Focusing on SEL and Equity to Ensure Program Success

Yesterday marked the first anniversary of the murder of George Floyd. Although it was not the first time an individual was killed by a police officer, the killing of Mr. Floyd by a police officer united protesters worldwide to march against systemic racism and police brutality. Numerous protests were organized in support of Black Lives Matter and people of all races, gender, age, and socio-economic status went out on the streets demanding justice for Mr. Floyd. 

All these happened amid a global pandemic, which affected the Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) and other marginalized groups disproportionately. Like I mentioned in a previous blog, the uncertainties, lost opportunities, career setbacks, and physical, mental, and economic hardships have affected us all. No youth is spared from the effects of the pandemic either.

Although we keep hearing phrases like “we are all in this together,” I am afraid that we are not. I agree that we are all experiencing this storm together. However, we are in our own boats. Our experience is different based on the availability or the lack of resources and support. Thus, we need to acknowledge that youth will enter our program with different needs. It is equally crucial to provide resources that an individual needs to make summer feel different and fun. Youths want to feel the joy of being youth around other youths.

Youth service providers must focus on an individual’s social and emotional needs and equity to ensure overall program success. 

We don’t always know what is going on in youth’s lives and youths may hesitate to discuss their challenges. This highlights the importance of creating an equitable and nurturing environment for youths to connect with each other and access the support they need. There’s a great overlap across SEL, trauma-informed work, and equity. “A trauma-informed, SEL, cultural awareness model of supports allows (educators) to create a safe environment to address trauma and SEL skill-building, while also tapping into the strengths and opportunities of students’ culture. In this way, prevention assets don’t just build on each other, they multiply,” says Dr. Gregory Leskin, Ph.D, Director at UCLA/Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

Five barriers that mainly contribute to inequitable access to a high-quality SEL education are as follows: 
  1. Poverty
  2. Implicit bias in staff
  3. Exclusionary disciplinary practices and policies that affect students of color and marginalized youth disproportionately
  4. Lack of trauma-informed practices
  5. Stress and burnout among educators and staff

These barriers cannot be eliminated by one solution or strategy. However, if we approach each of them with an equity lens and see growth opportunities, that’d serve our students well. Please consider the following strategies/suggestions to support students and staff for the overall success of your program:

  1. Reveal the concealed: More than often, the behavior itself is not a problem. It is the way youths communicate their needs. Like a baby crying to communicate the need for food or water, youths use their behavior to communicate their unmet needs. Thus, we must try our best to reveal what is concealed behind their behavior. Instead of quickly jumping to conclusions and hence disciplinary actions, we must take time to understand the challenges youths are facing. We must never have a unidimensional view of behavior. Instead, we must see behavior as multidimensional. We must adhere to the “BOTH/AND” narrative of behavior. For example, how often do we see anger as a fear response? How about avoidance/defiance as a result of low self-esteem?
  • Change the narrative: We need to acknowledge the challenges that come with serving diverse communities. However, if we start seeing diversity as our strength, there’s incredible power in our differences. Thus, it is important to acknowledge and celebrate differences while appreciating the commonalities among us. It sends a powerful message to the students to mark holidays from different cultures and religions on your calendar. 
  • Focus on your social and emotional wellbeing: Your well-being and interactions with youths dictate the experiences youths will have in your program. Thus, it is important to focus on your social and emotional wellbeing and communicate your needs with students and colleagues. Please consider thinking about the following:
    • How do you detect stress in yourself and others? 
    • Who do you talk to/rely on for help/support when stressed?
    • What do you need to do to recharge?
  • Training and professional development opportunities: Training and professional development opportunities focused on implicit bias, youth development, and youth voice must be provided. Please see for the list of trainings provided by Vermont Afterschool.

We don’t have to preserve/promote what’s not working for us. Our willingness to let go of things or policies that are creating/promoting inequalities is vital in providing the most wonderful summer to our youth. They deserve nothing less and we must be bold enough to pick a line to promote equity in our program.