Most of us did not experience Culturally Responsive SEL, but that is the exact reason we should get good at it

Most of us did not experience Culturally Responsive SEL, but that is the exact reason we should get good at it


By: Lyrica Fils-Aimé


Administrators love throwing this word around and are constantly requiring educators to implement SEL in schools, libraries, camp programs, and wherever children exist. But the institutions are doing harm by half-assing it and not supporting true implementation methods.


In 2013 my colleagues and I were tasked with implementing a curriculum, by a very prominent and white institution. Sounded good to me-- It was great to have it all done for us. They even sent us multiple copies of the books we would read for each lesson. The lessons included learning objectives, feelings check ins, activities, discussion questions, outcomes, and a closing activity with takeaways. It was incredibly helpful. I did not have to come up with and prepare entire hour-long lessons of life skills material. I could focus on my teaching style-- as a social worker, I wasn’t used to being in front of the classroom of 25 children, so having these lessons made it a bit easier. 


The curriculum even had characters and vocabulary that would become part of the children’s lexicon and classroom strategies we would teach in the lessons, alongside classroom teachers, to be able to implement during moments of big feelings throughout the school day. 


Occasionally, I’d think to myself, ‘Would this curriculum be used in a white school?’ Perhaps. But not to this extent. There was an inherent undertone in the curriculum and in the school of, We need to teach these children how to act. While the curriculum was written to be accessible for any child, it was written to make Black children act better, listen better--- and be… better. 


To be clear, this is racism.


For the last 15 years in education for Black and Brown students, there have been explicit and implicit sentiments: “We have to teach children what their parents can’t and won’t teach them.” I heard this during my first stint in NYC education and I’ll never forget it. 


The leader of the session said that Black parents told their children simply and clearly to, “Sit down” while white parents and thus the mostly white teaching staff, would be more apt to say, “Have a seat.” I went to my supervisor--- “This feels a little strange to have an entire session on how to talk to Black children.” Where was the middle ground for a Black family that lived in this community but also used that “white” standardized language? What about white families who did not conform to the white standard? Immigrants? There was no middle ground. It was classism and racism. 


Back to my life skills classes---When a child came to school after their building burnt down to the ground and neighbors died, the curriculum had lessons on empathy we could use, but nothing intense enough for a situation like that. We had to be creative in supporting the child, the child’s friends who were worried about their own homes, and the power possible behind a school who wanted to rally for this family. Where was the material that children actually faced in the world, outside of “Making and Keeping Friends” or “Managing Angry Feelings”? 


Or, when a child came to school talking about domestic violence in their home, and other children related to this experience, there were no books suggested for that. And of course, nothing for the educator to deal with their own experiences of domestic violence. A student of mine had recently commented on my own black eye that I thought was covered up enough with makeup. I was teaching my students not to be violent, but showing up with the violence on my face. I had work to do.


I found myself creating new lessons, inserting real-life material, like “What Do We Do When a Family Member Goes Away,” when I found out a student I had known for years had a father in prison. I incorporated texts like “Visiting Day” and “When My Daddy Went to Jail” (evidenced by my 2015 Amazon purchase history) and I learned three other students visited siblings and step-parents in prison. 


It was clunky and I was testing it out all on my own, but I had to do it. As a cis-hetero Black, first-generation immigrant educator with class and able-body privilege, I knew I didn’t get enough of these conversations, and my students were not getting them either. 


After having talks about having a family member ‘away,’ I also had to talk to my students about mass incarceration. Some students believed jail was an inevitable experience for them, but they didn’t know why they thought that. We had to go there---into the history of the carceral system and how it started with slavery, and how Black people are criminalized and our communities are stigmatized. Then we had to talk about how white folx commit crimes, too, despite my students’ beliefs that they didn’t. We had to get into it. Deep down into the dirty, ugly and difficult conversations- with kindergarteners and fourth graders. 


I had to swiftly become proficient in things I was teaching myself. I had to re-read The New Jim Crow, this time with the intent of translating it to learning objectives. I had to help the adults in my school building be able to talk about the world, into a cavernous and scary pit of harmful history, and the world’s current events with fidelity. I had to deal with my own biases and beliefs around incarceration and deal with my own arrest (shoplifting) from my teenage years.


After a discussion on different kinds of families, a parent came to tell me she didn’t appreciate her child hearing about same sex relationships. Her homophobia came in the form of “My child is too young..” and “If I want him to know about that, it has to be me to teach him.” Another parent reminded me that she was different from the parents here, but she ‘chose’ to put her children in this school to keep them grounded. So now, we had homophobia and classism on the table. 


More to discuss in the classroom. 


My students had questions and I had to find the texts that they could relate to, the validation they needed, and the conversations and guidance they required to make decisions for themselves. I had to deal with my own social emotional abilities and decision making skills. And, with my students’ families concern that their child was learning language around the things they were already seeing.


It was during a current event discussion on the Flint, Michigan Water Crisis that I realized I had to implement something to offer control of our own liberation. We were seeing images of children boiling water on the news and my students started talking about facing their own community issues. We were: 

1) learning-- powered with information, 

2) dealing with our emotions, 

3) working on necessary skills, 

but now they needed to know they could do something about the issues if they wanted to. 


We looked to our own community. Some students were charged by the increased truck idling in their neighborhood, contributing to the monstrous rates of asthma in children. Some understood the experience of being treated unfairly by systems and felt powered up to write to government officials about their inaction regarding Flint. Others decided to make video letters to share on social media about their corrupt landlords who kept the heat off in their apartments in the winter. 


We discussed the issues-- armed ourselves with the information- who was causing the harm? Who was making the decisions?; we hammered through our emotions- irate and enraged at the lack of care for our Black bodies, empathetic for those suffering; considered our socio-political context- who did this affect? What did parents think? Were our communities privileged or disadvantaged? Who was hurt the most? Were we thinking about people with disabilities?; And, the students decided what they wanted to do for liberation-- theirs and on behalf of those they related to. 


It was beautiful. We were so beyond “Active Listening.” 


SEL can be done well. It takes effort, and of course, teachers and other educators have enough to think about. But the children do indeed depend on it. 


If you are interested in practicing this, join Lyrica for a series titled “Creating true + equitable social emotional learning in schools” for 4 Thursdays between January 28th and February 29th.

Register Here


Lyrica Fils-Aimé is a Black social worker, therapist and writer.