SEL for MLs-SupportEd

Equity for Multilingual Learners in Social-Emotional Learning

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Equity for multilingual learners in social-emotional learning — We are now well into the 2021-2022 school year, and while teachers, students, and families may have settled into some day-to-day routines, we can’t ignore the fact that we are still struggling to manage the complexities of an ongoing pandemic. In addition to the isolation, anxiety, and dramatic shifts in work and school that we experienced with the start of the pandemic in 2020, our increased attention was also drawn to racial injustices and inequities throughout the country. It is imperative that as we readjust to being together physically in school buildings, we recognize and find ways to manage the ongoing social-emotional impacts of our entire experience over the last couple of years.

Growth of MLs in the U.S. and the importance of SEL

Across the United States, many school districts have been carefully planning for ways to support both academic and social-emotional needs of students through an increased emphasis on social-emotional learning (SEL). All the while, we are well aware of the additional inequities multilingual learners (MLs) face in their education that were brought to the forefront by the pandemic. There are 12 million school-age MLs in the United States, accounting for 22% of the K-12 population (National Center for Education Statistics, 2017). In the implementation of SEL practices, it is essential that we consider the unique strengths and needs of this large and growing segment of students. We must ensure MLs have appropriate supports, implemented by every teacher in every class, that will provide them equal access to necessary SEL skills. Since SEL is not one-size-fits-all – especially not for MLs – we have developed a customized framework that can guide your planning for SEL with MLs.

Five SEL competencies with ML considerations and strategies

In this article, we begin by sharing the five SEL competencies for all students developed by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL): self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and decision-making skills. Next, for each of the five competencies, we provide an ML consideration that identifies unique factors that may impact MLs’ access to or participation in this area. Finally, we share a practical strategy educators can use or adapt to support ML student growth with this SEL competency. While we are introducing one strategy aligned with each competency, we recognize that the strategies and instructional practices we suggest may support MLs in more than one, and perhaps even several, of the SEL competencies.

1. Self-Awareness

Self-Awareness is the ability to understand one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behaviors across contexts.

Equity for Multilingual Learners in Social-Emotional LearningML Consideration to Support Equity in Self-Awareness: MLs’ identities may be rooted in a collectivist culture that places more value on group interdependence rather than the individual. This sense of identity may result in MLs feeling uncomfortable or self-conscious in thinking about their strengths or using language of self-awareness.

An ML strategy to try: Students can create identity portraits in which they can show, through words and drawings, the various aspects of their identity. Often, people will make assumptions about others’ identities by what they see on the outside, but this activity will help students understand how important it is to recognize that identities also include characteristics that are on the inside and not as obvious.

Expressing themselves on paper through drawing and writing may be more comfortable for some students who may not feel as comfortable talking about their identity. Teachers may wish to discuss the definition of identity, using images and scaffolded language to support MLs acquiring English. In addition, teachers can model the activity by sharing their own identity portraits and sharing why they chose the images or words they included. Once they are complete, the students’ portraits can be hung up in the classroom as a constant reminder that identity is complex and that all identities are accepted and respected in the classroom.

2. Self-Management

Self-Management is the ability to manage one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations and to achieve goals and aspirations.

Equity for Multilingual Learners in Social-Emotional LearningML Consideration to Support Equity in Self-Management: Self-management goes beyond behavior management, and yet students must understand expectations in the classroom, school, and the community. MLs may be unfamiliar with the dominant culture’s social norms, including self-management expectations, which may be different from social norms and self-management expectations MLs experience at home. Students’ potential disconnect between home and school expectations, as well as possible impacts from trauma, may manifest as an educator’s misinterpretation of students’ self-management skills at school. MLs may also experience conflicting messages around goals and aspirations from home and school.

An ML strategy to try: Directly teach ML students expected social interactions at school while learning about and validating expectations from their culture. Students can practice with role plays, supported with teacher modeling, sentence starters, and word banks. Teachers should include practice with a wide variety of social interactions students might encounter at school such as: asking a friend to borrow a pencil, answering a teacher’s question in class, disagreeing with a friend’s method of solving a math problem, or running into the school principal in the hallway.

For older students, teachers may want to include role plays that will help students navigate situations outside of school, including talking with a potential employer or asking for help from a store employee. Teachers can further support student understanding by providing structured opportunities for students to interact through in-class discussions, partner work or small group projects. Drawing students’ attention to interactions between characters in multicultural books or people in content area texts can also build students’ understanding.

3. Social Awareness

Social Awareness is the ability to understand the perspectives of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and contexts.

Equity for Multilingual Learners in Social-Emotional LearningML Consideration to Support Equity in Social Awareness: ML students’ unique backgrounds and life experiences may position them to have significant strengths in understanding and empathizing with individuals from diverse backgrounds as well as the capacity to navigate across cultures. However, MLs may need specialized support in recognizing and further developing these cross-cultural skills. MLs may also need practice in understanding perspectives of the dominant culture.

An ML strategy to try: Teachers can use multicultural resources which serve as both “mirrors” that reflect students’ own experiences and “windows,” which open students’ eyes to the experiences of others. To this end, teachers can carefully select resources that will expose MLs to culturally diverse role models and leaders with whom they may not be familiar as well as materials that offer an alternative perspective. Teachers can support students in accessing and understanding these materials with targeted questions that can help students identify connections, understand new perspectives, and develop a sense of empathy. It is important that ML students have an opportunity to share their own stories and life experiences in class to the degree they feel comfortable doing so.

4. Relationship Skills

Relationship Skills are the abilities to establish and maintain healthy and supportive relationships and to effectively navigate settings with diverse individuals and groups. Educators know how essential it is to get to know students in order to establish the relationships that will ensure a comfortable learning environment.

Equity for Multilingual Learners in Social-Emotional LearningML Consideration to Support Equity in Relationship Skills: MLs’ patterns of interaction and communication, including nonverbal communication, may be different than those of their peers and teachers. These differences can be extra challenging if students are learning English, leaving room for potential misunderstandings and misinterpretations of interactions and attempts at relationship building.

An ML strategy to try: Educators can provide many opportunities for students to work in pairs and small groups throughout the school day. Initially, you may wish to strategically group students, ensuring MLs are working in a group that will allow them to use and build on their strengths while also learning from their fellow group members. As the school year progresses and students further develop their confidence and become familiar with group expectations, there may be opportunities for them to select their own groups for small projects based on common interests.

Educators can further support ML students by teaching expectations for body language for discussions while validating MLs’ expectations for body language. Teachers can also provide mini lessons and language support for situations that may arise in a group setting such as: understanding roles in the group, managing group conflict, and how to agree and disagree with a group member. Following the completion of activities or assignments, it is important for students to reflect not only on their academic learning, but also on how they worked together in their group. This reflection can be supported with graphic organizers or checklists.

5. Responsible Decision-Making

Responsible Decision-Making is the ability to make caring and constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions across diverse situations.

Equity for Multilingual Learners in Social-Emotional LearningML Consideration to Support Equity in Decision-Making: MLs may face potential uncertainty about the dominant culture’s social norms, possible experiences with inequity, microaggressions, racism, trauma, and/or the stress of acculturation. These factors may challenge MLs’ sense of agency and impact their perception of what constitutes caring and constructive choices.

An ML strategy to try: One type of decision students make is in the classroom and teachers can be intentional about involving ML students in classroom decisions, including decisions about their learning. Educators can offer students options for what MLs learn and how they demonstrate their learning. For example, after researching a history topic, some students might share their learning through a written paper, while others might choose to create a video or hold a mock interview with an historical figure. Teachers may wish to model decision-making processes and can provide a specific example modeling their thinking around their own choice for the history project. Teachers can support students with vocabulary, sentence starters, and graphic organizers to help them talk through and reflect on their own decisions.

Equity for Multilingual Learners in Social-Emotional Learning Framework tool

The pandemic has highlighted the need for educators to focus more than ever before on social-emotional skills for all students, but SEL cannot be implemented the same way for everyone. Educators play an important role in supporting students to develop these skills, both with the mindsets they model and the actions they take in the classroom. With intentional planning, MLs can be positioned to develop the skills they need to thrive socially as well as academically. Please let us know how you’re implementing SEL with your MLs – we’d love to hear from you on this important topic.

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About SupportEd
SupportEd, LLC is a woman-owned small business based in Fairfax, VA specializing in Multilingual Learners (MLs). Founded in 2011 by Dr. Diane Staehr Fenner, best-selling author and ML expert, SupportEd meticulously crafts customized solutions to fit each client’s strengths, needs, and provides teachers and administrators the practical tools necessary to champion MLs’ success within and beyond the classroom. All SupportEd team members have prior experience in the classroom which enables the SupportEd team to provide realistic, actionable solutions. Services include online and in-person immersive professional development workshops, easy-to-implement tools and resources, and an array of supporting services. Visit or call (202) 660-1444 to learn more.