Schools should provide cultural- and trauma-informed SEL, not require students’ resiliency



By Carla Balvaneda


For centuries, students of color across the country have been disproportionately placed in underperforming schools and subjected to exclusionary discipline practices, often as result of the criminalization of their low-socioeconomic status and racial or ethnic identities.


There is a common misconception that education serves as an equalizer, atoning for social policy failures: income inequality, housing segregation, the list goes on. However, without addressing the socio-political policies that criminalize and generationally oppress youth of color, cyclically producing inequitable schools, we cannot reach equitable educational opportunities and outcomes. Schools remain a place that allows for the production of an anomaly, a student who is able to “succeed” despite their circumstances. However, structural issues are neglected because these anomalies serve as false hope, failing to address systemic racism and oppression of communities at large.


The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated and highlighted the historical disparities that are prevalent in today’s contemporary education system. The inability and instability of many students, particularly Black and brown students, to attend and actively engage in their virtual classrooms across K-12 grade levels served as a “painful reminder that not every child has secure access to computers and Wi-Fi, much less to food, housing, and other necessities that would allow them to stay focused on school during a national emergency.”


The United States’ public K-12 education system serves approximately 50 million students with a racial and ethic breakdown as follows: 45.9% white, 28% Hispanic/Latinx, 15% Black, 5.4% Asian, 0.9% Native American/Alaska Native, 0.4% Pacific Islander, and 4.5% identifying with two or more races. The proxy measure that serves as an indication of the population of low-income students across schools is the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) which identifies students eligible for free or reduced lunch. In 2018, students of color were disproportionately overrepresented—45% of Black students, 44% of Hispanic/Latinx students, 37% Native American/Alaska Native, 24% Pacific Islander—in schools deemed high-poverty, more than 75% of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.


Students’ identities and experiences are multi-faceted, and educators often bear the brunt of working through generational and state-sanctioned systemic failures, without substantial support and tools to help students healthily process their experiences. A study conducted by the Department of Justice found that over 60% of children had one or more direct exposure(s) to violence, crime, or abuse; additionally, students living in under-resourced communities are more vulnerable to exposure to trauma. These experiences often result in untreated feelings of anxiety, aggression, distractedness, and behavioral challenges that can be perceived as willful defiance.


Social and emotional learning (SEL) has been defined as a process in which people “acquire and apply core competencies to recognize and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, appreciate the perspectives of others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, make responsible decisions, and handle personal and interpersonal situations constructively.” With school belonging serving as a critical factor for student well-being, academic efficacy, and motivation, SEL programs have become increasingly popular.


However, if these programs are not culturally-sustaining and trauma-informed, “schools will continue to be institutions that mystify the colonial reality and place the onus of social and emotional health on the very young people whose social stressors have been shaped because of dispossession and marginalization.” The United States’ public school system has a history of miseducating youth of color; through forced assimilation and reproduction of white normativity that views other cultural and linguistic conventions as inferior, students from marginalized communities are often alienated from their own identities.


By acknowledging and upholding the value of each student’s racial/ethnic and cultural identities, recognizing the ongoing impacts of historical oppressional contexts, and adapting pedagogical practices to students’ backgrounds, schools can begin to serve as places of affirmation and belonging. In order to be trauma-informed and healing-centered, schools and educators need to understand the effects of trauma in children, their communities, and in educators themselves. By helping students process their behaviors in restorative manners, moving beyond individual behaviors and comprehending that the behavioral challenges may be a consequence of structural harm, schools can adopt practices that center community healing and growth.


Through the adoption of critically-conscious frameworks, communities that have been historically oppressed by the workings of capitalism and colonialism are granted the humanization to which they are entitled. Students from marginalized communities should not have to prove “resilience” by “succeeding” in a white, normative, and historically inequitable education system. Every day that these students survive is a sign of their resiliency. The glamorization of resiliency is dangerous; it removes accountability from the systemic issues that have required these students to become resilient in the first place. Rather than attacking systems of inequity that perpetuate oppression, these issues are viewed as individual matters and indicators of a single person’s capabilities. With the promotion of agency and active resistance, schools can start addressing the needs the American education system has failed to serve across generations.