Equity and the Marriage between Academic Content Acquisition and Building Emotional Capacity

By Dr. Ebony Green

Senior Director of Equity and Access


Emotional equity is crucial to preparing our future leaders to be the captains of their destiny. In some cases, emotional equity can be defined by the way in which educators support students to define their identity within the context of the classroom and, ultimately, the world. Within this frame, there are important questions to ask: 

  • Have students acquired the skills necessary to believe in their own ability to be successful? 
  • Do students understand the connection between their ability to persist in the classroom and their successful completion of school? 
  • How does the educational community provide opportunities for students to examine their roles and responsibilities in bringing their dreams to fruition?  

Our traditional belief regarding equity is rooted in the instructional pedagogy and practice within education institutions. While we must ensure that students receive an equitable education through that lens, we must not omit the necessity to incorporate the components of emotional equity into our equity planning process. The beginnings of this shift were shown through the reframing of social-emotional learning (SEL) into social, emotional, and academic development (SEAD). The shift leads with the question, “What are the skills students are required to learn within the classroom that will support them to persist and engage in rigorous coursework?” 

Students must acquire emotional regulation and emotional intelligence in order to be lifelong critical thinkers and problem solvers. As educators invest in achieving educational equity, they need to consider utilizing emotional capacity-building as an integral part of achieving true equity within schools and school districts. Merging academic capacity with emotional capacity is tantamount to achieving true student success. 

Often the educational community posits that equity focuses on ways in which we support student achievement. I find it troubling to build academic success without an equal acknowledgement that healthy adults balance their intelligence and their emotional stateeach state is complementary and important to the other. Emotional capacity-building plays a key role in preparing our students to experience long-term success. 

One way to complement academic success with emotional success is to use the social justice standards from Teaching Tolerance to liberate students from racism, sexism, and classism by building a fundamental understanding of how these “-isms” permeate a system and reinforce oppression. These standards help educators engage students in ways that allow them to deconstruct institutions of injustice; teaching through the lens of the social justice standards gives students the skills to contextualize their identity within the classroom. Additionally, the standards help students view diversity through a more inclusive frame and provide students with the skills to identify and challenge situations and circumstances of injustice. 

When students realize that they have the power to move to action and challenge injustice whenever they see it, they have internalized their position in the world. The same skills that they use to stand in their power and challenge injustice can be used to tackle rigorous coursework; their awareness of their responsibility to the world is mirrored by their responsibility to self in achieving academic success. The converse can also be true; students who do not develop a strong sense of self (i.e., a strong social-emotional awareness) have great difficulty achieving what we consider success within the school context. I believe children who are disengaged from classroom instruction lack a real sense of their ability and that ability’s connection to their overall achievement. 

Wes Moore, CEO of the New York City-based Robin Hood Foundation, states that, “Potential is universal, opportunity is not, and our job is to fill the gap.” It’s incumbent upon educators to ensure that students not only complete rigorous coursework but also recognize their brilliance in doing so. Manifesting equitable excellence requires us to create environments that make social emotional learning complementary to successful academic outcomes. 

(The above photograph is courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.)