The Importance of Cultural Competence in Teaching Social and Emotional Skills

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The Importance of Cultural Competence in Teaching Social and Emotional Skills

Tia Barnes, assistant professor of Human Development and Family Sciences. (Evan Krape / University of Delaware)

Mrs. Prawl, a white Middle-class American, is a first-year teacher at Washington Middle School, a rural school serving a large population of Black and Latino students from low socio-economic backgrounds. The principal of Washington Middle School would like to implement a school-wide program this year to improve the school’s negative climate. The principal would like to support students’ social and emotional skills, as a result of increases in reports of traumatic events happening in the neighborhood surrounding the school.   

While Mrs. Prawl believes that an intervention is important, she is not convinced that this program will support the needs of her students. Mrs. Prawl’s teacher education program emphasized the use of cultural competence and the importance of social justice. She feels committed to including practices aligned with these concepts in her daily interactions at school. As a result, Mrs. Prawl begins to explore ways that she can support her students’ social and emotional well-being, while using culturally responsive teaching practices. So far, she has not found much guidance on how to do this, but she is hopeful in her quest to support her students.

As schools continue to emphasize  the importance of nurturing social and emotional skills (defined by CASEL as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making), concerns like those presented by Mrs. Prawl should not be ignored.  As discussed by previous authors on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Culture of Health Blog  (e.g., Kristin Schubert, Mark Greenberg, and Tracy Costigan), social and emotional skills are critical for lifelong health and well-being. Having high levels of these skills reduces the likelihood of anxiety, depression, and involvement in risky health behaviors such as smoking and alcohol use. Having strong social and emotional skills will serve children throughout their lives, as these skills not only help in school success but also later in adulthood through  increased educational attainment, better preparation for employment through the development of skills such as communication and problem-solving, less likelihood of criminal activity and substance use, and positive mental health. Individuals with early prosocial skills are less likely to engage in substance use or become involved in criminal activity, and are more likely engage in practices that bolster mental health.

How we teach social and emotional skills is an important but missing part of the conversation. This is where Kristin Schubert’s advice about making connections between the education and health sectors comes in to play. With subjects like math and science, teacher education programs encourage teachers to use culturally responsive practices to incorporate students’ cultural backgrounds into instruction to enhance their interest, engagement, and consequently, their understanding of the topic. Likewise, cultural competence is a vital skillset encouraged by the mental health field for professionals in supporting the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of their clients. In both the education and health sectors, using cultural competence means incorporating the cultures of individuals into social and emotional skill training and being responsive to the needs of diverse populations.  The focus is on building on the strengths of varying cultures to teach social and emotional skills, instead of working to “fix deficiencies” in the skills of Black and Latino populations and those living in poverty.

Teaching social and emotional skills to diverse populations potentially can be difficult. Culture plays a significant role in social and emotional skill development and portrayal. For example, our expression of emotions differs across cultures. In the United States, we are faced with a cultural mismatch between our teachers and students. Like Mrs. Prawl, the majority of teachers are white and from the middle class, while almost half of students are students of color and/or those from low-income families. Likewise, there is a small percentage of mental health professionals who are individuals of color. As the U.S. population becomes increasingly diverse, it is vital for education and health professionals to understand how to support a diverse population to meet their social and emotional needs.

What strategies can draw upon from the education and health sectors to support the social and emotional skills of a diverse child and youth population?

Here are a few:

  1. Remain hopeful. Just like Mrs. Prawl, keep those feelings of hopefulness in your quest to support children and youth’s social and emotional skill development. While supporting children in learning something new can be challenging and demanding, it can be done, and children will benefit greatly from your dedication.
  2. Check your biases. Though we may have the best intentions in supporting children’s social and emotional skill development, we may be biased in our thinking and actions about those from backgrounds that are different than our own. Therefore, it is important to reflect on your own biases about children’s backgrounds and how that affects your interactions with them. Harvard’s Project Implicit provides tools that can help you become aware of your biases. You can also engage in frequent reflection through journaling to check-in with yourself about your biases, your progress in reflecting on these biases and making necessary behavioral changes, and areas in which you can improve.
  3. Get personal. Increase your knowledge about children’s home culture. For example, it is important to know how expressing emotions is viewed based on gender, how children are taught to interact with an authority figure, and how children are taught to work in groups and solve problems. Get to know children’s families, visit their homes and neighborhoods, and find out the child’s likes and dislikes. This knowledge will help you better understand children’s experiences and their actions.
  4. Make connections. Incorporate children’s home culture into social emotional skill instruction. For example, discuss an array of familiar situations, include books, and introduce characters, in your social emotional work with children that celebrates a wide range of people based on age, gender, race, ethnicity, and social position. Children are very perceptive and pay close attention to their surroundings and the messages communicated.
  5. Find out more. If you are on the hunt for more information, be sure to start by checking out organizations like CASEL, which provides strategies for teaching social emotional skills in schools, and the National Center for Cultural Competence, which offers advice on supporting the mental health for diverse populations.

As interest in supporting diverse children’s social and emotional skills grows, we can anticipate a need for more connection across the education and health sectors to provide solutions to challenges like those faced by Mrs. Prawl. Incorporating cultural competence and culturally responsive teaching practices is just one example of this. What ideas can you share about integrating practices from the health and education sectors to strengthen children’s social and emotional health?

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 Dr. Tia Barnes is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Delaware. Her research interest focuses on the implementation of social emotional learning strategies in diverse (racially, ethnically, special education) classroom settings.

Kathleen McCallops is a second-year doctoral student in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Delaware. Kathleen’s research interest focuses on how experiencing homelessness and housing instability affect mental health and educational outcomes among youth and families. 

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