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4 ways to make SEL more culturally relevant

Strategies to help teachers be mindful and supportive of their students' various identities and unique strengths during SEL instruction.

8 min read


4 ways to make SEL more culturally relevant


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Today’s classroom communities are filled with students from diverse backgrounds who bring their own unique identities, experiences, and cultural assets to school with them each day. In the year 2000, 39% of students enrolled in US public schools were Black, Indigenous or people of color. By 2017, that number had grown to 52% and is projected to steadily rise over the next decade

Accordingly, educators are increasingly turning to culturally relevant teaching and equity-informed instructional strategies to help them support their students’ academic growth and social-emotional learning. Their instincts are validated by the actions of thought leaders in SEL, such as the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, which recently updated its framework to highlight identity, agency, belonging, and related issues such as privilege and social justice as critical aspects of SEL.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for creating culturally relevant SEL instruction but there are a few simple ways educators can make their SEL teaching more inclusive and effective for diverse student populations. These four strategies can help teachers be mindful and supportive of their students’ various identities and unique strengths during SEL instruction. 

Elevate student voice

Using the strategy of elevating student voice can help SEL feel more authentic and affirming to students no matter their backgrounds. By promoting and building on students’ knowledge and experiences during SEL instruction, teachers communicate two important ideas to students: that what students know and who they are matters; and that SEL is relevant to students’ own lives. Tailoring your SEL instructional approach to honor what students already know can help students feel a stronger sense of belonging and confidence. For example, when teaching a concept, ask learners to share what they already know about it, what it means to them, or how they’ve used it—before giving them the definition. 

Additionally, learning about and incorporating students’ past experiences can help teachers make SEL instruction relevant and meaningful to students, which consequently makes students more likely to apply these social-emotional skills in their real lives. For example, when teaching problem-solving, adapt example scenarios to reflect conflicts that have come up recently or issues present in your students’ communities. Specific strategies to elevate student’s voice include adding questions or polls to your SEL teaching that elicit student opinions and especially student rationale; tailoring scenarios and skill-practice activities to students’ interests, past experiences, and cultures; and allowing students some choices and freedom about how to interact with content (such as writing about it, role-playing or acting, drawing a picture, or starting a group project). 

Celebrate differences 

Another strategy for supporting culturally relevant SEL is to take the time to intentionally and actively celebrate differences in your classroom community. By highlighting how diversity strengthens and adds to their classroom community, teachers can show students that differences aren’t just “okay,” but that they make our community better. For example, showcase students’ linguistic and cultural assets by using SEL to give them a platform for sharing their strengths with you and their peers. (“By sharing emotions words in your home language, we all learned a new emotion we would have never known about.” “If Jasmine hadn’t had a different perspective, we wouldn’t have thought of that solution!”) Focus on student strengths as opposed to deficits (such as using the term “emerging bilingual” vs. “English language learner”).

While honoring differences, it is also essential to think about how you use the word “different.” Different from what? Are these differences between all cultures, or compared to a dominant one like the white middle-class culture? Avoid ‘othering’ students by refraining from defining and labeling them as not fitting in with or being different from “us.” Reinforce that we are all unique and all have strengths. Instead of comparing students to a dominant culture’s norms, help students understand that because social-emotional skills look different across people and contexts, there are many ways to be successful at growing those skills. For example, when teaching students how to be kind, educators can help students understand that there are many ways to show kindness and just as many ways that others receive it. The more we can attune our social-emotional skills to the differences in others’ perspectives, values, and needs, the more successful we’ll be in learning those skills. (For example, when people are upset, some may want company or a hug, but others would prefer to be given some space.) Social-emotional learning is an incredibly effective platform for celebrating diversity because mastering social-emotional competencies, such as perspective-taking, relationship skills, empathy, and conflict resolution, inherently require students to learn how to efficiently connect with others who see and experience the world differently than they do. 

Emphasize the collective

Based on their cultural backgrounds and upbringings, some students will endorse a more individualistic worldview (prioritizing the needs and desires of the self), while others will more closely identify with a collectivist orientation (prioritizing the needs and goals of the group). By emphasizing the collective or community aspects of SEL, teachers can help collectivist-oriented students see how their cultural assets are valued and build a tighter connection between their home and school identities. For students with an individualistic lens, emphasizing their role within communities and their impact on others can help them be successful contributors to the communities in which they belong.

Teachers can guide students to examine and apply social-emotional skills to support their individual competencies but also to improve their communities by fostering collective agency and civic empowerment. This could look like providing information about—and encouraging learners to consider—the impacts on “us” instead of just “me” when making decisions, setting goals, or managing conflict. Show students how to take both the individualistic and collectivist viewpoints on social-emotional skills. For example, you might discuss how empathy can be used at the individual level to build friendships and at the community level to promote social activism and tackle community problems. 

Provide ‘Mirrors and Windows’ 

When illustrating SEL concepts, present a variety of examples so that all students are exposed to what Emily Style calls mirrors (that reflect their own culture) and windows (that offer unfamiliar views into someone else’s experiences). When students recognize themselves, their families, and their culture reflected back to them in positive and affirming ways, they can feel a greater sense of belonging and see a clearer picture of how SEL applies to their lives. Equally important, by working with students to explore how other people see and interact with the world differently, teachers can help students learn about others and develop an appreciation for differences. 

Using mirrors and windows could look like choosing scenarios or stories that feature people who represent diverse racial and ethnic groups engaging in culturally specific experiences; it may also look like making sure to explain anything that may be unfamiliar to students from a particular background so all students have the opportunity to engage with content. For example, you might use a scenario about making tamales for a family event, braiding a younger sister’s hair, or attending a powwow with a grandfather as a way to kick off a class discussion about what kindness looks like. 

Whenever possible, bring students’ identities and cultures to bear on a given question or task; this may look like asking, “How do people in your family show they care?” Teachers can guide students to explore how these aspects of their identities, their experiences, and their cultural backgrounds influence how they act and think. For example, teachers may ask students to consider how past experiences or historical inequalities may affect someone’s point of view, or challenge students to think about how social-emotional skills can be used differently in different contexts (“Would you pick a different solution if this problem was with your sibling vs. your friend? Why?”) By showing more than one illustration of what social-emotional skills can look like, teachers can acknowledge and honor that learners inhabit varied experiences, identities, contexts, and cultures.  

Cailin Currie, Ph.D., is a research scientist and an applied developmental psychologist at Committee for Children. She leads research for Second Step® Elementary digital program, the organization’s new SEL program for grades K–5.

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