Culturally-Affirming SEL Resources to Guide Children to Disrupt Racism (Part 1)

The class of 2033 starts kindergarten this fall, and the world has already begun an ongoing conversation with them about race. How are we — the adults — helping children make meaning of the messages they are receiving? How are we humanizing discussions on the #BLM movement and modeling our commitment to fighting for black lives?

In order to “future-proof” our children, we must make conversations on disrupting racism a priority. There is no “magic wand” or one sweeping change that is going to rebuild systems of opportunity, security, and justice. The work begins with us.

This article has two sections:

  1. Looking inward: Best practices for teachers and parents to unpack biases

Looking inward.

Cultural humility is a life-long process of self-reflection and self-critique whereby an individual not only learns about another person’s culture, but does so by first examining his/her own beliefs and cultural identities.

In order to effectively disrupt racism, I humbly encourage you to:

1. Continuously ask yourself what the #BLM movement stands for.

The process of unlearning and relearning the history of racism and unpacking implicit bias is ongoing. Being able to change your mind or someone else’s is a strength. Pledge to continue fighting for equity even after protests subside.

“Standing still is never an option so long as inequities remain embedded in the very fabric of the culture.” — Tim Wise

2. Consider your everyday tendencies.

Unfortunately, being seen as human and innocent until proven guilty is not the standard that is offered to everyone in this country. Examples:

– Do you or your parents lock the car doors when you see a black person on the street corner? Why?

– If you #RanWithAhmaud, would you consider driving 3 miles to a primarily black neighborhood and running there? (cc: Joy Turner)

3. Mindfulness supports activism.

Don’t confuse meditation and mindfulness with passivity. Mindfulness practices give us focus, direction, and the ability to recognize our thoughts and biases. We need to go inward before going outward.

4. Don’t make this about telling others how educated you are.

Unlearning and relearning the history of generational racism, reading books by black authors, and attending protests is for your own benefit and our collective growth.

Culturally-Affirming Social-Emotional Learning.

Wallpaper from The Ace Hotel

Too often, social-emotional learning puts the onus and responsibility of emotional regulation on the child rather than on the system. How does internalized oppression impact SEL?

What is SEL with an equity lens? It is pushing through the discomfort of talking about oppression and digging into trauma, triggers, and obstacles that children of color may be facing as they engage with SEL.

Spoken eloquently by Dena Simmons at the 2019 SEL Exchange: SEL devoid of examination of the systems of oppression faces the risk of becoming “white supremacy with a hug.” (cc: Cierra Kaler-Jones).

Here are a few culturally-affirming SEL tools to use with children.

1. Give children the permission to feel.

Emotional intelligence is a superpower. If a child has strong feelings such as anxiety, anger, or despair, acknowledge the feelings rather than avoiding them or trying to change them.

tl;dr: You don’t have to feel happy all the time. — Truths by Dr. Marc Brackett

2. Support curiosity with discussion.

Listen to the behavior of toddlers, the play of young children, and the stories of adolescents. Children are listening to conversations, seeing headlines online, overhearing discussion, and they know what is going on. Note: if you notice a child’s persistent change in mood or emotion, track it and reach out to a child psychologist like Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith.

Edited: a note from my sister and new parent: we must look at how schools are teaching SEL, discipline, and racism. Are they incorporating multicultural characters into their reading libraries? Do they have scripts for discussion about race like these and support self-reflection through prompts like these?

3. Compassion ≠ nice.

Compassion is the ability to understand someone’s situation and to feel motivated to relieve their suffering. Rather than telling children to improve someone else’s situation by doing something “nice,” encourage them to look at how changes in their own beliefs and actions can help make the world a better place.

4. Nurture caring communities.

Creating caring spaces for discussion does not require a syllabus. It requires trust, safety, and strong relationships. The close counsel and comfort of a teacher, parent, or another adult can play a critical role for children to express their thoughts.

Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

5. Check in right here, right now.

Check-ins allow adults to acknowledge how a child is feeling and help a child organize their thoughts and emotions. The role of the adult here is to be in “Learner” mode rather than “Knower” mode. Check-ins can also signal that an important discussion is taking place.

Activity 1: Check-in scale. Use a mood meter or fist-to-five scale to help children identify their mood and mental space.

Activity 2: Deep breathing. Deep breathing does not require a curriculum, though I am biased to the MindUP Brain Break.

6. Engage in civil discourse.

The problem with living inside an echo chamber is that we come to distrust everybody outside our circle. Encourage children to engage in civil discourse with people who have opposing views. These conversations require respect, patience, listening, and perspective-taking.

Edited: For information on definitions and guiding principles around #SEL and #BLM, check out these two resources: National Black Lives Matter in School Week of Action Starter Kit and

7. Recognize intersectionalities.

Intersectionality identifies injustices that a person may feel due to a combination of factors, such as gender bias, racial bias, environment, and health. Consider how these impact the way people navigate daily challenges.

How can someone pick themselves up by the bootstraps if they weren’t given boots to begin with?

8. Empower children to be upstanders.

Consider a bully, victim, and a bystander. In this triad, who has the most power? The bystander has the power to step up and use their voice and presence to change the outcome.

Here’s a lesson plan on talking to children about bias, prejudice, oppression, and how to be an upstander.

9. Allow children to be part of the solution.

Commit to a learning framework of thinking, feeling, and acting. Prompt the following questions and listen for creative, out-of-the-box ideas or solutions.

–– What are some of the thoughts you are having?

–– How might you act on these feelings?

–– How can we teach people to be kinder to black people and communities?

–– What do you think causes police to act this way?

–– What can we do to stop racism?

–– What alternatives can you imagine?

–– What do you do when you feel like something is unfair?

–– What can you offer to show others your support?

–– How can you model and practice defending someone? (Upstander)

In closing, we need to lean in and make conversations on disrupting racism personal and purposeful for our children. Moderation is key — try not to press on topics for longer than a child can sustain. Celebrate breakthroughs, journal the revelations, and encourage children to commit to being allies and upstanders in this work.

And finally, from the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson in Reflections on the Color of My Skin: “When you see black children and young adults, think of what they can be rather than what you think they are.”

Thank you for the inspiration from William Sturkey, David W. Blight, Clint Smith, Dr. Lanita Gregory Campbell, National Child Traumatic Stress Network, Mónica García, Dr. Marc Brackett, Trauma Responsive Educational Practices, Godfrey Plata, Joy Turner, Maya Daniels, Kate San Juan, Kimberly King Garrett, R. Keeth Matheny, Josh Freedman, Child Mind Institute, Dr. Margaret Hagerman, EdTrust, National Association of School Psychologists, Steph Landry, and 826LA.

Education specialist committed to creating a mindful and equitable future–through our children. @mindup @teachforamerica @kipp