Over the last decade, we have seen mounting evidence of the developmental benefits of promoting youth’s social-emotional learning (SEL). Consequently, practitioners, researchers, and policymakers are increasingly advocating for prioritizing SEL in K-12 education. Although promoting SEL seems promising for the positive development of youth, there are questions about the extent to which the benefits extend to youth who come from marginalized backgrounds.
Latinx youth, who represent the largest ethnic minority group in K-12 schools, experience structural and social inequities that may compromise their SEL development. Latinx youth are often enrolled in under-resourced schools that have lower student-to-teacher ratios and advanced placement classes, and commonly experience discrimination in the form of stereotype-based treatment and social exclusion from staff and peers in their schools.1 Additionally, the cultural values, assets, and strengths of Latinx youth are undervalued in K-12 schools as these institutions often prioritize and reproduce the White middle-class culture. For those who seek to support the development of Latinx youth, it is critical to consider the extent to which these structural and social challenges affect the SEL development of Latinx youth.
A New Study: The Impact of School-Based Discrimination on Latinx Youth’s SEL
As part of the Search Institute Summer Scholars Fellowship, we conducted a study with 2,017 Latinx youth from middle schools and high schools in the U.S. who completed the Search Institute Developmental Relationships survey. We found that Latinx youth who reported more experiences with school-based discrimination, on average, also reported lower levels of SEL. We also found that this negative association was stronger for Latinx youth who identified as a sexual minority (i.e., gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, queer), compared to Latinx youth who identified as heterosexual. These findings show that school-based discrimination can compromise the SEL development of Latinx youth. Moreover, Latinx youth who identify with another marginalized identity (e.g., sexual minority), may be especially vulnerable to the negative influence of school-based discrimination.
How Can We Mitigate the Negative Impact of School-Based Discrimination on Latinx Youth’s SEL?
To promote the SEL development of all youth, it is essential to address the structural and social challenges that affect Latinx youth in K-12 schools. Schools have the power to implement initiatives that can protect youth from the harmful effects of discrimination. Initiatives that center diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the school climate can be particularly beneficial for the SEL development of Latinx students. In the same study, we found that Latinx youth who perceived that their school had a high commitment to DEI were less vulnerable to the negative influence of school-based discrimination on SEL compared to students who perceived a low commitment to DEI. Moreover, this protective effect was found across the Latinx youth in the study, regardless of differences in gender identity and sexual orientation.
How Schools Can Center DEI to Better Support Latinx Youth’s SEL
Our study findings suggest that institutional practices that prioritize DEI are a promising strategy to support the SEL development of Latinx youth. Below are some key ways schools and other youth-serving organizations can better support the SEL development of all youth, especially youth from marginalized backgrounds.
- Integrate transformative SEL practices into the school environment. Aligned with the study findings, there has been a recent push in the field to integrate an equity lens into SEL through transformative SEL. Transformative SEL strives to center issues of power, privilege, discrimination, social justice, and empowerment in the SEL development of youth in order to build more equitable educational experiences for marginalized youth.2 Strategies schools may consider include:
- Making connections between students’ cultural assets and academic content;
- Encouraging community building through collaborative problem solving among students;
- Creating experiential learning opportunities, such as service learning for students.
- Provide professional development and strengthen the capacity of educators and school staff to implement DEI practices into the school day. School staff play a critical role in implementing DEI practices. Yet, school and out-of-school staff face multiple barriers to building an inclusive organizational climate, including perceiving a lack of skills to engage youth in culturally responsive ways. As such, staff training may be provided on the following topics:
- Staff examine how their conscious and unconscious biases may shape their relationships with youth;
- Staff have opportunities to reflect on how their position may reinforce or buffer institutional racism;
- For more reflection and opportunities to think about how your own school environment implements DEI practices, check out Search Institutes’ Equitable Relational Climate brief.
Overall, as practitioners, researchers, and policymakers who seek to support the development of youth from marginalized backgrounds, such as Latinx youth, we should advocate for centering DEI practices at schools and other youth-serving organizations. Ultimately, developing environments that center DEI can not only support the SEL development of Latinx youth, but also help youth from all backgrounds thrive.
- Walsemann, K. M., Gee, G. C., & Ro, A. (2013). Educational attainment in the context of social inequality: New directions for research on education and health. American Behavioral Scientist, 57(8), 1082-1104. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764213487346
- Jagers, R. J., Rivas-Drake, D., & Borowski, T. (2018). Equity & social and emotional learning: A cultural analysis. CASEL Assessment Work Group Brief Series. https://measuringsel.casel.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Frameworks-Equity.pdf
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