Social Design

Social Design-Distributed Leadership for Civic Learning (external link)
Social Design Distributed Leadership for Civic Learning: Consider Diverse Values, Discuss Different Ideas, Facilitate for Equity, Examine Alternatives,  Deliberately Dialogue, Design from the Margins Distribute Leadership, Build Community

Social Design for Community Engagement and Civic Learning

 The quality of relationships and learning environments in schools and communities provide the foundation for youth resilience and well-being. The relationships between educational partners collaborating to address youth needs and collective goals could be better understood through social design. Social design aims to change decision-making processes, redistribute power, and improve equitable outcomes. Social design combines both rational design, the expertise and planning of leaders, with incremental design and partnerships, in a democratic process that is highly inclusive and creative (Jun, 1986; Jun & Storm, 1990). In educational research, “Social design experiments—cultural historical formations designed to promote transformative learning for adults and children—are organized around expansive notions of learning and mediated praxis and provide new tools and practices for envisioning new pedagogical arrangements, especially for students from nondominant communities” (Gutiérrez, & Vossoughi, 2010); a “sociocultural” and “iterative” approach to “coconstructed experimentation” within a “process of fundamental social transformation” (Gutiérrez & Jurow, 2016). A participatory systemic design process can contribute to a socially just democracy (Ko, Bal, & Artiles, 2022). 

Social design-distributed leadership for civic learning engages learners and educational partners in distributed leadership dialogue and decision-making processes for the improvement of schools and communities. This includes: providing students with opportunities to consider, discuss, and engage in dialogue concerning different stakeholders' diverse views and values, to have involvement in decision-making for the school, the school having an effective committee structure, school leaders facilitating effective communication, and stakeholders having an appropriate level of autonomy in decision-making (Elemen, 2015; 2017a; 2017b; 2018). 

Youth and adults should have intentionally designed opportunities to practice democracy in schools, to develop metacognition (observing and reflecting about their thinking), examine their social experiences, and cultivate sociocultural and emotional literacy, especially as to not reproduce inequities. To boost resilience, transformative SEL (T-SEL) focuses on elevating student voice and civic engagement. Effective schoolwide T-SEL attends to issues of culture, identity, agency, belonging, and engagement; exploring power, privilege, prejudice, discrimination, social justice, empowerment, and self-determination (Jagers, Rivas-Drake, & Williams, 2019; Simmons, 2021). 

Community school models call for centering the needs of youth and families, extending to social emotional, mental and behavioral health support. For example, a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) and an “empathic discipline program leverages empathy from adults at school as a means to reduce discipline problems” (Okonofua & Semko, 2023). Educators improve by deepening their own emotional literacy (Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center, 2021) and racial literacy (Sealey-Ruiz, 2021; Price-Dennis & Sealey-Ruiz, 2021) to address and disrupt how implicit biases and systemic racism harm their students and school communities, and co-create equitable outcomes for social justice. Andratesha Fritzgerald (2020) has innovated antiracist universal design for learning (UDL) (CAST, 2018) and encourages educators to self-assess, confront biases, connect, and break down barriers. 

Restorative practices and T-SEL alignment include strategies such as classroom social contracts, collaborative learning community agreements, cooperative positively interdependent group roles with clearly defined tasks so that students take ownership and feel needed and connected with their peers in an affirming and supportive learning process (CASEL, 2021; Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 2008). Culturally relevant, sustaining, and responsive strategies create belonging and include bringing home cultures, family stories, and communities into the classroom, and students going out to explore them as metaphorical mirrors, windows, and doors (Sims Bishop, 1990). Walking and learning outside and in nature boosts creativity (Ward, 2017). Art, music, dancing, sports, and physical activity also enhance motivational pursuits. Motivation is amplified by a sense of purpose, competence, autonomy, and relatedness (Ryan, Williams, Patrick, & Desi, 2009). De-escalation strategies like deep breathing, somatics and intentional body movement, meditation, mindfulness, and compassion help address the needs of the primal, emotional brain. They lower the affective filter, increase safety by alleviating the stress of fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses; and provide emotional regulation. 

The learning environment and curriculum need to be trauma-informed, healing-centered, as well as culturally and historically responsive (Muhammad, 2023); shifting the current skills-based assessment paradigm to value identity, intellect, criticality, and joy. Informed by culturally sustaining pedagogy, learning should be relevant to students, honor their family histories, ancestors, languages and cultures, be responsive and centered (Alim, & Paris, 2017; Gay, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 2014; 2021), elevate community cultural wealth (Delgado Bernal, 2020; Fierros & Delgado Bernal, 2016; Yosso, 2005), and start from students’ funds of knowledge (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992). These should be anchored with critical pedagogy, which “aims to disrupt harmful informational assumptions about marginalized and disenfranchised communities that students may have internalized” (Nucci & Ilten-Gee, 2021, p. 111). To promote positive support for deeper learning (Learning Policy Institute, 2023), it is necessary for educators to provide structures and scaffolds for inquiry, collaboration, and dialogue. 

Critical digital, media, and civic literacy are imperative to supporting 21st century learners (Lo, Hodgin, & Garcia, 2022; Mirra, Morrell, Cain, Scorza, & Ford, 2013; Mirra, Morrell, & Filipiak, 2018; Elemen, Santillan, & Guajardo, 2021). “Youth should have opportunities to challenge inequality, learn from the perspectives of minority or targeted groups, and take tangible steps toward reducing inequality and injustice. Critical digital citizenship curricula becomes a means for educators and students to use, and interrogate, technology in order to effect systemic change” (Logan, et al., 2022). Civic imagination is the “capacity to imagine strategic uses of technology to address social and political issues from digital tools typically used for personal and social purposes” (Evans, 2015). With rapidly changing technologies and digital media, students should be able to learn and show their knowledge in different and creative ways; meeting the needs of learner variability and promoting student voice, choice, and agency.

 Educational leaders are called upon to facilitate the redesign of structures and cultures that elevate youth brilliance, families and communities for systemic change and sustainability. Shifting the focus to empowerment following the spectrum of family and community engagement for educational equity (González, 2021), they may infuse strategies such as pláticas - informal conversations that allow people to share ideas, knowledge and reflections including ethnic studies (Delgado Bernal, 2020; Fierros & Delgado Bernal, 2016), and the building and strengthening of relationships. Levels of community engagement increase as educational partners move through the spectrum from ignoring to informing to consulting to involving to collaborating, and to deferring, as communities transform systems. Social design includes students, families, educators, school staff and community members collectively practicing in an ecosystem of co-creation for the future.


Cite as:

Elemen, J. E. (2024). Social design for community engagement and civic learning. 

Social Design-Distributed Leadership and Student Voice Opportunities Survey


1.     There is consideration of people’s diverse values at my school.

strongly disagree                disagree                   agree                       strongly agree


2.     There is consideration of people’s diverse values who would be affected by the outcome of deliberation or problem solving of my school.

strongly disagree                disagree                   agree                       strongly agree


3.     The ideas of different people are discussed at my school.

strongly disagree                disagree                   agree                       strongly agree


4.     Students have involvement in decision-making at my school.

strongly disagree                disagree                   agree                       strongly agree


5.     There is an effective committee structure for decision-making at my school.

strongly disagree                disagree                   agree                       strongly agree


6.     Effective communication is facilitated at my school.

strongly disagree                disagree                   agree                       strongly agree


7.     There is an appropriate level of autonomy in decision-making at my school.  In other words, people have opportunities to make the appropriate choices for themselves on issues that would affect them.

strongly disagree                disagree                   agree                       strongly agree


8.     My school incorporates discussion of current events into the classroom, for example, local, national, and international issues.

strongly disagree                disagree                   agree                       strongly agree


9.     My school has programs that provide students with the opportunity to apply what they learn through performing community service that is linked to the formal curriculum and classroom instruction.

strongly disagree                disagree                   agree                       strongly agree


10.  My school encourages students’ meaningful participation in school governance.

strongly disagree                disagree                   agree                       strongly agree

Social Design-Distributed Leadership for Civic Learning (Elemen, 2018, p. 27)

College, Career, and Civic Life Readiness Resources


Community Schools, MTSS, School Culture, SEL, PLCs, & Action Research

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)    

Services and Resources for Students with Disabilities

Supporting Multilingual Learners

Supporting LGBTQ+ Students

Culturally Relevant and Responsive Teaching and Learning     

Deeper Learning

Antiracist Leadership

"We have much to gain by revitalizing civic learning. The chief benefits of civic learning are a vibrant and informed civic life and democracy and a healthy society. High-quality civic learning also helps teach children skills they need for the 21st century workplace, such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration, creativity, initiative and innovation. In addition, civic learning done right engages students by making what they learn at school more relevant to real life. It promotes academic achievement, as well, and prevents some students from dropping out. Civic learning is vital for our increasingly diverse California society." (The California Task Force On K-12 Civic Learning, 2014, p. 6)

Civic Learning Opportunities

Civic learning opportunities are part of the History-Social Science Framework for California K-12 Public Schools, which addresses the History-Social Science Content Standards, Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History–Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, the California English Language Development Standards, the English Language Arts/English Language Development Framework (ELA/ELD Framework), and the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards (also see the Civic Learning Compendium). "A constitutional democracy and its institutions depend on citizens who know how government works, understand and abide by the rule of law, vote, serve as jurors, stay informed about and make evidence-based decisions about public issues, respect the rights of others, participate in public affairs, and seek the betterment of their communities, state, and country." (History-Social Science Framework, Appendix E, p. 774) “Students who engage in inquiry- and project-based learning, including civic learning experiences, have opportunities to read and hear content texts within real-world contexts that enhance students’ engagement by piquing their interests and connecting with their own lives.” (ELA/ELD Framework, California Department of Education, 2015, p. 88)

Equity in Civic Education

The Leveraging Equity & Access in Democratic Education (LEADE) Initiative at UCLA & UC Riverside found that civic learning is infrequent and inequitable. Most school districts are under preparing students for civic engagement as revealed by "students' lack of sufficient opportunities, [there is] inequitable access to civic learning by parent education, civic and democratic goals are marginal to districts' missions, civic and democratic commitments are absent from districts’ accountability plans [Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAP)], and there is little staffing and infrastructure that supports this civic agenda" (Rogers, J., Hodgin, E., Kahne, J., Cooper Geller, R., Kwako, A., Alkam S., & Bingener, C., 2020). While this research was conducted in California, nationwide there has been a call for increased civic education.

Generation Citizen and iCivics explain that, "Equitable civics is inclusive, representative, and relevant; it promotes diverse voices and draws on students’ lived experiences and perspectives in order to engage them in understanding social issues, the power dynamics that cause them, and the power that young people have to bring change. Lack of funding for more, and more equitable, civic education is a concern for parents, administrators, students, and community members. Equitable civic education requires thoughtful reimagining of curricular and instructional goals around student agency, knowledge and skills, as well as policy and systems support in schools, districts, and the community. This work requires both reflection on organizational stances, goals, and agenda, as well as action towards helping young people understand the complexities of our government and the role they play within it" (Equity in Civic Education Project, 2020). The Educating for American Democracy (EAD) Roadmap attempts to redress the current lack of civic education in schools by providing as “an inquiry-based content framework for excellence in history and civics for all learners that is organized by major themes and questions, supported by key concepts. It is vertically spiraled across four grade bands (K–2, 3–5, 6–8, and 9–12), and offers a vision for the integration of history and civic education throughout grades K–12.”

Q & A

How can my team and I implement curriculum and student-centered practices for civic learning?

The History-Social Science Framework and supplemental resources, such as those featured below, are illustrative examples of K-12 integrated civics. 

Appendix E: Educating for Democracy: Civic Education in the History–Social Science Curriculum (California Department of Education)

Appendix H: Practicing Civic Engagement: Service-Learning in the History–Social Science Framework (California Department of Education)

Videos and Resources for Preparing Youth for Democracy (Civic Education Research Group)

District/State Leaders One-Pager (Generation Citizen & iCivics)

Educating for Democracy (AASA, The School Superintendents Association)

How can my team and I support youth with community and civic engagement?

"Civic engagement involves “working to make a difference in the civic life of one’s community and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.”1 Civic engagement includes both paid and unpaid forms of political activism, environmentalism, and community and national service.2 Volunteering, national service, and service-learning are all forms of civic engagement" ( We elevate forums for youth to speak out on issues that matter to them and connect with other students, adult allies, and community partners. Learn more by reading, "Let’s Go There: Race, Ethnicity, and a Lived Civics Approach to Civic Education (Cohen, Kahne, Marshall, Anderson, Brower, & Knight, 2018). The California Serves Grant Program promotes access to effective service learning for pupils in grade twelve who are enrolled at participating local educational agencies, with the goal of expanding access for high school graduates in obtaining a State Seal of Civic Engagement through service learning. 

How does the State Seal of Civic Engagement compare to the State Seal of Biliteracy?

"All California students, particularly those from historically marginalized communities, will have early and frequent access throughout their PK-12 education to high-quality civic learning opportunities that enable students to learn about civic and political issues, discuss and deliberate issues while considering multiple viewpoints, and to take informed action to work with others to address real world problems" (Vision, State Seal of Civic Engagement Roadmap). "California schools affirm, welcome, and respond to a diverse range of English learner (EL) strengths, needs, and identities. California schools prepare graduates with the linguistic, academic, and social skills and competencies they require for college, career, and civic participation in a global, diverse, and multilingual world, thus ensuring a thriving future for California" (Mission, CA EL Roadmap). Teaching for Global Competence and with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is a project based and deeper learning approach to addressing the goals of multilingualism, multiculturalism, and civic engagement by students addressing real world problems, aligned to the curriculum standards and frameworks.

How does the State Seal of Civic Engagement relate to the new Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum?

The Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum updates are posted at:

State Seal of Civic Engagement implementation resources are provided by the California Department of Education and the resources below are organized around the State Seal of Civic Engagement Roadmap, developed by Authentic Preparation Today (ADP).

1. Ensure equitable, universal, and early access

2. Value and honor students and their community as positive assets

3. Promote student-centered learning to support the whole child to effect positive change

4. Provide enabling conditions and structures of support


Transformative Social Emotional Learning (T-SEL) is a form of SEL implementation that promotes school and civic engagement toward more just communities. Students have a unique perspective on how high-level decisions impact the day-to-day life of the school, and their voices are critical to quality schoolwide SEL implementation and fostering equitable learning environments. By listening to students, schools can make informed decisions about the changes that will best support all learners and elevate student voice (CASEL). T-SEL is aimed at interrupting the reproduction of inequitable educational environments by attending to issues of identity, agency, belonging, and related issues such as power, privilege, prejudice, discrimination, social justice, empowerment, and self-determination.  Young people and adults build strong, respectful, and lasting relationships to engage in co-learning. It facilitates critical examination of individual and contextual factors that contribute to inequities and collaborative solutions that lead to personal, community, and societal well-being. Through T-SEL, students and adults develop social and emotional skills needed for school and community engagement, with a focus on rights and responsibilities for creating learning environments that are caring and just. 

T-SEL Competencies

T-SEL Research 

CASEL CARES Webinar Series: SEL as a Lever for Equity and Social Justice (2020) five-part webinar series discusses equity and racial injustice through the lens of social and emotional learning.

Restorative Practices 

Antiracist Education

Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy

Comprehensive Literacy State Development Grant Resource Repository, California Department of Education (2021)


The UDL Guidelines are a tool used in the implementation of Universal Design for Learning, a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn. Learn more about the Universal Design for Learning framework from CAST. The UDL Guidelines can be used by educators, curriculum developers, researchers, parents, and anyone else who wants to implement the UDL framework in a learning environment. These guidelines offer a set of concrete suggestions that can be applied to any discipline or domain to ensure that all learners can access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities.