Not too long ago, social-emotional learning (SEL) brought people on the left and right together in pursuit of teaching children skills for thriving in the classroom and beyond.
Now it may sound familiar because it’s become a flashpoint in the battle over children’s education. Social-emotional learning, or SEL, is a process designed to support young students’ well-being and academic performance in five key areas: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.
SEL as a concept began to take off in the mid-1990s, thanks to educators and experts in youth development who believed that schools should fully support all children’s social, emotional, and academic growth. Years of research shows high-quality SEL programming leads to positive outcomes for kids, like an improved ability to handle stress, better classroom behavior, and academic gains. It’s now widely practiced in the US from preschool through high school, and elsewhere in the world. A McGraw Hill survey of US educators conducted in July 2021 found that more than half of respondents said their school had begun implementing SEL curriculum.
In the classroom, SEL lessons can be explicitly taught through curriculum or integrated into other subjects, including through activities like labeling feelings, goal setting, cultivating empathy, and collaborating with peers. Because SEL also emphasizes the importance of a warm and inclusive school environment, it is typically part of efforts to prevent and reduce discrimination and bullying. Educators may use SEL to start and guide candid discussions about experiences like racism, sexism, and homophobia.
So it may come as no surprise, given conservative attacks on critical race theory, that SEL has increasingly drawn the ire of right-wing activists who believe it reflects systemic efforts to force children to adopt certain liberal beliefs. Most recently, the Florida Department of Education deemed dozens of math textbooks “impermissible” partly because they included SEL components, as well as references to what the agency described as critical race theory. Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran said in a press release that children should receive a “world-class education without the fear of indoctrination or exposure to dangerous and divisive concepts.”
SEL is really not about teaching kids what to think.
Now that SEL has been drawn into the fight over what children learn at school, conservative activists are pressing schools and districts to drop related curriculum. Meanwhile, SEL advocates are trying to dispel misinformation that’s spreading at a rapid pace.
“SEL is really not about teaching kids what to think,” says Melissa Schlinger, vice president of practice and programs for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a nonprofit that aims to make SEL an integral part of education from preschool to high school.
“It’s unfortunate that some folks have tried to politicize these things, because I think most people…can agree that these are important universal values that we all have for our kids — that they get a high-quality education that prepares them for a future in school, in work, and in life.”
What is SEL?
If a small but vocal group of right-wing activists have gotten SEL wrong, then what should newcomers to the topic understand about it?
Stephanie Jones, the Gerald S. Lesser Professor in Early Childhood Development at Harvard Graduate School of Education, likes to answer this question by illustrating a typical classroom scene.
Imagine a group of students reading on a rug with their teacher or working at a lab table on a science project. As they discuss the book’s themes or try to tackle the nuances of scientific observation, they’re also working to manage a range of internal experiences, like focusing on the task at hand, following directions, noticing a peer’s distracting chatter, or feeling discouraged that they’re not grasping the material as quickly as their peers.
“Social and emotional skills are deeply intertwined with the processes of learning in school,” says Jones, who’s spent her career researching the effects of SEL.
This relatable example, however, can get lost when parents try to learn more about SEL and encounter research jargon and acronyms instead. The feeling that a parent needs an advanced degree to understand SEL can make it vulnerable to misinterpretation or purposeful manipulation. Activists intent on sowing outrage might use the complex terminology in deceiving ways. That’s why it’s important for curious parents to learn more about SEL from authoritative sources.
Parents who worry that SEL is newfangled philosophy might be surprised to learn that its core principles have long been a part of high-quality education, says Jones. In fact, some parents may recall terms like “character education” or “life skills support” from their school days. These concepts overlap with SEL, which became the prevailing framework for many schools in the US in recent years. While all states have SEL standards for preschool, only some have adopted them for higher-level grades.
Simply put, SEL is a process meant to help kids (and adults) better understand themselves, connect with others, collaborate, solve problems, and support their communities. When SEL is prioritized at school, it can create a positive environment that helps kids develop a sense of belonging and feel valued, which is critical to their personal and academic development. Social and emotional skills they learn as a result include goal setting, stress management, team building, and perspective taking.
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Not all SEL is equal, however. Schlinger strongly urges schools to use SEL curriculum shown to be effective for improving well-being and academics. SEL programs considered high quality have been tested in randomized trials, the gold standard of scientific research. CASEL’s database features more than 80 independent, evidence-based SEL programs that were designed and tested in communities with diverse demographics and needs.
How a school practices SEL also matters. According to CASEL, there are 10 signs that a school has implemented SEL. Among them are dedicated time to practice social and emotional skills, opportunities for youth to shape the programming, and a supportive school and classroom environment. Rather than a quick fix, it can take up to five years for a school to implement a program in the key areas outlined by CASEL.
Conservative critics seem most angry that SEL can include information related to bias and discrimination. Transformative SEL, a specific form of SEL implementation promoted by CASEL, helps young people and adults “build strong, respectful, and lasting relationships that facilitate co-learning to critically examine root causes of inequity, and to develop collaborative solutions that lead to personal, community, and societal well-being.”
Such language no doubt alarms skeptics who don’t want children learning critical race theory, or anything like it, in school. Yet if children’s well-being and success in the classroom can hinge on being part of an accepting community, inequity cannot go unmentioned.
Schlinger says SEL emphasizes traits like empathy, perspective-taking, and collaboration as ways that children can understand the complicated world they live in.
It’s also worth noting that some progressive criticism of SEL argues that it doesn’t go far enough in combatting racism in schools. Dena N. Simmons, founder of the SEL, racial justice, and healing collective LiberatED, told EdSurge in 2019: “What’s the point of teaching children about conflict resolution skills, if we’re not talking about the conflicts that exist because of racism or white supremacy?”
SEL curriculum myths and misconceptions
Schlinger says that common myths about SEL include that it’s a top-down curriculum, a mental health intervention, and that it replaces instruction time.
Instead, schools can select from dozens of evidence-based SEL programs in partnership with families and communities to choose the right one for their needs. While research shows that aspects of SEL can support children’s well-being, it’s not designed to treat mental health conditions like anxiety or depression. It’s also integrated into academic lessons, which Schlinger says makes the work richer and more engaging for students. For example, SEL in math instruction can include activities as diverse as telling stories about famous mathematicians who showed respect for each other, learning relaxation techniques like belly breathing to help manage stress and anxiety, and offering students the opportunity to reflect on when they’ve been successful in math or what types of problems and puzzles they prefer.
“It is definitely something that is not a one-size-fits-all approach but rather part of a local community’s vision for the kind of education they want to provide their kids,” says roll.
She urges parents to “dig beneath the politics” and seek information about SEL directly from their child’s school. Questions to consider asking include whether the SEL curriculum is backed by evidence, how the goals of the programming are defined, whether it improves the overall school climate and academic outcomes, and if the staff has the right kind of opportunities to implement it effectively, not haphazardly. When SEL is done well, Schlinger says it can help a child become a better learner, friend, and citizen, as well as more prepared for college or a career.
Schlinger says the politicization of SEL takes the focus away from creating an environment in which children can thrive.
“It’s disappointing because I think what we’re seeing here has motivations that are not necessarily on what’s best for kids,” says Schlinger.