SEL, difficult observances, and GSAs/QSAs

by Amy Moran, Ph. D. & Kate Okeson

This month’s column focuses on the “rainbow connection” between SEL competencies and their usefulness for approaching sensitive topics and important concerns in the month of November. 

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which students of all ages 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.

The NJDOE adopted five SEL competencies in 2017, including self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills. These competencies are especially significant when we look at marginalized populations such as LGBTQIA+ youth. Let’s focus on the power of social awareness, but we may just as easily call it empathy. 

What skills contribute to social awareness?

  •         Recognizing social, verbal and physical cues to understand how others feel. 
  •         Listening and acknowledging others’ perspectives.
  •         Showing concern for others’ feelings and demonstrating compassion.
  •         Identifying diverse social norms, including those that are unjust. 
  •         Caring about and contributing to the well-being of family, friends, school, the environment, and the greater good.

Empathy is important when talking about LGBTQIA+ topics and people. Lack of familiarity with and fewer positive representations of LGBTQIA+ people are related to an empathy deficit and an increase in biases towards LGBTQIA+ folks. Improving outcomes for our students means we need to show each other empathy–with no exception. 

So why talk about SEL this month? November presents us with opportunities to activate and deepen our own and students’ SEL competencies—including Transgender Awareness Week, Indigenous Peoples’ Month and World AIDS Day. Importantly, SEL competencies help us develop capacity to acknowledge, appreciate and honor experiences we may not share with people who happen to be different from us, be they transgender, Indigenous, or impacted by HIV/AIDS. 

Transgender Awareness Week (Nov. 13-19) is an opportunity to raise community consciousness about who transgender people are, share experiences, and prevent discrimination and violence against this community. It culminates with Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) on Nov. 20, during which people honor the lives of transgender people who were lost to anti-trans violence that year. 

While Transgender Awareness Week presents multiple opportunities for education, TDOR warrants special sensitivity. In a high school GSA meeting, a 15-year-old Dominican trans girl described not imagining living to be 35 years old. She didn’t see relevant examples of adult trans people like herself but saw many news reports of transgender women of color who died by homicide. 

Educators can activate SEL competencies such as recognizing unjust social norms or learning things that help students become more empathetic, while contextualizing events that are devastating to young people. With those skills we can honor transgender people and their gifts to us, collectively mourn unrealized futures, and responsibly educate ourselves and all our students about transgender issues that warrant our support and celebration, as allies and co-conspirators for safety and justice for transgender people. 

As we observe Indigenous Peoples’ Month and approach Thanksgiving—a holiday that is fraught for Indigenous and First Nations people in North America—we have the opportunity to learn and teach about the multiple heritages of Indigenous people in our area and beyond, and to teach about myriad historical events in our nation that ask us to contend with our country’s complicated and sometimes cruel past. 

SEL competencies help us as we learn, for example, about the hundreds of Native children who died and were buried in unmarked graves at residential schools in the U.S. and Canada where they were sent after being forcibly taken from their families as part of a racist, assimilationist agenda. SEL competencies also provide a foundation from which we can learn about First Nations communities, acknowledge the original inhabitants of the lands we now occupy, and learn from the myriad artistic, cultural and ecological wisdoms that Indigenous people have developed and continue to evolve. We can also learn more about Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer people and identities this month and all year long!

November is immediately followed by World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, when we show support for those living with HIV, remember those who died of AIDS-related illnesses, and acknowledge the devastating impact AIDS has had on the queer community. It also allows us to analyze evolving public health policies and to honor the brilliant resistance, resilience, organizing and activism that queer people engaged in throughout the mid-eighties and beyond. In fact, AIDS activism uniquely informed public health officials’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic some 30 years later.

Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer people may find themselves at the intersections of these three observations, while others may find themselves uncertain about why these observances matter. During November, we can lean on our SEL competencies, practicing empathy toward ourselves and offering it generously to others. 

While whole-school acknowledgements and in-class explorations of Transgender Awareness Week, Indigenous Peoples’ Month, and World AIDS Day are important, November also offers the opportunity to leverage the visibility and participation of your GSA/QSA (Gay-Straight Alliance, Gender-Sexuality Alliance, Queer Student Alliance).

If your school already has an active GSA/QSA, do a quick SEL-related inventory: 

  •       Do you discuss current events around LGBTQIA+ issues? 
  •       Do those discussions include the intersections of multiple identities?
  •       Do you hold social events where members meet new students? 
  •       Do your students share experiences in hopes of improving things at school? 

If you’d like to deepen your SEL focus, try these:

  •       Create an affinity group between a GSA/QSA and another club or class at school to discuss current events that feel close to them, such as the November observances or, perhaps, queer issues at the Olympics or professional athletes who have recently come out.
  •       Work with the art classes or clubs to design a poster campaign around pronoun awareness. 
  •       Create and share a Mindfulness Minute with health classes or other clubs and encouraging students to use that skill to “think before they speak.”

GSAs/QSAs are a powerful tool with the capacity to reach beyond one-on-one support to provide education, create affinity groups, and develop a sense of activism in your school. 

Please visit the resource page (QR code) for more information and-as always-we welcome your input and feedback at 

Heads-up for school counselors

As a number of holidays approach, remember that in most cases our students are separated from school for longer than a weekend. School offers connection and social contact, and even with access to friends, some students go home to less than accepting households and experience disproportionate stress when “on break.”  We can help LGBTQIA+ kids plan for these challenges by identifying useful coping strategies in advance. Coping can be taking a nap, texting with a friend, or grabbing a snack and streaming something that feels good and authentic.

Brian Clyburn, school counselor at Columbia High School in South Orange-Maplewood, says, “Many LGBTQIA+ teens navigate through spaces and family situations during the holidays that aren’t ideal for their sense of safety and security. Perhaps their only sense of community and support are at school with peers they confide in and trust. I would encourage them to stay connected and check in frequently with their inner circle.  Those who are part of supportive family environments might consider “sharing” that support with a friend.  Sometimes just knowing that there’s a safe space to retreat to for a few hours at a time makes a huge difference.”


Jeffrey A. Gibson (born March 31, 1972) is a gay, Mississippi Choctaw-Cherokee painter and sculptor living and working in the United States. His work addresses the many aspects of his intersecting identity and is a vibrant place to start conversation in the classroom about traditions, materials, representation and meaning.

Visibility matters in media!

Reservation Dogs is a new series on Hulu about four Indigenous teens trying to leave their rural Oklahoma home.  Queer-positivity is present throughout as the character Cheese introduces himself and his pronouns in a scene with strangers, and Willie Jack holds tough as a confident butch/masculine-of-center young woman who doesn’t suffer fools.  Devery Jacobs, the actor who plays Elora is a queer-identified person who will join the Reservation Dogs writing team, along with other queer contributors behind the camera, including several gay writers and a trans director.

Growing Up Trans:  In Our Own Words (edited by Kate Fry and Lindsay Herriot).  This 2021 collection shares stories, essays, art and poetry created by trans youth aged 11 to 18. In their own words, the works illustrate the trans experience through childhood, family and daily life, school, their bodies and mental health. It’s a toolkit for all young people, transgender or not, about what understanding, acceptance and support for the trans community looks like. The book includes questions and tips on how to be a trans ally.  

47,000 Beads by Koja Adeyoha and Angel Adeyoha, illustrated by Holly McGillis. Peyton loves to dance, and especially at pow wow, but her Auntie notices that she’s been dancing less and less. When Peyton shares that she just can’t be comfortable wearing a dress anymore, Auntie Eyota asks some friends for help to get Peyton what she needs.