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Social & Emotional Programs Must be Anti-racist and Trauma-informed

by Sara Kotzin & Phyllis Solomon - September 17, 2020

As educators envision school for Fall 2020, they are charged with balancing physical safety and emotional health. Schools therefore face an urgency to address trauma, inequity, and racism that has been exacerbated by the global pandemic. This commentary urges schools to prioritize an intersectional approach to social and emotional health that disrupts racism and simultaneously acknowledges trauma and inequity. There will be temptation to rely on Social and Emotional Learning programs (SEL) as there is a widespread yet false assumption that the manualized programming can meet these needs while managing a classroom. However, SELs do not incorporate an anti-racist, trauma-informed practice.

Understanding that racism is harmful to social, emotional (and physical) health, and trauma is an emotional injury, the use of SELs without interrogation or modification is undermining the stated goal of building safety. School personnel have many once unimaginable considerations to prepare for: i.e., how to enforce safety with space and masks while considering appropriate child development; how to create a sense of connection from a distance. Rather than silo the issues of trauma, racism, equity, and mental health that these and many other considerations expose, schools can (and we will argue, must) use a trauma-informed, anti-racist lens as the foundation to evaluate all emotional health programming and classroom management plans, including, but not limited to, SELs.

The social and emotional learning movement known as SEL began 30 years ago as a framework to address classroom fragmentation. SELs are connected under the umbrella organization Collaborative to Advance Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), the largest source of SEL research. Goals and fees vary among programs, which address topics such as bullying, depression, aggression, anxiety, dating violence, and academic achievement (Brackett & Rivers, 2014; Brown et al., 2004). SELs do not directly claim to address trauma, yet CASEL materials mention trauma enough implying that they do (CASEL, 2019b). The ambiguous language promotes the reasonable assumption that SELs are trauma-informed, or in alignment with the tenets of a trauma-informed system, when neither is true. Lacking the ecological framing provided by a trauma-informed lens reinforces the notion that aggression, depression, or poor attendance exist in a vacuum, ignoring their roots in the larger socio-environmental context.

The global pandemic has brought the issue of childhood trauma to the forefront, which has been understood by child development experts as an undertreated public health concern for years. The expanded Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) tool found that more than 86% of respondents had been exposed to at least one ACE, a figure bound to increase as data captures the current crises, and the disproportional impact COVID and quarantine have had on Black and Brown communities (Fortuna et al., 2020). The uncertainty, losses, and economic fallout have been traumatic and increased the vulnerability for children living in precarious situations. In highlighting the extent of the intersection of trauma and racism and the ways in which “racism leads to further trauma”, findings underscore the complex web of emotional, social, academic, and developmental reactions (Finkelhor et al., 2011; Levy et al. 2016).

Trauma-informed refers to a movement, rather than a specific program, in which all staff are regarded as stakeholders in the process of shifting institutionalized culture to promote safety and functional dynamics (Bloom, 1994; Cole et al., 2013). A trauma-informed system holds adults responsible for four specific actions: realizing the effects of trauma; recognizing trauma symptoms; responding through changes in practice and policy; and actively avoiding re-traumatization .  

In contrast, SEL’s 5 core values, presented as tools to empowerment, place the onus on children to create safety: (a) self-awareness, (b) self-management, (c) social-awareness, (d) relationship skills, and (e) responsible decision-making (CASEL, 2019a). Although there is acknowledgement of the existence of violence in the lives of children in SEL research, actual programming does not recognize systemic racism or underlying trauma. Although the effort to prevent further violence is often explicitly stated, lacking an ecological approach, there is no acknowledgement of the impact of existing violence in a child’s life, which is likely impacting negative behavior. This is akin to a doctor medicating a patient for hives without considering any precipitating allergies.

Principal researchers at CASEL surmises children’s lack of social emotional competency leads them to become less connected to school, thus resulting in poor academic performance . Interestingly, the research of Blum and Libbey  cited to support this claim puts the obligation for school connectedness on adults in the school, not the child. Amplifying the role of personal responsibility in SELs sends the flawed message that the impacted person is the problem and the system is fair . It inherently ignores the backdrop of trauma that is influencing behavior and leads to subtle—or not so subtle—victim blaming, even if inadvertently (Gregory & Fergus, 2017).   

Understanding that racism is widespread, tightly intertwined with trauma, and a form of traumatic violence, it is essential that programs are examined with an anti-racist lens. As the current protest movement is once again highlighting, our nation’s history of systemic racism and the default stance of silencing those impacted, is a reminder that no system or program can be assumed to be anti-racist; a system must be deliberate and active in their stance against racism in order to be anti-racist . Implementing a trauma-informed lens does not therefore presume a program is anti-racist, but the tenets can be used in the examination: realizing the impact and pervasiveness of racism; recognizing tools of racial violence such as gaslighting, “silence, social dissociation, and separation from responsibility” (Case & Hemmings, 2005, p. 606); and responding through changes in practice and policy to decenter whiteness and validate BIPOC experience, all coming together to actively avoid re-traumatization (Stevenson, 2008). Well-intentioned and empathic programs without action are inadvertently supporting racism .    

Critics and supporters have been vocal about ways SELs ignore racism and/or perpetuate it when children of color easily get labeled with “SEL ‘deficits’”. CASEL rolled out “Transformative SEL,” adding so-called “equity elaborations” to each core value (Jagers et al., 2018), however, these elaborations do not correct for the lack of an ecological frame or support an anti-racist approach as the focus remains on the impacted child as the agent of change. Under “Self-Management” there is an elaboration for (presumably) children of color to cope with “acculturative stress… discrimination/prejudice,” while elaborations for (presumably) white children include passive language such as “discerning the importance of diversity” (Jagers, et al., 2018, slide 19). This misplacement of dysfunction on the impacted child is itself oppressive and deeply harmful.  

Being able to self-regulate is an essential component of emotional health that children (and adults) need more than ever. SELs mention self-regulation, yet the suggested exercises presume an audience of non-traumatized brains. Children regularly exposed to danger are flooded with cortisol to their brain, creating a chronic state of fight-or-flight  which can be lifesaving for a child living in a violent home (Courtois & Ford, 2009). This hijacking of (the part of the brain known as) the amygdala means a child cannot simply self-regulate on command and “control his or her feelings, cognitions, beliefs and actions”. To cope with predictable unpredictability, they become hyper-vigilant, intensely tracking others’ behavior to protect themselves from surprise attacks. With COVID as a current threat and physical hypervigilance a necessity, traumatized bodies are primed for this and their system may stay on high alert. Rather than, “‘What is wrong with you?’, the adult can wonder ‘What has happened to you?’” . When integrated with an anti-racist lens, adults should ask themselves, how are we going to stop abusing our power? .                     

An intersectional lens ensures the goal for self-regulating is emotional health rather than discipline. The practice encourages orienting, noticing, naming, and tolerating sensation in the body, thus allowing the system to settle (Stevenson & Stevenson, 2013; Tippit, 2020; van der Kolk et al., 2014). Staff leading our students through this crisis are themselves impacted and likely to be compensating with trauma-based responses. Compassion for students must be extended to staff, and staff to themselves. They also need tools to notice and name their triggers and reactions.

Rather than satisfying a checklist, an anti-racist, trauma-informed approach will encourage ongoing practice. Empowering children who are targets of racial violence and/or coping with trauma while simultaneously charging adults to take action requires a commitment to institutional and personal self-reflection. For many, school has been the safe place in their life; during this time of uncertainty, schools still have the ability to create safety.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 17, 2020
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23435, Date Accessed: 10/21/2020 4:00:18 AM

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About the Author
  • Sara Kotzin
    Borough of Manhattan Community College
    E-mail Author
    SARA KOTZIN, DSW, is a licensed clinical social worker, trauma-therapist and adjunct professor at Borough of Manhattan Community College.
  • Phyllis Solomon
    University of Pennsylvania
    E-mail Author
    PHYLLIS SOLOMON, Ph.D., is the Kenneth L. Pray Chair Professor in Social Policy & Practice and Associate Dean for Research, School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.
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