Panic Over SEL Is Unfounded. Here’s Why.

Panic Over SEL Is Unfounded. Here’s Why.

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In the classic children’s book, “Henny Penny,” the title character, Henny, a chicken, fears that the sky is falling when an acorn drops on her head. She quickly creates mass hysteria among her animal peers. In the story, she frantically considers multiple explanations before finally arriving at the truth: the sky is, in fact, not falling.

The moral of this oft-told tale is quite clear: Don’t respond with panic and leap to inaccurate conclusions that incite confusion or anger. Instead, evaluate the facts.

Our education system is having its own Henny Penny moment, with loud voices from the right generating and spreading panic that social and emotional learning, or SEL, endangers and “indoctrinates” students. SEL and “critical race theory”—a little-understood academic concept that conservatives have capitalized on to stoke fear among parents—have been willfully conflated in recent public discourse by disingenuous, politically motivated agitators, causing hysteria.

Like Henny, we must now evaluate the facts around SEL. At a time when students, families, schools and districts are still grappling with the trauma of the last two years, including a mental health crisis among youth, we can ill-afford a frenzied battle based in grievance and fear-mongering, ignoring the advances made in our understanding of how young people learn and develop.

We cannot turn away from the responsibility to ensure that our children master social and emotional skills that can substantially improve their chances for a lifetime of greater wellbeing and success as workers and citizens in a diverse society. The data is in, and it is conclusive: SEL is a safe and useful acorn. The sky is not falling.

Of course, we don’t mean to diminish any concerned parent’s right to ask questions about their child’s education and to ensure their child’s safety. Rather, we caution them to be alert to opportunist “Foxy Loxys,” who seek to weaponize that concern for political gain.

Separating (Established) Facts From (Damaging) Fictions

SEL’s foundational tenets are grounded in physiological facts well-confirmed by recent neuroscience: that thinking and feeling are inextricably bound together; that emotions drive attention and that attention drives learning; that we learn from and with others; and that the more we understand and manage ourselves and can respond empathically to others, the more successful and productive our school experiences and life courses will be.

Thirty years of research in SEL confirm these fundamentals. Moreover, recent advances from the Science of Learning and Development Alliance, led by the nation’s leading education scholars, reaffirms that relationships are at the heart of effective education. Relationships are the heart of SEL, too.

By confusing SEL with critical race theory, both of which tend to be misunderstood to begin with, opponents employ anti-equity arguments that stoke outrage in these fraught times, yet ignore what we definitively know: that SEL, well established as a school-wide approach to creating a respectful, inclusive school culture, is good for teachers, students, and families.

Evidence abounds that children and teens are more successful when they have warm, caring relationships with educators and peers; instruction in building important life skills; and a sense of belonging in school. Again, this isn’t a liberal or conservative opinion to argue, it’s an objective, research-based fact. Above all else, these ideas are not part of some new ideology. They’re common sense.

To make it seem like the sky is falling, some aspiring politicians and recruited parents are challenging local school boards’ embrace of SEL by misrepresenting its core goals. How might anyone justify the point of view that having stronger and better human relationships, where community members of all races and backgrounds can participate and thrive, is counterproductive? Or, that it leads to unmanageably “difficult or uncomfortable feelings” and in some way involves “brainwashing” against white people? It’s true that SEL does promote ways to be a successful participant in a multi-racial and pluralistic society, and to understand and get along with others. We should all support that goal because, whether opponents like it or not, our world is diverse and increasingly connected. Children must be equipped to work across lines of difference now and in the future.

Also ignored by opponents are the significant mental health and wellness needs of staff and learners and the enormous uptick in reports of mental illness in children and young people in recent times. We know that school-wide SEL can bring this interpersonal caring and reduce the stigma of even talking about how we are feeling and coping.

It is no surprise that most state departments of education are holding steady and continuing to encourage SEL implementation across their districts. There is a particular kind of cruelty to calling for the removal of already limited support for student wellbeing more than two years into a global pandemic in which at least 1 million Americans—many of them parents, some of them teachers and children—have died. Now more than ever, schools must embrace the human-centric opportunities of SEL and reject false and frenzied challenges.

Opponents raise the prospect that education can and should, in fact, isolate emotions from learning and community, or stanch uncomfortable feelings. But we all know from lived experience that feelings are an essential part of being human, that emotions cannot be mandated away or avoided, even if they make us uncomfortable. Rather, learning to manage our sometimes complex emotions productively should be among every school district’s and all parents’ goals. And it is, even if some parents aren’t so sure they like the term “SEL.”

District and State Education Leaders Are Holding Steady

A crucial data point to remember is that challenges to SEL’s well researched and extensively documented practices have emerged from politically motivated actors, not from educators. In fact, SEL has proliferated with remarkable speed and volume in recent years, embraced by state education authorities and districts all across the U.S. because it is so needed and effective (though admittedly not always easy to implement well).

Forty-one states have adopted formal SEL guidance. And a majority of the 13,000 school districts in the country have incorporated some level of SEL staffing and programming. SEL results in better student attendance rates, reductions in disciplinary and mental health referrals, and stronger academic outcomes. These outcomes are what school districts, superintendents, and principals care about most, and SEL’s decades of data confirm that good progress can be made.

States and districts are responsible for all learners, and these learners are more diverse than ever in many places. SEL’s conflation with critical race theory appears to center the needs for comfort and affirmation of white children and families specifically. At a time when we urgently need to be coming together to support all children and educators, so many of whom are clearly struggling, critics instead are inflaming animosities. Historically inequitable systems in place for centuries continue to impact all U.S. communities, and education too. Widely differing health, economic, education and other outcomes for many poor families and communities of color are well documented. These are facts, not points drawn to make white people uncomfortable, though the disparities should make us all uncomfortable. SEL skills and the right climate in schools can equip staff and students with ways to respectfully acknowledge and affirm everyone’s background and address the many feelings that arise, whatever they may be.

Sure, SEL practices vary widely in quality across schools and districts. And improving practice at scale is an enormous challenge, like so many areas in education. (Have we yet mastered teaching reading by third grade, at scale?) Still, its great promise should not be rejected out of hand for manufactured reasons.

How to Handle the Pushback

These issues are being hotly debated now and will likely continue to be. An excellent recent piece in Education Week offered specific recommendations relevant to state education authorities and district or school leaders who have invested in SEL and want to respond meaningfully to pushback.

  • First, communicate clearly the purpose and goals of any SEL practices and curricula you employ, and that healthy child development and educational achievement go hand in hand.
  • Second, explain family roles in supporting SEL, bringing a variety of voices into those efforts. Responding vaguely to opposition won’t work. Deliver the facts about SEL’s educational and youth development benefits and advantages and caregivers’ signal roles too.
  • Recognize differing points of view, but firmly refute falsehoods. Schools must stand firm as the education experts in the discussion.
  • Above all, use SEL skills with these communications about SEL. Aim to lower the temperature, and explore or leverage any hint of common ground.

While there are no simple solutions to addressing misperceptions about SEL, and schools should never aim to be duplicitous, remember that in the end it doesn’t matter what this essential work is called. One suggestion is to shift rhetoric away from SEL toward more widely supported and easily comprehended language, such as using “life skills.” Managing stress, making safe and responsible choices and creating a positive school climate all use language and concepts that are less freighted with politics. In Time magazine, a teacher sensibly characterized SEL as “the base layer of education.”

Beyond these, district leaders and principals must educate their communities about the basics of learning and development. Students need social and emotional learning, and schools are central places where children’s social and emotional habits and skills are shaped and needs are met—or not. Education system leaders’ understanding and communications must be grounded in reality, responsive to this dire moment when so many students, educators, families, and communities are suffering.

The truth is, initiatives like SEL help keep the sky from falling in our schools. Now is not the time to kowtow to a misinformed, noisy minority.

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