Applying an Equity Lens to Social, Emotional, and Academic Development

Students having a snack at an after school program.

Many students face barriers to healthy social, emotional, and academic development, but a range of strategies can help overcome those barriers.

The Issue

Social and emotional learning (SEL) equips young people with competencies to lead productive and healthy lives. There are barriers, however, that prevent many students of color and other marginalized youth from developing social and emotional competencies. For all students to benefit, SEL must be grounded in a larger context of equity and justice efforts within public education.

Key Findings

  • Five barriers contribute to inequitable access to a high-quality SEL education, and in turn, opportunities for all children to have healthy social, emotional, and academic development.

  • The authors identify those barriers as: poverty, exclusionary discipline practices and policies in school, lack of trauma-informed practices in school, implicit bias in school staff, and educator stress and burnout.

  • Five opportunities are identified for overcoming those barriers: School racial and socioeconomic integration initiatives, restorative justice practices for school discipline, trauma-informed system interventions, culturally competent and equity-literate educators, and SEL and mindfulness programming to support students and teachers.


Health equity benefits everyone and aligns well with our nation’s promise of liberty and justice for all. We must apply an equity lens to how leaders lead, educators teach, and students learn to create opportunities for all young people to be as healthy as possible.

About Pennsylvania State University

Founded in 1855, the Pennsylvania State University is a renowned public research university that educates students from around the world and collaborates with partners to share valuable knowledge that improves the health and well-being of individuals, families and communities. For more information, visit To learn more about the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, go to

Achieving Health Equity

As health disparities in the United States continue to grow, RWJF's health equity toolkit provides resources, data, and examples of communities working to achieve better health for all.

Read more