Bank Street Releases Occasional Paper Series #43

The new Bank Street Occasional Paper Series #43—“Possibilities and Problems in Trauma-Based and Social Emotional Learning Programs”—launched to highlight the types of emotionally responsive approaches and routines seen in schools and community-based programs and to take a closer look at how educators can re-imagine these models to better serve all students.

In the email interview below, Guest Editors Tracey Pyscher and Anne Crampton provide additional insight into the current landscape of social-emotional learning programs and how educators can more effectively address and nurture the emotional lives of children without marginalizing those who have experienced trauma.

Tracey Pyscher is Assistant Professor of Secondary Education at Western Washington University. Anne Crampton is the Academic Program Director of Teacher Outreach Education for Inclusive Environments at the Woodring College of Education.

Q: The issue’s introduction states that “SEL and Trauma-Informed Practice are not only popular, they are deemed essential in almost every corner of the social services sector.” What is the current landscape of social emotional learning programs in schools and social services settings today?

A: In education, there is growing interest in and support for Social Emotional Learning (SEL) programs globally, and strong support in the United States at federal, state, and district levels. All 50 states have set pre-K SEL standards, and most states have guidance for the elementary and secondary schools, if not official standards (Hamilton, et al., 2019). SEL programs can be funded through the federal title money, although with ESSA’s demand for evidence, such investments require linked demonstrations of success, usually quantitative outcomes (Grant, et al., 2020). Some of the most popular vessels for SEL programming include positive behavior intervention systems (PBIS), Second Step, Responsive Classroom, and trauma-informed practices (TIP), in the form of “Compassionate Classroom” or similar frameworks. In other social services settings, SEL programming appears in the form of interdisciplinary, coordinated trauma-informed care, with a starting assumption that clients receiving social services (e.g., family and child welfare, health, legal) frequently have multiple, ongoing, and historic adverse experiences that are classified as traumatic. We make the claim that SEL and TIP programs are considered essential for good reason, but we seek to understand how to improve both the theories and practical frameworks that inform their development and enactment.

Q: Many essays in this issue argue that social emotional learning programs are often well-intentioned but may send children the message that something is wrong with them. Can this do more harm than good? 

A: Yes, educators can do more harm than good, even with good intentions. Both of us have written and presented on the of topic of “best practices” and the unintentional consequences that often emerge out of educators’ best intentions (Pyscher, 2017b; Pyscher, Crampton, Baker, Wu, & Richardson, 2019). This is especially true related to TIP and SEL practices and policies. With TIP in particular, Pyscher (2019, 2017a, & 2017b) has extensively documented how the psychological and medicalized ideologies that popular TIP practices/policies espouse often create conditions for educators to position and objectify young people with experiences of childhood domestic violence (DV) as “broken and damaged.” There are alarming practices shaped by these kinds of deficit-oriented ideologies that often, more times than not, assign “damaged” behavioral labels on the bodies of DV children and youth. Such practices can significantly impact these young people’s school and life trajectories.

Pyscher and other educational researchers have argued that the end results of such detrimental practices can push these young people into the school-to-prison/prostitution pipelines (Meiners, 2016: Pyscher & Lozenski, 2016 & 2014). Even if educators’ intentions are sincere and loving, which we assume they are, it is difficult at best for them to step out of their original belief that traumatic childhood experiences equates brain-based “damage,” for instance. This keeps at bay the possibility for educators to practice more culturally sustaining/relevant practices (Ladson-Billings, 1995; Paris & Alim, 2017). This “damaged” frame of mind and related practices dismantles the good intentions of such “best” intentions. We appreciate how many of the authors in this special issue both identify and describe how these unintentional and complicated consequences occur in their respective contexts. As well, we hope the readers take note of how this phenomenon impacts the lives of children and youth who have experienced trauma either individually or in intersectional ways (i.e., domestic violence, poverty, queer).

Q: Several authors advocate integrating social-emotional foundations of learning with culturally sustaining pedagogies. Why is this so important and what are the other hallmarks of a high-quality social-emotional learning programs?

A: As with academic programming, SEL programs must be contextualized and differentiated in order for them to be effective. While it is appropriate to support students’ success in their school experiences, it is dangerous to put forward a program that espouses approved ways of being socially and emotionally successful. A culturally sustaining SEL program would meet students in their complexity. It would include diverse expressions of their social and emotional lives, and it would find this diversity of expression to be a reasonable response to our highly complex social world, with historic and current inequitable distributions of power and access. The usual goals of SEL such as awareness of one’s emotions, management of emotions, and care for relationships might be good starting points, but if practitioners are asked to collect evidence of growth in these areas, they must be clear on their own biases and position, and qualitative measures must be sought.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from this issue?

A: When working with children and youth who have experienced traumatic-centered marginalization that ranges from racism to domestic violence, among others, we hope the readers can take away an ability to ask the tough questions regarding their beliefs and practices related to the social, emotional, and psychic lives (cultural ways of being) of marginalized children. We especially hope readers will take up this challenge when thinking and setting policy for young people who are labeled as behavioral “deficit” and/or “damaged.” If educators’ intentions are indeed loving and committed to culturally sustaining/relevant practices (Ladson-Billings, 1995), we hope they can find relevant and applicable SEL and TIP practices in the many articles found in this special edition. We know there is little critique in educational literature that problematizes both of these popular frameworks, and we are both humbled and excited to see voices like these help us to begin to frame the problem and we hope that others will build off of this effort and offer even more practices/policies to truly see and love these deeply marginalized children and youth differently. Like other educators and researchers who have paved the social justice “road” before us (Fine, 1991; Ladson-Billings, 1995), we hope this issue pushes forward an even greater equity-oriented effort to counter what feels like the continual steep mountain of inequity that marginalized children, youth, and their caregivers face. Feel free to reach out to us as we have worked with and engaged in research many K-12 and community-based organizations who have begun their journeys toward implementing a more equity-oriented approach to SEL and TIP practices.


Read the full issue of Occasional Paper Series #43