Main Points

  • School Leaders Focusing on Social-Emotional Learning
  • 6 Key Considerations of Social-Emotional Learning
  • Measuring Social-Emotional Learning
  • Checking for Bias
  • Inclusion of Staff, Leaders, and Communities
  • Framework for School Leaders Serving Diverse Learners
  • Interviewing Potential Candidates with SEL-Related Questions

Dr. Sheldon Eakins: (00:00)

Welcome, Advocates, to another episode of the Leading Equity Podcast, a podcast that focuses on supporting educators with the tools and resources necessary to ensure equity at their school. Today we're going to be talking about social-emotional learning. I have Ms. Kate Kennedy with us. She is the author of "Centering Equity and Caring and Leadership for Social-Emotional Learning Toward a Conceptual Framework for Diverse Learners." So, without further ado, Kate, thank you so much for joining us today. 

Kennedy: (00:31)

Thanks for having me on. This is fun. 

Eakins: (00:33)

This is going to be fun. We've been chatting a little bit before we started recording, so I'm really excited to talk with you. But before we get into our interview officially, could you share a little bit about who you are and what you're currently doing? 

Kennedy: (00:47)

Sure. I'm a researcher. I'm currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California, looking at social-emotional learning and related policies. So, I'm about halfway through my program, but I'm really a teacher at heart. I taught for a decade. I taught in Los Angeles schools -- so, the urban system and I taught in a suburban system in my hometown in Ohio. So, you know, with all the work that I do and the research, I'm always thinking about teachers and leaders on the ground and how research can serve them and what we can learn from them. I'm excited to talk about talking about this with you. 

Eakins: (01:19)

Alright, well, this is going to be good. And thank you for sharing and much love to you and luck to you as you're proceeding through your Ph.D. program over at USC. I've heard very good things about USC and their programs from there: Rossier School of Education that's over there at USC. Is that the right one? 

Kennedy: (01:36)

It's Rossier, that's right. 

Eakins: (01:38)

Rossier. Okay. Alright, cool. Well again, thank you for being on the show, and let's jump into it. So, when we talk about equity, social-emotional learning, that topic often comes up. And you do research from the leadership perspective of things. And I want to know how might a school leader place an equity-oriented lens on SEL? 

Kennedy: (02:02)

Yeah, I mean, I love that question. I think the first thing to do if you want to focus on equity, and we can argue that you should focus on equity and social-emotional learning is just start talking about it. The way this paper came to be, Sheldon, is I was doing research on social-emotional learning. I'm really excited about the topic, interested in seeing what was out in the field, and I was surprised at how little talk there was about equity and social-emotional learning. I looked everywhere. I spent a long time doing research actually, and I sort of talked about this in the paper, that there seems to be a real hole in the way we've considered social-emotional learning from an equity-oriented perspective. There are lots of good folks doing equity work. There are lots of good folks doing care work, but I'm not sure that the parties who are doing social-emotional learning work; they're always talking, and that's changed a little bit since I first started writing that paper a few years back. But I think to answer your question, the first thing is just to start talking about it, that we care about equity, that we're censoring equity and that we're going to, just like we've been talking about for decades now in our academic curriculum, you know, making it culturally relevant, [inaudible] culturally sustaining pedagogies. We need to be doing the same with our social-emotional learning arts discipline work as well. 

Eakins: (03:14)

I love that. I love that. You know, again we're having these conversations, and I think that's so important and I asked you to prepare a few considerations if I'm looking at it again from a leadership perspective, I asked you to talk about, maybe, what are some key considerations that you have found within your research on what school leaders must address when leading SEL programs for diverse learners. So, let's start with the first one. 

Kennedy: (03:42)

Yeah. And so I've got six, I just want to list six real fast and then go through them. So, the first one gets clear on what SEL is, and it isn't. The second one includes all the folks. The third is to consider the bigger picture. The fourth is think about the measurement and how you're using that. The fifth is center caring in your work. And the sixth is to remember that we're all still learning. So I'd like to jump into the first one on getting clear on what SEL is and isn't. You know there's the capital organizations which are very prominent in the field they've been about for decades, and they sort of have these big size areas of social-emotional learning. It's self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. In some places, that's all they're doing in other places. They're not doing any of those. 

Kennedy: (04:26)

But I think what we're learning in the field is that you can go in and ask teachers and leaders in the same place what SEL is and we're hearing different things. So, the first thing I think leaders need to do is get really clear on what aspect of social-emotional learning they're going to focus on. I would argue that those five leave out some really big things such as a focus on caring, such as a collective responsibility for the wellness and social justice of our communities. And they kind of leave out cultural competence. And again, that's shifting and evolving in the field. But when you look at those first two -- self-awareness and self-management -- they're very focused on the individual. And many of us would argue that we need to shift our focus to the collective. I think leaders need to really maybe question those big five, focus on one or two at a time, and think about the collective as well as the individual. 

Eakins: (05:16)

Okay. And let's go to number two. Remind me which one was number you read through them kind of fast. I was trying to write them down. 

Kennedy: (05:25)

Number two, I'm just calling include all the folks, right? So, locate your community assets. Build those up as a community instead of -- I sometimes think when people think about social-emotional learning, they think about it as what kids are lacking. So, you know, our kids, you know, they're not organized. We have got to teach them self-management. Well, we've got a lot of assets in our communities and our families and our kids. What are those, and how can we build them up collectively in the greater consideration of a social justice orientation? How can we include teachers in these conversations -- students, community members -- so not filling in what's missing, but building up what we want to be together. Right? Lifting one another up as a collective may also be a more culturally responsive approach to SEL as opposed to this hyper-focus on the individual grit. I love grit. Everyone loves grit, perseverance. We love those things, but they're very individualized and may not be appropriate. It may not be, actually, all we want to convey to our kids and family. 

Eakins: (06:25)

I like how you're stressing the importance of the community, the collective, you know you're saying those words because you're right, because often SEL is individually based as far as the focus goes, so I like that you include all the folks in, you know, not just your students, not just your teachers, but your parents. Those who are involved, the stakeholders there for the school. Let's move to number three. 

Kennedy: (06:48)

Yeah. Number three is thinking about the bigger picture. Another thing I've seen in my research on social-emotional learning is sometimes it's seen as this thing that we do, and it's off to the side, and it's, you know, a curriculum we hand to our guidance counselors, or it's boxes of a certain program that all the third-grade teachers do on the second Tuesday of the month. But that can't be divorced from our conversations about being anti-racist, anti-sexist pro-LGBTQ students or queer aware even in the elementary schools. So, I think being considerate of how, if this is about emotions and about the way we feel, that's about identity, and you can't learn in a system where you feel like you're being attacked because of the way you look or who you are. 

Eakins: (07:32)

You're exactly right. So let's move to number four. What was that one again? 

Kennedy: (07:38)

Number four was, consider the measurements that you're using. So, we are starting to measure social-emotional learning in some places you can buy these tests. There are big companies that do this for you, which seems like a good idea on its face. There's this mantra in our field that "what gets measured gets done." And I think in some places that's true, but I also think that maybe the measurements may not be accurate. So, just like we see in our academic accountability data, we see these gaps, maybe biracial subgroups. We're starting to see those with social-emotional learning as well. And anytime I see something like I think, "Okay, is the test biased? Is it the right test for my community?" So, I think measuring is good, but how much, how often in some places that are starting to use formative assessments of the particular SEL competency that they're working on. That may be a better approach we don't really know yet, but just question the measurements and think about the measurements. 

Eakins: (08:30)

Could you dig a little deeper with that? Because I want to know, especially for those who may not be familiar with the measurements that are available out there for SEL. Like, talk a little bit more about what type of measurements are used and what they are measuring. And you did kind of touch on as far as how often, what would be some of your suggestions in that area as well? 

Kennedy: (08:51)

Yeah, we've got some districts in California that were part of a project where they were measuring some of these big sides like self-awareness, social awareness. And then we were looking at how folks were doing across the state and these various districts. But that only happened once a year. And what I heard some of the people say when I analyze that data was, you know, "we want something more frequent, we want something more formative." So, then they created their own, maybe monthly check-in, quick exit slip, "How are you feeling? What's happening with this particular competency?" And they felt like that was a little closer to their daily reality. But also they are now under ESSA we were required to state to include a non-academic measure. So, lots of folks are now measuring absenteeism and other disciplinary things and then connecting that to social-emotional learning competencies. 

Kennedy: (09:39)

So, that's sort of the big picture that you've got companies, too, that are selling some of these measures and you can customize those. So, if you're a district of buying power and you know you want to start measuring social-emotional learning, why not be in on that conversation about what are we measuring? Is it biased in any way? Is it matching what we're doing? The classroom level? Because I've heard teachers say to me, you know, "Oh yeah, we take those surveys, but we don't follow up. We don't do anything about it." And, for the social-emotional learning arena to be data-rich and information poor, we've already seen that with math and language arts. I'd hate for this to go the same way. So let's be real thoughtful if we're going to spend our time and resources on measuring social-emotional learning competencies, let's get it right. 

Eakins: (10:19)

Yeah, you're right. I mean, what are we doing with the data? How we're using it? And like you said, is that data being biased? Now here's a question, though, because I have a lot of conversations with folks in regards to bias and the question that I get often, it's like, "Well, what if I don't know that I'm being biased?" Like, what are some ways that we could really dig into that? Like how do we look in to see what biases are there? Like what strategies would you suggest? 

Kennedy: (10:45)

Right? Well, that goes back to number two, including all the folks. So if you have a committee of community members, parents, teachers, and students helping you come up with this, say three SEL competencies that you're going to focus on for the year, and then you're backing up, and you're saying, "Okay, how are we going to measure it?" They're going to catch some of that. So, I think the more inclusive we are from the beginning and the more thoughtful we are from the beginning, we're going to cut some of that out. But I'd also say, you know if we're only asking about self-awareness and self-management, right? But we're in a culture that is a more of a collective culture, like say on a reservation, then that's not appropriate. And that can be implicitly biased, I would say. 

Eakins: (11:24)

Yeah. So basically, what I'm hearing is we need to have all of the folks involved, not just a group of people who don't represent the community that they're serving, making these decisions. We're actually bringing in the students we're bringing in the parents. Now, would you suggest it from some sort of a board or task force or just maybe some sort of qualitative methods to gather this information, to check the biases that might be out there? 

Kennedy: (11:52)

Right. I mean, I think it depends where you are and how much time and resources you're willing to dedicate to this. Right? I think in the best places where this is really getting legs, and it's really sort of part of the way we do schools, it's part of the system. It's not the one staff meeting you had in October, and then we don't talk about it again. It's coming up over and over again. It's part of the after school clubs. It's part of the way we think about hiring staff. It's part of the conversation, and it's ongoing, and it's evolving. We're not going to get it right the first time. But if we keep at it, we keep talking about it, we keep thinking about it. Maybe we give a couple of assessments, and they come back, and we say, you know, that's not even what we meant to measure. Let's do it over again. That's okay. That's actually number six [which] is we're still learning, right? 

Kennedy: (12:34)

Still evolving. This work is in its infancy, right? It really is. 

Eakins: (12:39)

It is. It's in this infancy, and, like you said, it's not a one and done. It's ongoing. And that's important because sometimes we see these instances where, like you said, there's just that one, you know, beginning of the school year or maybe halfway into the school year, we address it. And not only do we address it, but we address it as part of an agenda item. So, it's SEL. Okay. And then now we're going to talk about the budget. Now we're going to talk about lesson planning and all these other things, but we're dedicating our time, we're embedding it into the culture, and we're really intentionally focused on social-emotional learning. So, I love that suggestion. So, let's move to number five. What do you have? 

Kennedy: (13:15)

Yeah, so number five is about centering caring. And I jokingly call it, but I'm really serious when I say we need to put the emotion back in social-emotional learning. You know you look at some of these big sides: self-awareness, self-management, social work. They're so clinical, and they're so cold. It's like somewhere along the way when we were measuring and researching and putting us into programs and policies, we forgot that this was inherently about emotion. You know, and these are crazy political times. People are scared, they're broken. We are feeling this pressure. I think it's time to take a step back and be gentle with ourselves. Put the emotion back in it and center caring and say that. Right. So we talked about what, what can leaders do? You say this is about caring. So not about clinically measuring this one construct of grit. This is about building up a collective sense of caring. 

Eakins: (14:08)

Okay. And I like putting the emotions back into social-emotional learning. Sometimes that might get left out. So I think being intentional about how we're approaching SEL, I think that's important. Now you did touch on number six, so bring it back to us one more time. What is the sixth consideration there? 

Kennedy: (14:27)

Yeah, I think it's -- we're still learning. We're in this together. It's evolving. They did a study recently in California asking principals if they felt prepared to lead social-emotional learning initiatives. And half of the principals said they didn't, they did not feel prepared by their principal program to lead these initiatives. So everyone's trying to figure it out or reading as much as we can. We're having these conversations, but we're still learning. And so I think there's a responsibility on behalf of the research community to get out there, figure out what's working, what's not, and give it back to folks in the field, but also for folks in the field to be having these conversations and sharing what they're learning. But to be gentle on ourselves, it goes back to number five: put the caring and emotion back in, and we don't have it figured out, and it's so contextualized, right? Communities vary, kids vary, your resources vary, leadership capacities vary. So, let's keep in mind that we're still building this up. 

Eakins: (15:19)

Okay. Okay. I like that. And so going back to number five with the emotions piece, I didn't want it to imply that when we're saying let's put the emotions back into social-emotional learning that we're just discussing the students. But I would imagine that you're also meaning that that includes the staff, that includes our leaders, that includes our communities as well. Is that correct? 

Kennedy: (15:41)

Absolutely. Yeah. And I think that's sometimes forgotten when you take this, what Nel Noddings, who is the famous care theorist, would say is an add-on approach, right? Where we bought this curriculum, and we gave every third-grade teacher in the building a box, and on the first Tuesday of every month, they're going to take out a lesson, and they're going to do it. I mean, that's better than nothing, arguably. But where's the sensitivity for the leader? Where's the sensitivity for the teacher to talk about their own capabilities to handle these emotions of teaching social-emotional learning. And you know, getting back to another one of my points is about the inherent sort of racist structure that we've inherited in education. There's a lot of conversation that we can have about whiteness and how that plays out in social-emotional learning, but I think we've got to be sensitive about that. These are big topics for leaders and teachers to tackle. So, I think we've got to talk about that. We've got a center that conversation. Yeah, and we've got to be sensitive that this is about identity and emotion. 

Eakins: (16:39)

Yeah. Dr. Dena Simmons has a really nice article where she talks about the assimilation and how if we're not careful, we might use SEL unintentionally to impose views and to get rid of culture and to -- because, you know, "You're supposed to behave this way, and this is how you're supposed to manage your emotions." And if we're not careful, that could erase some of the cultural identities that are out there. And again, with culture, we're not just talking about race, we're talking about all of those who might be underrepresented in various ways or not getting the care that they need. So, we have to be very intentional with our approach and making sure that our students' identities aren't being lost because we're pushing certain ways that they're supposed to respond and act and navigate through the school system. 

Kennedy: (17:27)

That's exactly right. And that's something I'd like our leaders to be sensitive about is considering this from multiple angles. So, we know that most educators are white. I'm a white woman, and actually, the percentage of white educators is growing in our society. So, as much as I support teacher race matching principles and there we've seen some of this work coming out in the last couple of years when we at social-emotional learning from an equity perspective, there are folks saying that we need more race teacher matching principles. But in the meantime, you know, most of our educators are white, and I'm not sure they've ever thought about this cause what I hear sometimes is, but I love all my students. And all my students need SEL, and that's absolutely true. But if we're not careful like Dr. Simmons says -- I love that piece -- why we can't afford whitewash social-emotional learning. If we're not careful, it's going to be about individualized characteristics like grit and self-management, and sitting in your seat and not about the collective critical love that I'd argue is just as important social-emotional learning work. And that's why after this paper was written, Sheldon, I started going down the road of caring and all the research on caring and looking specifically at the role that whiteness may have played and how we care for students and I found some really surprising things there that I think are important to remember for leaders. 

Eakins: (18:47)

Well, can we talk about that? What are some of the things that you found? 

Kennedy: (18:51)

Yeah, so like I said, we know most educators are white, yet our population, children of color, and immigrants are increasing. And so, what do we know about caring? We know that researchers are saying, "If we don't think about white privilege, it's going to come out in a certain way." When I looked at program implementation, whiteness shaped it. So, there's some really interesting research on what this looked like actually. So, in a study of an arts program, race and whiteness shaped how it was implemented, and colorblindness pervaded program implementation and white notions of caring were embraced. And so I think we need to be careful. We need to think about this, and we need to think about authentic care for students of color. So, it's recommended that white teachers understand, examine their own role. The white privilege may play and caring relationships. 

Eakins: (19:40)

You know, I'm glad you said those things because you're leading right into my next question because one of the things that really drew me in, it was like, I have to have Kate on my show was, you know, I was reading through your article and I was telling you earlier that I'm currently in the process of submitting a book chapter on SEL and being culturally responsive with our SEL approach. And you have this framework, and I wanted you to discuss your framework for school leaders on how to serve diverse learners. 

Kennedy: (20:13)

Yeah, I'd love to discuss that. And so we already talked about what's missing in the literature, what's missing in the research, but when I couldn't find was what does this look like in practice? So you say, "Okay, sign me up. I'm an equity-minded caring leader. I want to do this right. What does it look like?" And I couldn't find a lot of examples. So I sat down, I looked at some of my favorite theorists, right? So we've got theories of motivation or self-efficacy coming from Bandura and Goddard in Hawaii. I built my career on ideas from a [inaudible], and bell hooks around critical consciousness. I built that in. I'm really interested in equity and community cultural capital, so I drew on Jaso, and I put those things together and said, okay, what does this look like in the daily life of a leader? What do we need to think about? 

Kennedy: (20:58)

What does the work look like when you do it? And I sort of created the how and the who and like I said, this is still evolving. There are lots of things not on this list, but I thought we need to attend to the training. So, things like implicit bias training you might not necessarily think of when you think of SEL, not think of implicit bias, but to me, because we know students experience caring differently and that we need to consider white privilege. Those go together for me, for leaders to think about hiring teachers who have the potential to care, to be inclusive, to be social justice-oriented if we're going to take a more culturally relevant collective approach to SEL that isn't so focused on individualism, right? Thinking about teacher race matching principles, thinking about increasing our representation of teachers of color. So that's just the hiring side, which someone says arguably is the most important job that a principal has because you get those staff in there and they're there for a long time. It's, you know, usually if everything works out. 

Eakins: (21:52)

So can I ask you about that? How does that look like when I'm in an interview if I'm a leader or let's say I'm a district leader or I'm a school leader and I'm looking for potential candidates for the positions that I need. How do you ask SEL related types of questions to kind of get a sense of is this the right person for this job? 

Kennedy: (22:12)

Yeah. You say, tell me how you're going to build a community of equity and caring. 

Eakins: (22:18)

I like that. 

Kennedy: (22:19)

And you listen, right? And you also don't have these hiring committees that are made up of only adults. You have some kids in there and some community members, and when the kids leave, you say, "How did they make you feel?" Right? It can build up content expertise, and we can also build up caring expertise. But I'd argue that some of those things need to be there from the beginning and we can sift through that. We can listen, read this article, and respond to it. Let me see you run a class. Let me see you run a community circle. Let me see you run a restorative justice circle.

Eakins: (22:53)

That's good. Sorry, I had to ask you about that because you said, that's arguably the most important piece of the framework is ensuring that you have staff who are -- have the buy-in for the SEL approach in ensuring that it's like you said, it's not just a bought curriculum, but it is something that's embedded within their classrooms, within the daily practices of the school in general. So I'm sorry, go ahead and finish your framework, please. 

Kennedy: (23:18)

And another thing I thought a lot about was programming. Instead of, are we buying a box curriculum? Are we building our own? Are we creating an assemblage of all these things? Whatever we're reviewing, we need to make sure it's culturally competent. It matches the community that we're in. We need to make sure that we're talking about LGBTQ issues. I see that left out a lot, unfortunately. We need to be gender aware. So to me as a woman, I can't sit in a room and talk to you about social-emotional learning and not feel things from a gender perspective, and we know boys and girls experience school differently. They experience caring differently, actually. Let's be aware of that, and that's why my next point is let's embed this in research. I cite a lot of different studies from different fields in this paper because I really wanted to know. What does pairing look like for students of color? What does it look like for immigrant students? What does it look like for boys and girls -- elementary students versus middle school students. It looks different, so we need to attend to developmental appropriateness, but we also need to make sure we're hitting all these things that we care about when we talk about diverse learners. 

Eakins: (24:20)

Okay, so let's look at it from a practical side of things. So you have this framework. Could you share some examples of how this framework could look in schools? 

Kennedy: (24:30)

Yeah, I think it's in the daily lives of leaders, so I think you could pick a couple of things from this list and give them a try. So, one of them was to share SEL survey data with staff, students, and community. So let's do a survey. Let's pick 10 things that we care about. So, maybe one of them is self-awareness, but one of them is a collective sense of social justice. Let's see how people feel about it. Let's talk about it. Where are we as a community? Because we have seen in places where they're starting to measure this, there are some strengths and some schools that you just don't see down the road. What are our strengths, and what are some areas that we want to build up as a collective? That's the first thing is let's get our finger on the pulse of the school, right? 

Kennedy: (25:13)

Another idea is, let's build a task force. So, if we're going to measure it, we're also going to start talking about it. So, whether that's a task force, it's a lunch group, it's something you're talking about with all your staff after school. Just get started talking and be inclusive with that. Right? But you can't do that divorced from the other works. So hopefully, we've built norms of inclusivity and safety. We've made it a place where we see folks for who they are, and we don't say, "We love all children." We love the children that we have here and who's here, and we're going to serve them, and we're going to build on their particular assets. 

Eakins: (25:46)

Okay. And I like that. Again, we're being more intentional. We're not, "Oh, this is SEL," but we're, you know, we're responsive to the community, our students that we have in our school. So Kate, I definitely consider you as providing a voice in leading equity. What is one final word of advice that you can provide to our listeners? 

Kennedy: (26:06)

I think the biggest thing is just to remember that this work is ongoing and multifaceted. So, this can look like after school programming, but whatever you're doing as a leader, you say, "I'm here for you." Right? We're telling our students, we see them for who they are, so advertising clubs that focus on issues of diverse learners think relationships matter greatly. So, say "I love you, I'm here for you, I see you, I love you." Be open about how this is evolving and flexible work. I'm working for you, and then I think most importantly, this work is best done as a collective in partnership with others. I'm reaching out to you. I'm finding resources for you. I'm partnering with this mental health agency or this particular nonprofit down the street, but I'm in this together with you for you. 

Eakins: (26:54)

I love it. I'm talking with Kate Kennedy. She is the author of "Centering Equity and Caring and Leadership for Social-Emotional Learning Toward a Conceptual Framework for Diverse Learners." I will definitely leave a link in the show notes as well. So, Kate, if we have some folks that want to connect with you online, what's the best way? 

Kennedy: (27:14)

Yeah, I'll send my email. That'd be a great way to get in touch. I'd love that. It's [email protected] I'm also on Twitter. I love tweeting, so tweet at me, @Katetothek. 

Eakins: (27:27)

Okay. I like that: Kate to the K. Now, is that "to" like the number two or is it T O "to?" Okay. Awesome. Once again, thank you so much, Kate, for joining us on the show today. It has been a pleasure. 

Kennedy: (27:44)

It's been a real privilege. Thanks for having me, Sheldon.

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