CSTA Classroom Science

Bridging the gap between social-emotional learning and equity through culturally responsive science classrooms

By Dr. Nancy Nasr

Unprecedented, unique, challenging; these are just a few of the words that science educators across California used to describe the 2020/21 school year. Many science educators across the state had to contend with new distance learning practices and, for some, eventual hybrid schooling structures. Both distance learning and hybrid learning had one major thing in common: the inability for students and teachers to interact with one another to truly build authentic classroom relationships, which are the cornerstone of positive science education experiences. 

If you are like me, the recent CDC recommendations to reopen schools for the 2021/22 school year across the country serve as a welcome opportunity for fresh beginnings! A chance to start anew, deliver great learning experiences and perhaps most importantly, build positive relationships with our students. If we really think about it, many of the students who will show up to our classrooms in the Fall have not been in a formal classroom setting since the end of the 2019/20 school year-- a whole 18 months. Students who are entering high school as wide-eyed freshmen have not been on a school campus since the end of their 7th grade school year! 

Needless to say, being on a school campus provides our students with learning experiences in their disciplinary core classes, but they also provide valuable social-emotional learning (SEL) experiences. Being on campus allows students to navigate interpersonal communication norms with students and staff, collaborative work environments with diverse peers, and a whole host of nuances that are appropriate for the variety of social situations that present themselves at school. With many of our students having been off campus for 18 months, and navigating social experiences through a computer screen, it is not surprising that the SEL and development of our incoming students will be an important consideration for teachers welcoming their students back into their physical classrooms. 

Though the SEL of our students will require careful reflection by teachers as we return to the physical classroom, California science teachers have the added responsibility to promote equity in the classroom due to the simple fact that California’s student demographics are among the most ethnically and culturally diverse in the nation (Chen, 2020). Bridging the gap between SEL and equity can be achieved through the use of culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP). CRP was first proposed by Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings in the mid-1990s as “a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural and historical referents to convey knowledge, to impart skills, and to change attitudes” (Ladson-Billings, 1994, p. 13). Of course, developing science lesson sequences that incorporate the wide array of diverse cultures our students represent is a positive way to build a culturally responsive classroom environment, which in itself promotes equity. Moreover, promoting equity through culturally responsive classroom environments has the added benefit of developing students’ SEL. 


“SEL is the process through which all young people...acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions'' (https://casel.org/). The graphic below summarizes the various means to develop students’ SEL. As can be seen in the graphic, developing students’ SEL begins in the classroom, and promoting classroom experiences that develop students’ SEL can be achieved through culturally responsive classroom environments. In fact, when thinking about how to develop culturally responsive classroom environments, positive relationships within the classroom are foundational, and it is these relationships that are key to promoting SEL. 

Building relationships in the culturally responsive science classroom to enhance students’ SEL can be done in a variety of ways. First and foremost, teachers must know their diverse students well by deeply understanding their cultural and linguistic behaviors (Hollie, 2019). For example, validating and affirming cross-cultural and cross-linguistic behaviors better engages all students in authentic disciplinary learning and SEL. A common cross-cultural/linguistic behavior that can be affirmed in the science classroom is that of overlapping conversations. Overlapping conversations occur when students engage in discourse that is non-linear and when verbal expressions occur simultaneously, or in an “overlapping” fashion. In the context of cultural responsiveness, teachers can encourage this behavior as a means to develop students’ SEL. Whole-group classroom activities that encourage this behavior include allowing students to “shout out” answers to prompts, without fear of being punished for such behavior. In effect, the cross-cultural/linguistic behavior of verbal overlap becomes an asset in the culturally responsive classroom, and builds a classroom community that fosters social-emotional development. 

Punishing students for cross-cultural/linguistic behaviors does not foster a classroom community that is culturally responsive, nor does it promote student SEL. In fact, eliminating the use of rewards and punishments in the classroom builds a classroom community that emphasizes trust (Watson et al., 2019), and thus is conducive to students’ SEL. Allowing students to engage in behaviors such as verbal overlap, not only promotes a classroom culture built on trust, but it also enhances students' social-emotional awareness related to conversational norms. Specifically, overlapping classroom conversations can be managed by teachers through the use of call and response strategies. For example, to regain the attention of the class the culturally responsive teacher might engage in rhythmic methods of classroom management wherein when the teacher says “listen” and the students respond with “up”, and the teacher allows 3-5 seconds for attention. This rhythmic call and response strategy, coupled with the time required to regain student attention builds a sense of community, connects students to classroom norms by honoring cross-cultural behaviors and also promotes SEL through sensitivity to conversational norms (Hollie, 2019). 

Finally, the NGSS provide ample opportunities for students to engage in meaningful learning experiences, drive their own learning, and engage in critical thought processes; all of which promote students’ intrinsic motivation, which is a cornerstone of culturally responsive SEL (Ginsberg & Wlodkowski, 2019). Together, engaging in meaningful learning experiences, student construction of knowledge and critical thinking promote culturally responsive SEL by establishing inclusion through positive and cooperative learning opportunities and bringing about student confidence in their own scientific competence. These experiences enhance students’ intrinsic motivation, and thus their SEL within the context of the culturally responsive science classroom.

Our students will soon return to our classrooms, and with that return comes a great responsibility for teachers to bridge the gap between social-emotional learning and equity through culturally responsive science classrooms. Until next time!


Chen, G. (2020, October 7). Public school review diversity report: Which states have the most diverse public schools? Public School Review. https://www.publicschoolreview.com/blog/public-school-review-diversity-report-which-states-have-the-most-diverse-public-schools 

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (n.d.). What is SEL? https://casel.org/what-is-sel/ 

Ginsberg, M. B., & Wlodkowski, R. J. (2019). Intrinsic motivation as the foundation for culturally responsive social emotional and academic learning in teacher education. Teacher Education Quarterly, 46(4), 53-66.

Hollie, S. (2019). Branding culturally relevant teaching: A call for remixes. Teacher Education Quarterly, 46(4), 31-52. 

Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The dreamkeepers. Jossey-Bass. 

Watson, M., Daly, L., Smith, G., & Rabin, C. (2019). Building a classroom community that supports students’ social/moral development. Teacher Education Quarterly, 46(4), 10-30.

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Dr. Nancy Nasr

Nancy Nasr is currently a California secondary school science educator with over seven years of experience in the diverse classroom. Teaching a population of approximately 50% Latinx and Black students, Dr. Nasr’s continued research interest is anchored in cultural responsiveness in the science classroom as well as student attitudes toward culturally responsive pedagogy. Additionally, Dr. Nasr has an interest in exploring the ways in which the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs) of the NGSS can be used to infuse science learning that is situated in phenomena associated with social justice, and empowering her students to overcome social injustices through the use of science. Dr. Nasr received her B.Sc. in Microbiology from University of Alberta. She received her M.A.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from California State University, Northridge and her Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from University of South Carolina.



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