Equity Matters as We Integrate Social and Emotional Learning Into the Classroom

By: Yi-Lung Kuo, Associate Professor of the Collaborative Innovation Center of Assessment toward Basic Education Quality, Beijing Normal University at Zhuhai. Alex Casillas, Principal Research Psychologist, Learning Division – Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning Research, ACT. 

What do students need to succeed?

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) urged the importance of equal educational opportunity for all students. Although the act focuses primarily on core academic areas (e.g., math, English), it also encourages schools and districts to conceptualize education from a more holistic perspective. As many have argued, such a perspective requires that we prioritize social and emotional skills, which ACT defines as “interpersonal, self-regulatory, and task-related behaviors important for successful performance in education and workplace settings”. However, despite calls for state standards to include both social and emotional skills and culturally responsive curricula (i.e., curricula explicitly designed to help mitigate the interrelated legacies of racial and class oppression), empirical studies that measure possible subgroup differences in social and emotional skills that can then provide a foundation for more culturally responsive curricula are relatively scarce in the literature.


What about race and socioeconomic status?

In our study, The Interplay Between Race/Ethnicity, Socioeconomic Status, and Social and Emotional Skills, we compared social and emotional skill profiles across various student racial/ethnic subgroups and socioeconomic status. Specifically, we examined the interaction effects of race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status on social and emotional skills among middle school students. Put more simply, we examined whether social and emotional skills depend on both race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status. A diverse national sample of over 80,000 students in grades 6-8 completed the study. Social and emotional skills were measured by ACT’s first generation SEL assessment[1], which included 10 scales that are often grouped into 3 categories: motivation, social engagement, and self-regulation. A socioeconomic status variable was created by using a combination of student-reported home resources (e.g., having access to a computer, a place to study) and parents’ highest level of education.


What did we find?

In the United States, race/ethnicity is often intertwined with financial and social capital. Thus, we believe that it was best to examine and interpret race/ethnicity differences in social and emotional skills in light of socioeconomic status. When we began exploring our data, we noticed that when grouping students according to race/ethnicity, there were small differences between the groups that did not appear to follow a particular pattern. However, as soon as we grouped students into low, medium, and high socioeconomic groups, a clear pattern arose: Regardless of ethnicity, as socioeconomic status increased, scores on assessment scales did as well. As we probed further, the following patterns emerged more clearly:

  • The relationship between socioeconomic status and social and emotional skills was more pronounced for White students than other race/ethnicity groups. At low levels of socioeconomic status, White students tended to have lower social and emotional skill scores than their peers from other racial/ethnic groups. However, as socioeconomic status increased, they tended to have higher scores than their peers from other racial/ethnic groups with similar socioeconomic status.
  • Across socioeconomic status levels, Asian students also showed higher motivation and self-regulation skills.
  • The relationship between socioeconomic status and social and emotional skills was less pronounced for underserved groups, including Black and Hispanic students. That is, the relationship between socioeconomic status and social and emotional skills became less salient (lower slopes) for underserved groups as socioeconomic status went up.

Take Academic Discipline, a scale that reflects motivation and measures students’ effort in completing schoolwork. Our results indicated that Asians (blue line) reported higher Academic Discipline levels across all levels of socioeconomic status, though Asians and Hispanics (green line) showed similar rates of this skill as socioeconomic status increases. Blacks (red line) showed the second highest levels of Academic Discipline at lower levels of SES, but this advantage disappeared at above average socioeconomic status and the gaps between Blacks and both Asians and Whites (grey line) continued to widen accordingly (see Figure below).

Relationships between Academic Discipline and Socioeconomic Status Across Races/Ethnicity

What does this mean?

To our knowledge this study is among the first to show that social and emotional skills have different relationships with socioeconomic status as a function of race/ethnicity. Although we are not able to identify the causes for this pattern based on the data we have available, there are several possible explanations. One is accumulated advantage. In U.S. society, most White students may have an easier time navigating through their social and cultural environment due, in part, to the benefit of being part of the dominant culture. This majority culture may, in turn, confer additional benefits above and beyond the effects of increased socioeconomic status in students’ development of social and emotional skills.


How do we design social and emotional skills curriculum so that it does not contribute to possible gaps in social and emotional skills across student demographic groups?

David Osher and his colleagues (2016) advocate that when school curricula are designed to improve students’ social and emotional skills, cultural diversity factors, including race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status, should be considered. Consistent with Osher et al.’s recommendation, if we want students to benefit from programming to develop their social and emotional skills, it will be important to ensure that we are not reinforcing inequities based on power and privilege. We need to design programming that allows students from all backgrounds to experience similar benefits in terms of their skill development. (Note: for a more detailed discussion on equity-informed social and emotional skills programming, see Jagers et al., 2018)

[1] ACT® Engage® grades 6-9

About Yi-Lung Kuo

Yi-Lung Kuo is an Associate Professor of the Collaborative Innovation Center of Assessment toward Basic Education Quality, Beijing Normal University at Zhuhai, China. His research interests include innovative assessment, test validity, and social and emotional learning. He received his Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from the University of Iowa.

Alex Casillas, Ph.D.

Alex Casillas, Ph.D.

Alex Casillas is a Principal Research Psychologist in ACT's Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning. He has led research and development of behavioral assessments for predicting performance and persistence in school and work, as well as a multidisciplinary effort to design and implement a research-based framework that articulates what effective behavior looks like as part of the ACT Holistic Framework. His current research increasingly focuses on issues relevant to underserved learners. He received his B.A. in Psychology from Grinnell College and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Clinical Science from the University of Iowa.