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Culture & Context

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

-Nelson Mandela


When we begin to teach about culture in elementary school we do so by most simply defining culture as "a people's way of life or the way groups do things". As we build our language we start to identify rituals, routines, myths, beliefs, behaviors, institutions, values, morals, policies, procedures, arts, foods, customs, etc... I want us to use the more basic definition here because it is good entry point for creating common expressive language for thinking about the relationship between SEL and culture. 

Let's start by recognizing that these six domains interact with individualistic and collectivist cultures. The "Self" domains - Self-awareness, Self-management, Self-efficacy support a person deepening a relationship with themselves through recognizing and understanding emotions, thoughts, and feelings. I think, by now, it is safe to say that there is ample evidence of the significance of these skills in relation to self-care and general health and well-being for an individual. In addition there is also an overwhelming advantage these skills provide a young person when preparing for and entering college and or career. (please see the SEL & Career/College Readiness Page.)

The same is true for the "Social" domains. Social Awareness, Social Management, Social Engagement, provide opportunities for students to gain skills in supporting the well being of others. Societies cannot function and flourish without members who have tremendous skill in these areas. And, just like with the self-domains, competence in the social domains enhances the quality of relationships and increases the protective factors of a community and a people. This also promotes self-care and general health and well-being. Also, there is evidence that these skills critical for entering college and or career. (please see the SEL & Career/College Readiness Page.)

I can not think of a situation in which people interact and are void of feeling or thought. Emotions matter, because there is emotion information in everything humans do. In the same way, I can not think of a situation in which culture does not play a role in shaping how, and with whom, people feel and express emotions. Wether we choose to recognize emotions and culture is another story, however, there is no denying they are ubiquitous to the human experience. However, though there is no biological difference in the emotions of one group of people there is tremendous difference in how emotions, feelings, and thoughts are recognized, understood, interpreted, managed, and expressed. This is the why and how the same emotions can be promoted or discouraged differently across cultures. Take the idea of race. We know that race isn't really real; it was made-up, it was a social construct, designed and adapted for nefarious intention. Okay so today, race certainly exists culturally. There is no biological difference between black anger and white anger, but consider how the expression of black anger and white anger are interpreted and felt. That's a big deal. (Consider the role culture plays regarding the expressions of emotion for women and men. BOOM! Big Time Feelings there for sure!)


It has been my experience that the following sequence is very supportive to helping students access learning about culture using an SEL lens. (And, as you'll see in a minute, revisiting SEL with a cultural lens). Start with Self-awareness. The reason for this is that our nation has a wonderful history supporting some cultures and a legacy of total brutality in suppressing and oppressing others. You will find it helpful to first provide students common expressive language for what they are feeling and thinking as they begin to share in the knowledge of cultures. You would next teach Social Awareness and Culture simultaneously. Social Awareness, by it's very best practices, requires cultural responsiveness. Once there is common expressive language for feelings, thoughts, empathy, perspective, and culture I would progress forward bouncing from the Self to the Social. It is important to recognize early that though the experience of emotion may be universal to humans, the use of these SEL skills may not be equally relevant or valued universally from culture to culture. This is how we can revisit SEL with a cultural lens and visit cultures being aware of the thoughts and feelings that come up for us. 


It is also healthy (necessary) to ask and inquiry about cultural values for students and families and colleagues who come from different cultures than our own. Cultural Psychologist Jessica Dere talks about assuming a "stance of informed curiosity" when working to build relationships across a perceived or actual cultural divide.   She also states, "Ask different questions and ask questions differently".

There is far more about SEL and culture (particularly as we go further into thinking about implicit bias and confirmation bias). Check back for much more! 

I also really like this quote from Trevor Noah. It is in reference to the Nelson Mandela quote above. 

I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.

- Trevor Noah


Cultural Contexts

In Schools


You Can 

Apply Your

SEL Skills To Help!

As educators, if we can begin to frame our approach to education using SEL we may start to more quickly improve the experience of all our kids, and specifically, our Native and Black and African American children. Using SEL as the frame we may start to have a deeper understanding of practices that we have otherwise been unaware of that have either historically marginalized these children or practices that could more quickly help us improve the academic and social outcomes for our students. We still have a majority of school staff that are white and consciously or unconsciously express Normative Whiteness in values, inflexibility, and fragility. Just a thought as we start to apply these skills to ourselves. Also, to continue to stir the pot, here are a couple of other cultural things we could use an SEL lens to help us think about and discuss.

  • Kindergarten may be the first time a child looks around and does not see a face like the faces that have been providing care for him or her, since being born. How can schools best support kids in this common situation?

  • In education we still have a predominantly white, female workforce interacting with kids and families and a predominantly white male legislation, issuing money, policy, and rarely-to-never having contact with kids and families in any kind of authentic academic setting. 

  • In education, if you really want to make more money, you apply for jobs that put you farther away from daily interactions providing instruction and support for kids and working with families. Wait, What?!? 

  • At one time, becoming an instructional leader may have required a set of character strengths or skills, now it requires nothing more than a certificate, oh and you make more money. 


If culture is the thing that people do, context is the setting they do it in. Context is happening anytime a human is, or humans are, doing something. This is why we say the use of SEL skill is contextual. We want to teach students to be able to identify a "best" set of SEL skills using their understanding of what is "best" as determined by their ability to understand the context of what is happening. It is context that may be the largest determinate for what constitutes a "best self" for a given situation and here, through context, SEL interacts with identity. Identity, and the idea of a "best self", are shaped by context. There is identity in how we see ourselves, how we want to see ourselves, how we want others to see us, and how others do see us. All of these types of identity are subject to context. SEL is contextual because as our landscapes shift, our "best selves" need to be adaptable to those changes in setting.


For example, the "best self" for disc golf may not be the best self for chess club. Context matters when reflecting on and activating a "best self". Sometimes teachers help students by encouraging a "best self" for a particular activity. For example, a best self for listening to a read aloud may be calm, open, and reflective, whereas, a best self for debate may be alert, energetic, and calculated. Anecdotally, and to spare you the headache, I have seen teachers suggest to high school students, they consider the word "punctual" when working to identify some of the traits of their overall best self. My God. In all my years I have never met a student who thought "punctual" was even a thing. I'm not saying that punctuality isn't a value in some cultures and I am not saying that it's okay for students to not practice being on time, particularly when instruction could be missed. I'm just saying, maybe don't suggest "punctuality" as a best self trait. 

"He was running out the house with a laptop and an Xbox!" - reported an older man about his 17 year old neighbor 

Maybe he was stealing, maybe his house was on fire. Context matters. 

Students already receive ample opportunity for practicing recognizing different contextual settings. Six or seven different classes a day, with different content areas, different teachers, different peers, lunch, after school time, dances, parties, walking home, sports, bands, and that doesn't even begin to address the social spaces they occupy online. So, yeah. Context matters. 

I have numerous lessons on context because there are so many great opportunities for practicing and applying SEL skills in different contexts. My students (k-12) have also seemed to enjoy role-play scenarios, where they get to demonstrate "best self" and "not-so-best self" in a variety of contexts. I will post some of my students' favorite lessons on this page so check back regularly.  

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