Methods: The current study reviewed the published literature on SEL programming and cultural adaptation. Colorblind racism (ignoring the privileges and oppressions associated with race) was used as a framework for critiquing the literature. Both culture and race are considered in this analysis. Culture includes the values, norms, beliefs, and behavioral styles, of a given group of people. Race is considered separately, to acknowledge the race-based systems of oppression that maintain the social hierarchy. This critique was used to develop a conceptual model that incorporates race and culture in SEL, and to suggest new directions for future SEL research in program development and implementation.
Results: Through the lens of colorblind racism, the present study finds that SEL programs primarily assume interventions are neutral on issues of race and culture, and that the values and strategies purported by programs are universally relevant for all children. This way of creating and implementing SEL programs is colorblind, and does not recognize important differences in the race-based and cultural experiences of students. For example, individual self-control is at the heart of many SEL programs, but is a value that is not meaningful for many cultures (Hoffman, 2009). Inadvertently, values of the dominant culture are prioritized in these SEL programs. Examples of alternative strategies frame culture as difference, not deficit (Davis & Yang, 2006), use restorative rather than punitive responses to conflict (Morningside Center, 2015), or incorporate discussions of systems of oppression directly (Barr, 2010).
Conclusions and Implications: Colorblind racism has led to the assumption that program strategies are universal in many interventions, risking the growth of disparities in behavioral health and academic achievement. We know little about whether SEL interventions reduce or increase racial disparities in behavioral health or academic achievement (Garner, 2014). For efficiency’s sake, most SEL programs are delivered in a whole classroom or school-wide format, which makes cultural adaptations particularly challenging. SEL interventions have the potential to reduce disparities, but they are unlikely to do so until they recognize the value of cultural capital (Yosso, 2005), study racial and cultural differences through explicit anti-oppressive strategies, and meaningfully incorporate racial and cultural differences into the content and delivery of SEL programs.