SEL is Necessary But Not Sufficient

How can we advance racial equity in our schools through social and emotional learning? We had some great discussions about it at CASEL's recent SEL Exchange. 


Tala at workshop

Deputy Executive Director Tala Manassah during Morningside Center’s workshop


Tala Manassah and I had a terrific time at the first-ever SEL Exchange, launched by CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning), an institution Morningside Center has long collaborated with. 

As Tala and I planned Morningside Center’s workshop, and the three days at the Chicago gathering, I had considerable time to reflect more deeply about how SEL contributes to whole school transformation.
Our workshop was titled Racial Equity in Our Schools: SEL is Necessary But Not Sufficient. Tala explained to participants our perspective, based on Morningside Center’s three decades of experience, and on a groundbreaking approach she and our i3 Whole School Racial Equity team have been developing over the last three years

  • We believe that SEL must be modulated through a culturally competent and intersectional approach – or else it will perpetuate inequity.
  • Restorative practices, especially the circle process, provide a powerful container for building community and practicing SEL skills.
  • Educators are hungry to talk about race and how it intersects with SEL and school culture and climate more broadly. We need to give them opportunities to have that conversation. This was well-demonstrated at the SELExchange by the delightfully large group that showed up for our workshop.

The essential connection between SEL and equity was hit home in the conference’s powerful last plenary, Building a Culture of Equity through SEL. In the session, organized by Rob Jagers, Vice President of Research at CASEL and Melissa Schlinger, Vice President of Practice & Programs at CASEL, five panelists engaged in a rich discussion of experiences.


Panelist slide

Building a Culture of Equity through SEL panel


Slide and panelists photo

Panelists: Dena Simmons, Meena Srinivasan,
Taryn Ishida, & Roberto Rivera

Each speaker made a compelling case for using SEL in our work, but stressed that we cannot stop there. Taryn Ishida said that in her work with Californians for Justice, organizers advocate for institutional work to build “relationship-centered” schools – but that one also needs to do the individual work of confronting learned bias, stereotypes, and norms of a white supremacy culture. 

As Dr. Dena Simmons stated at one point, “we are not going to SEL-away oppression.”

We at Morningside Center take that comment to heart. We have learned that SEL skills are key as we engage in what Glenn Singleton calls “courageous conversations on race.” They are also key in tapping the power of restorative practices. Circles and other trust-building activities are a place where we can practice and develop our SEL skills, enabling us to create the culture of belonging we all crave. Students deeply need this opportunity to be vulnerable and take risks in a safe learning environment – the kind of place that punitive cultures stifle. (A new friend I met at the SELExchange has a TedX talk on the very subject: Gail Markin, From the Langley School District in Vancouver, CA.)

Thanks to all of the CASEL staff who created a vibrant space for 1500+ of us to learn and build community. We hope to see you next year!

See below for more photos from the conference!


Tala & Connie

Morningside Center Deputy Executive Director Tala Manassah with retired Executive Director of School Culture & Climate for NYC Department of Education, Connie Cuttle 


Cassie & Meria

Morningside Center Executive Director Cassie Schwerner with Meria Joel Carstarphen, Superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools


Nicole & Anne

New Morningside Center staff developer Nicole Lavonne Smith & Anne Gregory presenting on restorative practices work they did in Brooklyn


Morningside Center slide at SEL Exchange