Transformative Social-Emotional Learning in Action: An Approach for Creating a More Equitable Learning Environment

Imagine a community where young people are flourishing academically and socially, where students feel a strong sense of belonging because their unique qualities, perspectives, and identities are valued and respected. Here, students are not only equipped with the necessary academic skills but also possess the emotional tools to navigate the complexities of life.

Within this idyllic school community, engagement is at an all-time high. Students are actively involved in their learning, eagerly participating in classroom discussions, collaborating with peers, and taking ownership of their educational journey. They are not limited by societal expectations or stereotypes; rather, they are encouraged to become agents of change within the school and broader society.

This vision is worth striving for, and Transformative Social-Emotional Learning (tSEL) provides a framework that brings us one step closer to this imagined ideal.

Why do today’s students need SEL?

As the global pandemic recedes, education leaders, classroom teachers, and parents have been left to grapple with the numerous academic and social-emotional challenges facing young people and their wellbeing today. Isolation from peers, overwhelming uncertainty, and deepening societal rifts and inequities impacted students’ educational journeys. Many students have grappled with academic setbacks while simultaneously confronting significant social-emotional hurdles, such as heightened anxiety, loneliness, and a weakened sense of belonging. As education leaders, teachers, and parents strive to address these challenges, SEL can help to build resilience, cultivate empathy, and empower students to navigate the post-pandemic world with confidence and compassion.

Social-emotional learning has emerged as a crucial aspect of a whole-child approach to education that extends beyond traditional academic instruction to recognize the importance of relationships and emotional well-being in a student’s development.[1] Research demonstrates that SEL is not only essential for fostering educational equity and excellence but also for accelerating learning.[2] Moreover, SEL plays a vital role in addressing chronic absenteeism by helping to create a supportive and inclusive school environment that encourages students to attend school and participate actively in their learning.[3] In the context of pandemic-related challenges, the work of experts like Robert J. Jagers and Deborah Rivas-Drake further emphasizes the significance of SEL in supporting students’ mental health by equipping them with social-emotional skills that promote resilience and foster a sense of well-being[4].

What is Transformative SEL, and how does it differ from other approaches?

Transformative SEL (tSEL[5]) is an equity-centered approach that extends beyond traditional SEL approaches, such as personally responsible and participatory SEL. While personally responsible SEL focuses on risk prevention through improving student behaviors often framed as deficient, and participatory SEL emphasizes individual skills necessary for student success within school, tSEL is a more comprehensive approach that seeks to deepen partnerships between families, schools, and communities to address structural barriers and promote collective well-being.

Specifically, tSEL addresses long-standing gaps in educational opportunities and outcomes by encouraging a thoughtful exploration of individual and environmental factors that contribute to inequities. Through collaborative solutions, tSEL strives to enhance personal, community, and societal well-being and works to mitigate disparities influenced by socioeconomic status, race, home language, disability status, or other social identities.

What does Transformative SEL look like in schools?

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) outlines five core competencies of SEL: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Transformative SEL extends the CASEL competencies into synergistic expressions of identity, agency, belonging, and engagement.[6] Here is what each of those look like in schools.

Identity as a focus in transformative tSEL, incorporates students’ lived experiences into instruction to ensure students’ social identities, communities, values, and concerns are represented and that students are able to learn from, about, and with others who may not share their backgrounds.

Middle school teachers working with predominantly Latinx youth in a large urban district integrated their students’ lived experiences into their instruction by supplementing the English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum with a collection of short stories about the lives of Latinx youth growing up in the U.S. Infusing discussions on identity, which falls under the umbrella of CASEL’s self-awareness competency, into academic subjects, helped students not only deepen their connection with the curriculum but actively fostered their self-awareness throughout the learning process.[7]

Agency, within the context of tSEL, refers to the empowerment and capacity of students to exercise control and influence over their lives. This encompasses self-regulation, self-efficacy, and collective efficacy (the shared belief in a group’s ability to achieve common goals).

In practice, educators can embed agency by validating student experiences of oppression, creating an environment where students can openly acknowledge social injustice, and helping students develop the skills and knowledge to address these injustices. Additionally, recognizing youth as emerging social change agents fosters their collective efficacy, enabling them to see themselves as capable of making a positive impact on their communities and society as a whole.

Belonging is the multifaceted experience of feeling accepted, respected, and fully included within a particular group or community. Research underscores that a sense of belonging is a fundamental factor in shaping students’ school engagement. When students feel valued, respected, and included within their educational community, they are more likely to be motivated and actively involved in their learning journey.[8]

Operationalizing belonging in school settings requires educators to focus on more than just statistical measures. District leaders in Manatee County in Florida found that students prioritized their nonacademic experiences related to belonging as drivers of their overall engagement.[9] Cultivating belonging in schools can be achieved first by actively listening to young people to understand their school experiences.

Engagement, closely related to students’ sense of belonging and fundamental to their ability to participate in collaborative problem-solving and responsible decision-making, is yet another component of tSEL.

When students are heard, they develop confidence in their expertise and strengthen their sense of agency, making them more invested learners. In a partnership with WestEd, Washoe County School District (WCSD) in Nevada aimed to decrease dropout rates by engaging meaningfully with students at risk of dropping out. Upon doing so, they discovered that when students were provided with a platform to express themselves, not only did they contribute to finding solutions, but they experienced a shift in mindset that resulted in their being more engaged in school.[10]

How can we build parental and community support for Transformative SEL?

As educators increasingly support SEL as a vital component of a whole-child approach to education, SEL terminology can sometimes be perplexing and cause skepticism among parents who desire more emphasis on core academics and those who harbor concerns about potential ideological influences. To gain deeper insight into parental perspectives on SEL and to identify potential challenges in effectively communicating its role within education, the Fordham Institute initiated a nationwide survey of 2,000 parents with children in grades K–12.[11] Based on the findings, here are suggestions for educators and policymakers for adopting tSEL in partnership with communities.

  • Engage families and the community to promote collective well-being. A cornerstone of tSEL is relational trust between and among students, educators, parents, and community members. In this vein, it’s crucial to remember that schools aren’t the sole, and often not even the primary, arena for nurturing SEL-related skills. Regardless of political leanings, racial backgrounds, socioeconomic status, or other demographic factors, parents consistently emphasize that families play a critical role in fostering young people’s SEL.
  • Emphasize actual skills and competencies over abstract ideas or jargon. When we delve into the particulars and the real-world applications of SEL, parents readily understand and support it. However, when the discussion becomes abstract and lacks concrete examples, many parents find it less engaging and relatable. It’s essential to ground SEL concepts in practical contexts to convey their significance effectively.
  • Incorporate SEL skills into core academic subjects. Parents expressed a preference for traditional academic subjects, with disciplines such as math, English/reading, science, computer science, and history, along with career and technical education (CTE), ranking among their top priorities. Additionally, four SEL-related skills also hold high value for parents: taking responsibility for one’s actions, communication/interpersonal skills, self-confidence, and self-motivation. Therefore, a balanced approach that integrates SEL into academic content is encouraged.

In order to effectively adopt Transformative SEL (tSEL) in collaboration with communities, educators and policymakers can focus on building trust among students, parents, educators, and community members, emphasize practical applications of SEL, and integrate SEL into core academic subjects. Below are resources for practitioners to take SEL from theory to practice.

Resources for Practitioners

Connecting Theory to SEL Practice: Five Key Insights from Innovative, Community-Driven SEL Initiatives and Programs

Fundamentals of SEL: What does the research say?

Integrating Social and Emotional Learning Throughout the School System: A Compendium of Resources for District Leaders

Measures of SEL and School Climate in California

Speak Out, Listen Up! Tools for Bringing Student Ideas into School Change

Transformative SEL


[1] Pittman, K. (2017, July 24). SEL, whole child education and student readiness: How do they connect? HuffPost.

[2] Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (n.d.). What Does the Research Say? Retrieved August 10, 2023, from

[3] Schanzenbach, D. W., Bauer, L., & Mumford, M. (2016). Lessons for broadening school accountability under the Every Student Succeeds Act. The Hamilton Project: the Brookings Institute, 1-27.

[4] Jagers, R. J., Rivas-Drake, D., & Williams, B. (2019). Transformative social and emotional learning (SEL): Toward SEL in service of educational equity and excellence. Educational Psychologist54(3), 162-184.

[5] Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (n.d.). Transformative SEL. Retrieved July 15, 2023, from

[6]  Jagers, R. J., Rivas-Drake, D., & Williams, B. (2019). Transformative social and emotional learning (SEL): Toward SEL in service of educational equity and excellence. Educational Psychologist54(3), 162-184.

[7] Rivas-Drake, D., Rosario-Ramos, E., McGovern, G., & Jagers, R. J. (2021). Rising Up Together.

[8]  Skinner, E. A., Kindermann, T. A., Connell, J. P., & Wellborn, J. G. (2009). Engagement and disaffection as organizational constructs in the dynamics of motivational development. Handbook of motivation at school223, 245.

[9] Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (n.d.). Districts in action: reflect on data for continuous improvement: Fellows Spotlight.

[10] Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (n.d.). The key to making improvements: Ask the students.

[11] Adam Tyner. How to Sell SEL: Parents and the Politics of Social-Emotional Learning. Washington D.C.: Thomas B. Fordham Institute (August 2021).

This blog is prepared for the Western Educational Equity Assistance Center (WEEAC) at WestEd, which is authorized under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Equity Assistance Centers provide technical assistance and training to school districts, tribal, and state education agencies to promote equitable education resources and opportunities regardless of race, sex, national origin, or religion. The WEEAC at WestEd partners with Pacific Resources for Education and Learning and Attendance Works to assist Alaska, American Samoa, Arizona, California, Colorado, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Hawaiʻi, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

The contents of this product are developed under a grant from the Department of Education. However, the contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal government.