Balancing the Triad of Trauma, SEL and Inclusion

by Adrian Mack


With the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting business as usual for many schools and school systems around the world, especially in places like the United States, many have considered the implications on students’ social, emotional, and behavioral health. But educators know from experience that trauma is not a new factor in the classroom. Research shows that trauma can hinder students from learning because of amygdala hijacking, which puts students in fight or flight mode, preventing them from processing information.

One district in New Jersey prioritized well-being and mental health during the first two days of school this year. Dr. Christopher Irving, the district’s superintendent, explained, “Trauma is real and so we are looking at pre-K all the way through high school, at all our students and take nothing for granted. Every single child is going to have a microscope on them. A microscope of care, compassion, and love, but a microscope nonetheless.” 

In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, students are facing and have faced various obstacles and forms of trauma throughout their lives, including abuse, poverty, and systemic racism. As Dr. Irving mentioned, trauma is real, and in many instances, these students do not have the best support system or access to resources that can benefit them. While many districts are currently holding a microscope over every student, we must maintain this awareness, post-pandemic, especially for marginalized students. 

Compounding the trauma students have faced over the past year is the fact that “soft skills”, such as communication, collaboration, and critical thinking, are acquired in classrooms and through extracurricular and athletic programs which many students have been deprived of this past year and a half.

Prior to the pandemic, it has been a common practice in many school settings for teachers, counselors, and other school personnel to focus on Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and well-being. In other circumstances, SEL has been designated as an intervention for certain populations of students or not considered as part of the core curriculum for all students.  

SEL programming does come with its limitations. SEL curricula are known to enhance soft skills and address mental well-being, but do not always consider human conflict and social injustices through the lens of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). If social emotional learning programs are deployed as “one size fits all,” concepts like grit and resilience will be grounded in identity blindness, and this can undermine meaningful connection with many students.

Identity blindness is when one argues that they do not see race, gender, sexual orientation, and so forth, but simply aim to treat everyone the same. Though this seems like a good approach on one level, understanding and recognizing how different groups have historically been viewed and treated and recognizing how that may be showing up in the classroom in implicit and explicit ways opens up new avenues for connection and learning.  Incorporating both SEL and DEI programming is necessary to support and prepare students to be productive and civically engaged citizens in a globalized and diverse society.

Captains & Poets is trying to answer this need by offering a ground-breaking K-12 curriculum that bridges SEL with inclusion programming to create greater foundational connection in the classroom. It can also have a cathartic and healing effect, particularly empowering students from marginalized backgrounds. The program is unique in that it fosters a sense of connection both within and across students by encouraging them to honor their full experience of themselves and to embrace the same journey in others.

The school year ahead is an opportunity to take what we know about the learning needs of all students and address the collective trauma at hand to foster a sense of connection across young people in new and powerful ways.


Adrian is a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion consultant, professor and tech ethicist with a passion for creating systemic change. He has a PhD in Transformative Studies and Transdisciplinary Studies with a research focus on media, technology and society and diversity, equity and inclusion.