and reflect on your own responses as well as some of the responses we’ve included from fellow educators.

Why is SEL important?

Educators agreed that SEL skills are important. Educators shared that SEL,

  • is required for success and is essential for students to thrive,
  • supports mental well-being of students and staff,
  • recognizes that emotions and feeling do matter in education and are connected to educators and students’ abilities to learn,
  • is important in recognizing the whole person,
  • builds a stronger community, and
  • gives students the tools to understand, adapt, and overcome external systemic stressors they have no control over.

Who is SEL important for?

Educators agreed that SEL is important for everyone including staff, students, administration, and the entire school community. Some expressed that SEL is especially important for the learner and whoever the learner has a relationship with.

What is the purpose of teaching and assessing SEL in schools?

Educators shared various reasons for teaching and assessing SEL in schools including:  

  • bringing awareness and support in the classroom,
  • starting conversations within the home,
  • measuring progress in learning,
  • when things are measured, the importance and value increases,
  • allows educators to determine where the learner is at and what further supports may be needed,
  • allows for a base understanding of mental well-being as students come from a variety of different backgrounds and cultural beliefs.

However educators also shared that they didn’t understand why it needed to be assessed:

  • “I recognize the purpose of SEL but I am still struggling with why and how it can be fairly assessed.”
  • “I don't think it should be evaluated. I think it should be commented on and provided next steps - but not assigned a grade as there are a multitude of variables that we can't assume to know as each individual has varied and diverse experiences and SEL needs. We can't expect the same for all students.”
  • “I don’t think it should be assessed. And I have a lot of questions / learning to do in order to teach it.”
  • “I'm not sure that I agree with assessing SEL in schools…”

The journey in re-examining how we talk about and teach SEL is a continuous process. As educators, we need to take the time to reflect on the physical and emotional environment in our schools.  What does a school community look, sound, and feel like when we promote reflection, honor the community, and support authentic collaboration among staff, students, and parents? How can we work together to create the conditions for positive well-being so that instruction is responsive to the full range of student diversity?

Reflecting on SEL  

As we continue taking steps to deconstruct SEL, an important piece of this is to also reflect on the unintended consequences, it might have on our learners. As educators who vow to do no harm, we must consider both the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to any topic we discuss in our class and how these topics impact learners differently depending on their identities and previous life experiences.

What unintended consequences might SEL in schools cause?

Despite that many positive outcomes of SEL are emphasized by educational institutions or similar organizations, SEL can have unintended consequences that harm our learners. Educators shared various thoughts on this:

  • “SEL can be problematic when the goal is focused more on compliance and when it is weaponized and misunderstood as a way to control student behaviour.”
  •  “Nothing, it has only benefits”
  • “Parents may see this as their role and not necessarily agree with how it is being taught in the classroom”
  • “All students learn at different paces - might be difficult to expect all students to be "at the same level" of understanding at the same time”
  •  “Parents/Students don't always see SEL as "part of" the curriculum - they have a "traditional" vision of what HPE should be based on past lived experience.”
  • “Can be harmful if it does not take an anti-racist approach”.

Rebuilding Our Understanding and Approach to SEL  

So, how do we enact culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy when it comes to SEL? It starts with all of us! Here are some resources you may want to explore to increase your own understanding of SEL through this lens. Once you’ve reviewed the resources, consider what your “I used to think…But now I know…” statement is. How might this new awareness and understanding translate into your classroom?


Let’s keep the conversation going! Share with us @OpheaCanada on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram. To stay up-to-date on how Ophea professional learning offerings, resources and supports sign up for Ophea’s e-newsletter eConnection.

1 Fund, C. for J. S. (2020, May 12). When SEL is used as another form of policing. When SEL is Used as Another Form of Policing. https://medium.com/@justschools/when-sel-is-used-as-another-form-of-policing-fa53cf85dce4.

2 Ford, D. (2020, February 7). Social-Emotional learning for black students is ineffective when it Is culture-blind. Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. https://www.diverseeducation.com/demographics/african-american/article/15106240/social-emotional-learning-for-black-students-is-ineffective-when-it-is-culture-blind.

3 Jacobson, L. (2021, April 6). Social-Emotional learning or 'White supremacy with a Hug'? Yale official's Departure sparks a RACIAL RECKONING. Social-Emotional Learning or 'White Supremacy with a Hug'? Yale Official's Departure Sparks a Racial Reckoning. https://www.the74million.org/article/social-emotional-learning-racial-reckoning-yale-center-departure/.