Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) is being pushed into public schools. It could mean many things, restorative justice, meditation, anti-bullying programs, and much more.
But SEL is not just an add-on program. It’s whole-school systematic change from teaching academics to focusing on students and personality formation.
Books and online programs galore are being written about SEL and school transformation. It’s creating a school climate where students have their behavior scrutinized like never before. That’s what worries parents.
Organizing a school around social-emotional learning raises questions about the meaning of education, teaching and learning.
Here are concerns:
- Partners who support SEL. Many of these groups also want to privatize public education: Chiefs for Change, Bose Washington Partners, Center for Innovation in Education, Council of Chief State School Officers, Civic Enterprises, Education Counsel, Learning Policy Institute, National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, National Association of State Boards of Education, Pure Edge, Inc., Raikes Foundation, and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
- Character education on steroids. Character education has always been controversial because it leans politically right or left, always leaving some parents unsatisfied. Most agree that students should be respectful, kind, and demonstrate good citizenship.
- Ignores what public schools need. There’s no mention of lowering class sizes and adding play and recess. More counselors and school nurses would be nice. How about a curriculum with subject variety including the arts? Here’s Allstate, as an example, pouring $45 million into SEL. What if they addressed crumbling infrastructure, lacking resources, spoke out against high-stakes testing, fully funding special education?
- For-profit companies. SEL caters to private companies that promote unproven SEL programs which can be costly for a school district.
- Big business and SEL goals. Could SEL be training children to be future obedient workers? The same message about fixing the economy is involved with the SEL conversation.
- Assumes children need fixing. Most children come to school willing, if not eager, to learn. We have always argued that poor children need what wealthy schools have in order to learn best.
- Standards. How do we adequately measure behavior? Whose standards are the right standards? Words like “aligning” behavior to standards sounds creepy.
- Academics. SEL instruction takes time. While supporters say it increases test scores, less time is spent on teaching subject matter. Will students learn what they need to know for college and careers?
- SEL assessment. Fears of student privacy violations surrounding online collection of SEL behavioral data are widespread. How will this information be used? Will it follow students? Why is so much data necessary?
- College and career goals? Here’s Aperture Education to teach teamwork, decision-making, goal setting, and other work-related skills. Don’t students learn these skills in academic classes? Aperture’s assessment.
- Lots of Mindset talk. Parents hope for confident children who care about learning, but a 2018 study found that teaching children they can improve their intelligence if they work hard doesn’t usually work. Think of the frustration this might cause.
- Personalized learning emphasis. SEL emphasizes teaching self-regulation. This will lead to all-tech, all the time, without teachers, or schools. (HERE’s an example).
- Student introspection. Should children think so deeply about their behavior? Some thoughtfulness is warranted, but too much seems almost cult-like.
- SEL is expensive. According to a 2017 working paper, “The Scale of Our Investment in Social-Emotional Learning” the U.S. spends approximately $21-47 billion per year on SEL programs. School districts spend about $640 million per year on SEL products. *See list below.
- No research. For all the time and money there’s little research to indicate that teaching SEL works. Here emotional intelligence is challenged.
- Association with Common Core. Many parents dislike Common Core State Standards and see SEL as its non-academic component.
- Schools or mental health centers. SEL is not supposed to fix mental health problems in children, but it might be seen as a substitute instead of getting children the real help they need. Teachers and staff are not trained psychologists or social workers. Nor do all students require mental health services.
- Emotional/behavioral difficulties. Teachers need to identify the emotional/behavioral difficulties students might be experiencing and be able to refer students to the mental health professionals who help. Smaller class sizes would help teachers better know their students and their students’ families.
Feel free to add your concerns about social-emotional learning. If your school uses a program you like, or dislike, that is not mentioned here, feel free to discuss it.
Here are commercial programs for SEL from The Wallace Foundation. Click on each for information. These might have something positive to add to the curriculum, but others duplicate school programs that should already exist. Like Playworks which replaces real recess but is like P.E. It isn’t necessary. MindUp is from actress Goldie Hawn. SEL opens the door to for-profit companies and school privatization.
Competent Kids, Caring Community
Social Decision Making/Problem Solving Program
Before Bullying A.F.T.E.R. School Program
Jo Lieb says
SEL seems like another good idea stolen from good teachers and manipulated into yet another money making scheme that ultimately hurts our children. But it is imperative that educators teach to the affective domains as well as the cognitive. I know I’m dating myself but, if we do not place the emotional and social needs before their academic needs, we will continue to hurt children.
Get businesses out of our classrooms.
Love the whole child and the academics will follow.
When good ideas are co-opted by the profiteers, there is a tendency to shun the former good idea – like the idea has been ruined. It hasn’t been ruined, just manipulated.
We entered the dark ages of teaching, when we allowed and welcomed big business and politics into our schools. The social and emotional needs of all students need to be met.
True, now meditation too about what religion? All demoralization of the existing teachers and make school private or encourage home school that fits only for elite members of society.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you Jo and Jj. Good teachers care about student well-being. If I could pull the greatest concern surrounding SEL it would be the data collection.
The hucksters see that testing and charter scrutiny is increasingly viewed negatively and likely to be ditched or seriously decreased — and with it the millions they love. Up next: new scam. They’re not going to invest their money into lowered class sizes, repairing buildings, or real needs because there’s no profit in that. Somehow we need actual solutions that get banksters and hedge fund managers out of education for good. If these dudes decided to create an alternative fire department, funded by the current fire service, it wouldn’t be allowed. So why isn’t our children’s education more important than a burning building?
Nancy Bailey says
Well, and also because they want an end to public schools. I’ve noticed some nice charter buildings…charters with computers and fewer if any teachers. Thanks, Joanne.
Laura Sanchez says
Totally agree, the problem with this SEL “movement” is that it should be part of the school improvement process, integrated into academics and daily schedule with the caring professional serving smaller class sizes. Teachers are left out while districts subcontract PD, after school, programs etc…Subcontracting SEI as a separate component is like a doctor treating one body part when the whole system is unhealthy then giving patient an outside the medical field contractor to medicate. Compartmentelizing SEI as separate system is so contradictory, it’s bound to fail, compete with other systems for funds, attention, accountability data…these are little humans not robots we can pull apart and analyze. It is such a flawed premise, that leads to flawed programs, flawed measuring sticks and ultimately the programs create their own conflict of self interest to continue their funding, not to mention allowing these programs to collect data without accountability to the parents.
Nancy Bailey says
Excellent! Thank you, Laura!
SEL and character should be organic and authentic for students. Every good teacher knows that a child’s character and SEL can change daily based simply on how their day is going or if a student likes one content area more than another, as well as many other factors. As many of you have stated, SEL shouldn’t be a separate curriculum, and it certainly should not be political. Not every student is meant to be a leader or as courageous as another, etc AND THAT IS OKAY – or at least it should be… that’s what makes the world go ‘round! The elements of forced “sameness” for students through Common Core and now these programs is terrible for our children and our future. All people don’t learn the same way, all people don’t act the same way- why should students? They are people!! Can you imagine how a student would feel being told they have low SEL or a weak character score???!! How is this going to help the already stressful state of our students? Students should be able to show who they are and what they can do in an authentic way, and be successful by their own definition.
Lola Lopez says
Teachers rating students and coming up with a score for SEL without parents opting their children in… is like going to the eye doctor and having a personality assessment conducted and entered into your permanent medical record without your consent. Parents must OPT in to any of these measures; this data must be treated as highly sensitive and highly confidential; something I highly doubt is happening in actual use.
This is a big waste of time and a bigger waste of money. We have professionals, aka teachers, that have always modeled/taught indirectly, qualities for success in life that most all would agree are desirable.
PS: You are missing ACT SEL Tessara (? spelling) measure, new in the last year or so. .
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you, Lola. I agree.
Thank you for sharing the ACT SEL Tessera (I looked it up). I cannot understand how these qualities can be measured, but here’s the website. Can you imagine flunking curiosity? I mean how do you score something like that?
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you, Anne. You argue for what most of us love. Differences should be celebrated!
Kate S says
Elementary teacher in Baltimore City here. These skills are important to teach explicitly to a point— how do we express that someone is bothering us in the classroom? How do we ask a classmate to borrow something instead of just grabbing it? How do we listen to another person’s point of view? These small social emotional tools are essential to classroom management, and can be implemented with or without a specific curriculum. Team building activities can help students form friendships and find common ground. The biggest concern I have is that many see SEL as a solution for students who need mental health support. Going to a “calm down corner” may teach a coping skill, but it is not going to get to the bottom of a student’s behavior if it is caused by underlying trauma or a mental health need.
Julio Moreno says
SEL assumes that schools are not interested in the well-being of a student by default when the opposite is largely happening. By institutionalizing a method that is part of an educator’s expected set of credentials we are left with nothing more than a group of resentful professionals who now have to follow a script, completely capitulating their authenticity for the sake of compliance with district mandates.
In my eyes, SEL is nothing but a pseudo-scientific program that is used as an excuse to justify the investment of money towards the improvement of classroom culture; a jack-of-all-trades magic pill that will transform the hardiest of miscreants into role model scholars.
Great article, Nancy.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you, Julio. I’m glad that others are sorting out the meaning behind SEL.
Joel Merzetti says
Well now. I work in higher education in an academic library setting. I’ve been a lifelong bookworm, musician, songwriter, and lover of a lifelong study of the human condition, comedy, and general cornucopia of constant curiosities.
Since I finished my formal education (and before my lifelong informal education began) it appears to me that since those days, self-proscribed intellectuals have been working overtime trying to figure out how to launch an end-run around what once was a tried and true method of educating young people. I do believe that knowledge is the key. I was introduced to that idea at a tender age, when it was not owned or controlled by ideologues, political or otherwise. Knowledge at that time did not own an identity. It was offered to all comers for free. All it asked of the young scholar was the desire to learn.
If we judge much of the nonsense that has been passing for a good education over the past several decades, we discover that many of our better ideas are not working. And we remain lost in our flustered confusion as to why that is. Lack of literacy is what it is, and there is no quick fix to the problem. But we need to acknowledge that lack of literacy is a horrific prison into which we lock lifetime sentenced prisoners who wind up as a kind of handicapped and invalidated, frustrated and suffocated sub-population, forever condemned to not be able to participate as equal citizens within the national political, social economy. And that is a tragedy.
I have to say, no identity ever got between me and the quest for knowledge and understanding. Not should this happen for any child today. And yet it does. And that, I believe, is the fault of their elders and betters. And I do believe that we can do better. We are called upon to give all kids a fair chance. When it comes to a real education, no child should be a pawn in anyone’s game.
Learning at a young age, that one does not in fact, actually need to learn, is a hell of a disservice to a child, an abuse of responsibility and of power. The great social battles of our time have now entered the classroom. Caught in the crossfire of all that turmoil, many kids will hardly stand a chance to get through the system with anything useful to them as free, independent and autonomous people.
We have encouraged millions of wasted minds. In all kinds of ways, and for all kinds of reasons. Feeling before knowledge? I truly believe that this cart has been placed before that horse. Kids used to grow up learning that life contained suffering, and struggle. And grew stronger for that understanding. When we try to tilt the playing board to make this a one hundred percent certainty, we end up losing far more than we help.
And finally, children deserve more respect from their educators. High expectations, discipline, encouragement, an education that opens them up, not closes them down. This should be their right as citizens, looking toward the adults they will one day become. They are our future. We must act as if we truly care just what that future will be.
Roy Turrentine says
Social skills being important, it strikes me that the reformers are trying to move the target yet again so that they can come up with another way to prove public schools are bad. We do not need more stuff to do. School was made for ideas.