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How social and emotional competence leads to educational equity

Social and emotional skills are critical, and they foster educational equity by enabling the student to master and derive benefit from the curriculum
By Paul LeBuffe
October 26th, 2021

Social and emotional skills are critical, and they foster educational equity by enabling the student to master and derive benefit from the curriculum

Educational equity is achieved by equipping students with tools to overcome some of the pre-existing barriers that impede their ability to succeed in school and thrive. Although educational equity was a priority in many school districts prior to the events of the past year and a half, talks surrounding the initiative have amped up–of the 10 largest school districts in the United States, eight now identify equity as part of their mission statements or core values.

Achieving educational equity requires multiple strategies and initiatives because the sources of inequity are so numerous and varied. One of the most important strategies is the promotion of students’ social and emotional competence (SEC).

First, we must understand how equity is defined. Recently, Jagers, Rivas-Drake, and Borowski asserted that educational equity “means that every student has access to the resources and educational rigor they need” (2018, p.1). Similarly, the Center for Public Education stated that, “equity is achieved when all students receive the resources they need so they graduate prepared for success after high school” (2016, p. 1). Both definitions make clear that the focus of educational equity efforts needs to be on the individual student. Equity is achieved when every (Jagers et. al) or all (CPE) students can benefit from education.

However, providing physical access to an evidence-based curriculum does not by itself ensure that a student who lacks, for example, optimism and a sense of agency will benefit from that curriculum and be prepared for life after graduation. To meaningfully “access” or “receive” an educational resource requires that the student has skills such as the ability to engage with the material in an organized way, persist in efforts to master the material, and apply the content to solve real life problems and challenges. These social and emotional skills enable the student to master and derive benefit from the curriculum.

Like any other skill set or trait, students differ in their level of SEC; some students will have well-developed skills; others will have significant skill deficits. Therefore, ensuring that each student has sufficient skills to access or benefit from instruction requires assessing the unique social and emotional strengths and needs of each student and then providing data-driven differentiated instruction. If we believe, as research over the past 20 years has indicated, that SEC is essential to school and life success, then we have a duty as educators to ensure that each of our students has a full complement of social and emotional skills.

Fortunately, good, well-developed, rigorous, and practical measures of students’ SEC are available. Both CASEL and the American Institutes for Research (AIR) have published reports of social and emotional assessments. CASEL also released “Measuring SEL: Using Data to Inspire Practice.” This interactive tool not only provides information on a wide variety of assessments, but also on how to use assessment data. AIR’s tool, “Are You Ready to Assess Social and Emotional Learning and Development Tool Kit,” provides detailed information on assessments of conditions for learning, which includes school climate, social and emotional learning (SEL) implementation, and SECs. Both resources can provide educational leaders with a wealth of information to use in selecting the right SEL assessment for them.

Regarding our collective commitment to educational equity, we should turn the popular phrase, “What gets measured gets treasured,” around so that it reads, “What gets treasured gets measured.” The assessment of each student’s social and emotional skills followed by differentiated instruction will maximize the likelihood that each student in our schools has the skill set they need to access and benefit from instruction. This individualized, data-driven approach is an important strategy to help our schools, districts, and country achieve educational equity.

About the Author:

Paul LeBuffe

For the past 25 years, Paul’s career has focused on strength-based approaches to promoting social and emotional competence and resilience in children, youth, and the adults who care for them. Believing that such approaches should be data-driven, Paul has authored many widely used, strength-based assessments of behaviors related to children and adolescents’ social and emotional strengths and needs including the Devereux Early Childhood Assessment and most recently the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment (DESSA) for grades K-12. These assessments have been adopted by more than 5,000 school districts, out-of-school-time programs, and early care and education programs both in the United States and internationally. More than 10 million children and youth have been assessed with these tools and the results used by professionals and parents to promote their social and emotional competence, foster their resilience, and build the skills these children will need for school and life success. Paul lives in Downingtown, PA with his wife, Penny, a special education teacher.

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