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Creating Equity and Acceptance in Schools


Becoming Trauma Informed is about changing ourselves and the environment to foster trauma resilience in those we come in contact with. If schools are using Social Emotional Learning curriculum (SEL) only as an add-on program to implement, then it isn’t about the teachers and environment changing, it is merely about changing the behavior of students.  If we are solely trying to change others to make them conform to pre-set standards, it is continuing the oppressive cycle.  Command and control do not work well; uprisings eventually occur because we all need to be heard and valued. Rules without relationships create rebellion.  If schools use SEL exclusively as an add-on program and do not fully adopt unconditional respect, validate emotions and needs, and teach expression (not stifling) of emotions, they miss the potential to change lives. SEL should teach people how to express their emotions in ways to fulfill their needs while upholding respect for self and others. SEL should change everyone’s frame of mind, internal thoughts, and external responses to reflect equity and unconditional respect. It is not about behavior; it is about acceptance.

 A recent article on exposed a concern that schools sometimes dismiss teaching or do not embrace the true meaning of social awareness as part of their Social Emotional Learning. If SEL curriculum is conveying that social awareness is simply following pre-determined protocol and a set standard of behaviors, it can make students feel the need to stifle their emotions and diversity to better conform. The article identified the need to focus on historical facts surrounding resistance to oppression and teach students to use and express their emotions to meet their needs and bring change in our society.  Righteous anger has long been used as a tool to fuel movements that have and continue to propel our nation forward towards justice. SEL devoid of culturally-affirming practices and understandings is not SEL at all.*   The article goes on to express that change may be difficult because school systems historically are built around the concept of control. The factory model of education persists (and) pushes standardization, devotion to nationalism without loving critique, and obedience. This leaves little to no room for creativity, for reflection, and for questioning of authority. We have to decouple SEL from its controlling nature, or it will remain yet another tool of oppression.

Educators and all school staff should embrace the 6 Trauma Informed Principles: Safety, Trustworthiness, Peer Support, Collaboration, Empowerment and Cultural, Historical and Gender Issues to guide all interactions, policies and protocol. The use of SEL should support those principles.  True SEL is about understanding our relationships with ourselves and with others. It’s to know ourselves as holistic human beings, and to be able to see the humanity in others to fight, together, for the world we deserve, which is rooted in equity and justice.  If schools use SEL as an add-on to simply try to change behavior and do not embrace the systemic philosophical and attitudinal changes that must occur to increase equity and acceptance, it can, in fact, create more harm to those who might continue to feel oppressed or unworthy. Students and families must have a voice and feel welcome to collaborate with teachers and staff. We must not lose the importance of co-constructing spaces with young people to lean into creative expression and joy where young people are reminded that they are not just their trauma, but rather all of the ways they continue to dream, imagine, hope, and grow.

Join me and believe:

What I have to do is realize that through unconditional respect I will never completely understand where you come from. I can’t because my genes and history are different. What I can do is constantly listen and incorporate your viewpoints with mine to create a relationship and mutually designed environment created through our collaboration that allows us to feel physically and emotionally safe.

It is about listening with the emphasis on others being heard! Then, trust and relationships will flourish followed by collaboration which leads to equitable empowerment. We can create an intertwined existence together. –Cheryl Step

Once we accomplish this, the unconditional respect will flow in both directions. We will have all changed and grown because our voices are heard, we feel valued, and we did it together. 

 Written by:

Cheryl Step, MS, LPC, NCC

Creating Resilience, LLC


*All italicized words are quotes taken from: When SEL is Used As Another Form of Policing

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