Demystifying Social-Emotional Learning and the Controversy Surrounding It

Jeanne A. Curley

A few years ago, it seemed like social-emotional learning was rocketing into the mainstream. More people were talking about why it is important and how it can help kids develop. Many schools were adopting social-emotional learning programs and frameworks, weaving practices that support social and emotional development into various parts of the school day and reporting material improvements in student behavior and outcomes.

But now, piggybacking on the inflammatory debate over critical race theory that has ignited parents and politicians alike, social-emotional learning (SEL) is suddenly a controversial concept. Conservative pundits have called SEL a “Trojan horse” for critical race theory, saying it is just another effort to indoctrinate kids with liberal ideology.

Such arguments obscure many of the real, pressing problems in education right now—a mental health crisis, workforce shortages in sectors across the field, nearly two years of lost or lackluster learning experiences. And more than that, vilifying SEL will likely only move education in the wrong direction, educators and researchers say.

“Pushback against SEL comes from a fundamental misunderstanding about what SEL is and isn’t, and why it matters for kids,” says Dr. Tia Kim, a developmental psychologist and the vice president of education, research and impact at Committee for Children, a nonprofit organization that has championed children’s social-emotional learning and development for more than 40 years. “We’ve been talking about SEL in education for decades.”

The truth is, “SEL” is just education jargon for the life skills needed to be successful, Kim says. These include confidence, belonging, friendship, teamwork, emotion management, decision making and character building—skills that, when separated out, the vast majority of parents say they want their children to have.

To understand why the national conversation around SEL has become so fraught and how educators and families can better navigate it, EdSurge asked Kim to impart her expertise on the matter. The interview transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

EdSurge: How would you explain SEL to a parent or layperson?

Dr. Tia Kim: I would say social-emotional learning is a process in which children and youth develop essential life skills—things like communication, problem-solving and managing stress—to help them build confidence so they can be successful learners in the classroom. But it also helps them to have lifelong success outside of the classroom. There’s a lot of research that shows that having strong social-emotional competencies leads to really positive outcomes, not only in the short term—so again, in an academic setting and dealing with academic challenges—but also in the long term. They’re more likely to graduate from high school or college, be more career ready and develop healthy, positive relationships.

What does it look like to teach SEL in school?

What’s really important in thinking about skill building around SEL is that it has to be developmentally scaffolded and appropriate, right? So I think learning can only take place if content is really relevant and engaging for kids. And that means it will have to look different for a 5-year-old versus a 10-year-old, and so on.

Let’s just use problem-solving or decision-making as an example. With younger kids, say kindergartners, you might teach a very concrete strategy around problem-solving—so how to take turns or how to share. And that teaching might take place through a medium of using physical movement or using songs or videos to make it engaging for little kids and to keep their attention.

And then as you get a little bit older, into later elementary grades like fourth or fifth grade, you expand on that learning, right? So now you’re teaching them to evaluate lots of different solutions or strategies to a problem and helping them determine what might be the best one, given that particular setting or scenario. And you might use techniques such as having them work in pairs or in groups.

And then as you get into middle school, you’re expanding it to be more relatable to their lives. So helping them recognize maybe sources of stress and different strategies to help manage them and helping them choose what strategy might work for them. And you might do it by using writing prompts or more group discussions—just depending on what’s appropriate for that learning in that age.

Are there elements of SEL that do get into the teachings of race, gender and other social constructions?

The short answer is no. Social-emotional learning does not teach elements of critical race theory. But to have really good, effective social-emotional learning and development, the programs do have to recognize that children come into the classroom with different strengths. They come from diverse backgrounds and have very unique needs. And part of the goal of SEL is, yes, to teach critical life skills, but also it’s a way to create very inclusive, positive learning environments so that all children can thrive in a classroom and learn and have the resources to be able to do that.

For example, students may learn about being respectful and empathetic, which will help foster a culture of belonging and create a supportive environment where learning can take place. Overall, social-emotional learning programs aim to promote what is best for students’ social, emotional and academic success.

Some of the loudest critics say social-emotional learning is not meant to be taught by teachers. They say SEL should be left to licensed therapists or, better yet, kids’ parents. What would you say to that?

Parents and families play the most important role in their children’s education and are the first line of support in terms of social-emotional development. But kids spend a substantial amount of their day in the classroom and in after-school activities, so the learning shouldn’t stop at home. Parents and schools need to work together to teach the social and emotional skills kids need to thrive.

SEL is intricately interconnected with academics and learning in a classroom. And so I think that they’re vital skills to help kids be ready to learn. And there’s a lot of research that shows that SEL programs that are taught within a school actually have really good outcomes for kids.

What would be lost if schools were not teaching social-emotional learning?

I think that kids would really miss out on strengthening foundational life skills that support academic achievement, graduation rates, college and career readiness, the ability to make and keep friends and have healthy relationships, and to cope with stress or other social and academic challenges that they’re gonna have. So I think they really miss out on just the whole host of positive outcomes that come out of fostering and developing social-emotional learning.

Do you anticipate this will continue to be somewhat controversial as we enter the new school year and into the fall, through the midterms?

Interestingly, recent national polling data that was done by NPR/Ipsos actually showed that for most parents, the classroom controversies are not top of mind. And this data showed that regardless of, for instance, parents’ political affiliation or demographics, they were generally pretty satisfied with what their children’s schools were doing and what was being taught to them.

How does that compare with what you’re finding in your own research at the Committee for Children?

I lead our research department, so of course we’re very data-driven. And so given this pushback that was happening around SEL, we wanted to learn what parents and families were really thinking about social-emotional learning.

This past spring, we conducted some opinion polling with the Benenson Strategy Group, and what the data from that polling showed us was that parents and families across demographic and partisan lines overwhelmingly agreed that teaching critical life skills around social-emotional development really were, in their minds, a part of high-quality education. So just to give you some statistics of the parents that we pulled, 8 out of 10 of them who say that their child receives SEL at school wanted to maintain or increase that SEL learning in schools.

And we find a similar story in the data from parents who think that their schools aren’t teaching SEL already—that they would want their schools to teach it. A very high majority of parents in our poll believe that SEL helps to create a positive learning environment and think these skills are essential to help their kids be successful in the future. They also agree that schools and families should really be working together to teach kids social-emotional skills that they need to thrive and be successful.

That data is a little bit different from what you might be seeing in terms of the conversation around SEL and the pushback.

I notice you keep referring to “life skills,” rather than, say, “social-emotional skills.” Is a part of this controversy just confusion over semantics?

Yeah. I think [we have to] try to kind of get around the jargon of it. Social-emotional learning, to be honest, is kind of an academic term. And so I think then you can have misperceptions of what that means.

I think we found in our polling that, yes, the term “life skills” resonates with families, but also parents largely view the term “social-emotional learning” positively. And when you explain to them that it’s about social skills and understanding and managing emotions and coping with challenges, I think they are fine with it. So again, it’s about explaining what it means and why it’s important.

What advice do you have for educators who may be dealing with some blowback around SEL this school year, especially around the midterm elections?

I think it’s important to be really proactive and transparent from the beginning and communicate what the school is doing around social-emotional learning. Don’t wait until it’s a contentious issue where someone brings it up—really share information and start a dialogue with families.

I think it’s important to keep it simple and to explain what SEL is, why the school is doing it and, more importantly, why it’s important for the students. Once you do that, families really do get on board.

And then I think that for SEL to be effective, schools need to create good partnerships with families and communities. Like you really have to work as a team. And I think families would appreciate that as well—hearing that it is an extension of the learning that they’re doing in the home and that both sides can really support the child so that they can have really good, positive outcomes and really thrive in this upcoming school year.

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