Transformative SEL as a Lever for Equity & Social Justice

Reprinted from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)


CASEL is committed to advancing equity and excellence in education through social and emotional learning (SEL). CASEL’s definition and framework for SEL provides a foundation for all communities to use evidence-based SEL strategies to advance the goals of equity and excellence in ways that are most meaningful to their local context.

  • Developing and Refining Transformative SEL toward Equity
    CASEL is refining a specific form of SEL implementation that concentrates SEL practice on transforming inequitable settings and systems, and promoting justice-oriented civic engagement–which we are calling “Transformative SEL.” Through our long-term learning agenda and ongoing collaboration with practitioners, policymakers, and researchers, CASEL continues deepening what we know about how to implement Transformative SEL toward equitable learning opportunities and developmental outcomes. Together, we will continue learning through our collective commitment to continuous improvement. 

Defining Transformative SEL

“Transformative SEL” is a process whereby young people and adults build strong, respectful, and lasting, relationships that facilitate co-learning to critically examine root causes of inequity, and to develop collaborative solutions that lead to personal, community, and societal well-being.

This form of SEL is aimed at redistributing power to promote social justice through increased engagement in school and civic life. It emphasizes the development of identity, agency, belonging, curiosity, and collaborative problem solving within the CASEL framework.

Core features of Transformative SEL include:

  • Authentic partnering among students and adults with a deep focus on sharing power and decision-making between young people, educators, families, and communities.
  • Academic content that integrates issues of race, class and culture.
  • Instruction that honors and makes connections to students’ lived experiences and identities, and scaffolds learning to build an understanding of others’ lived experiences.
  • Enhancing and foregrounding social and emotional competencies needed for civic engagement and social change, such as reflecting on personal and social identities, examining prejudices and biases, interrogating social norms, disrupting and resisting inequities, and co-constructing equitable and just solutions.
  • Prioritizing students’ individual and collective agency to take action for social justice.
  • Focus on creating belonging and engagement for all individuals.

Read more:

  • Transformative SEL: Toward SEL in Service of Educational Equity and Excellence (2019). This article first introduced Transformative SEL with a focus first on race and ethnicity. Access the research article
  • Equity and Social and Emotional Learning: A Cultural Analysis (2018). This brief explored the alignment between equity and SEL, eventually informing the updated definition of SEL in 2020. Access the brief.



Identifying Effective Programs, Practices, and Strategies for Implementing Transformative SEL

  • While our research and learning agenda informed our definition of Transformative SEL based on current science and developmental principles, in practice, there are currently limited options for evidence-based programs and implementation models for Transformative SEL.

  • To address this need, CASEL is leading collaborative efforts with partner organizations to develop a more robust foundation for Transformative SEL that supports researchers and practitioners in identifying and refining evidence-based programs, professional learning, and assessments. Through our research-practice partnerships, we are also learning alongside schools and districts how specific practices, policies, and processes can best be implemented to achieve the goals of Transformative SEL.

  • Read more:

    • Rising Up Together: Spotlighting Transformative SEL in Practice with Latinx Youth (2021). This research brief is part of our initial efforts to illustrate transformative SEL in practice based on surveys with youth, interviews with teachers, and observations during dedicated SEL instruction time in a predominantly Latinx school in a large urban district. Read the Brief.
    • Building Equitable Learning Environments (BELE) Framework: CASEL is part of a collective of diverse educators committed to tackling the inequities in our school system. The collective developed a framework to guide the redesign of public school systems that center the experiences of young people with evidence-based practice and resources to support lasting change. View the framework.

Sharing Practical Insights and Expertise

As Transformative SEL is being tested and refined, we will continue sharing practical insights as we learn them and lifting up expert voices with the broader field.

Read more:

  • Emerging Insights on Advancing SEL as a Lever for Equity and Excellence” (2020). This report provides five key, emerging insights from our partner school districts working to leverage SEL in service of equity. Read the report.
  • CASEL CARES Webinar Series: SEL as a Lever for Equity and Social Justice (2020). These are recordings from our 5-Part Webinar Series discussing equity and racial injustice through the lens of social and emotional learning. Watch the series.
  • Equity and SEL: Districts Share Strategies and Best Practices (2018). This webinar features two CASEL partner districts, Chicago Public Schools and Tulsa Public Schools, on their efforts to integrate SEL and equity in their community. Hear from partner districts.


To access the resource, please click here.