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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Addressing Criticisms of Social-Emotional Learning in the Classroom

By Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher & Dominique Smith — February 10, 2019 6 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, and Dominique Smith.

As teachers, we recognize the value of attending to students’ social and emotional learning. In fact, we believe that every lesson sends intended as well as unintended messages to children and youths about their social and emotional lives, what is acceptable and not, and how they should behave and interact with others. But some do not think that schools should spend time on social-emotional learning. We understand the concerns and offer the following in response to some of the common criticisms about SEL in the classroom.

1. There isn’t time, and teachers should focus on the content standards.
We agree that it is critical to ensure that students learn the content. Yet we recognize that learning involves emotional processes and social interactions. Like many teachers, we cannot see a way to separate academic learning from social and emotional learning. Our interactions with students send powerful messages about who and what is valued. And our text selections convey our ideals, principles, and beliefs.

When we name emotions in books, for example, students learn to recognize their own emotions and note the ways that characters deal with those emotions. Consider the choice to share the book When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry (Bang, 1999, Scholastic). This book allows students to name the emotion of anger and learn how Sophie manages her emotions. They are also still learning to read. Or for older readers, imagine the teacher selecting short stories from the book Dear Bully: Seventy Authors Tell Their Stories (Hall, Hall, & Jones, 2011, HarperCollins). Students get to see the impact of bullying and how bullies are stopped.

Our point is that SEL does not have to take away from the academic learning that students need to do but rather that it is part of the learning, and teachers can make choices to integrate opportunities for students to develop their SEL skills. We think that there are five social-emotional-learning areas that educators can integrate into academic learning:

  • Identity and Agency. Children and adolescents’ sense of identity is shaped by a myriad of factors, including experiences in and out of school. Likewise, their agency, which is their belief in their own ability to influence the world around them, is materially governed by their identity. Over time, students develop a mindset that they are learners who strive and persevere through challenge.
  • Emotional Regulation. Young people need to understand that emotions happen, and some of those emotions negatively affect the individual and those around him. Emotion self-regulation requires the habits of self-checking and moderating responses. Students learn how to manage their behavior by accurately identifying their emotions, engaging in impulse control, and developing coping skills.
  • Cognitive Regulation. Successful students need to develop the habits and dispositions to regulate their own learning. Students learn to think about their thinking (metacognition), focus their attention, set and monitor goals, recognize and resolve problems, make decisions, and develop their organizational skills.
  • Social Skills and Relationships. Children and adolescents engage in relationship building and learn what it means to be a friend and a classmate. To do so requires developing empathy, as well as pro-social skills such as sharing and teamwork, which allow productive collaboration to occur. And it requires that students learn to repair the harm they cause to others.
  • Public Spirit. This is the basis for a democracy, as we create communities in which people are valued and treated fairly. Public spirit involves the development of students’ character, their respect for others, ethical responsibilities, a sense of justice, perseverance in the face of injustice, and leadership.

But there are other concerns to address.

2. Parents should be the ones teaching social and emotional skills.
We agree, and yet children are in the company of adults in schools for six to 10 (or more) hours per day. The interactions they have with these adults will impact their social-emotional development. We have a choice here. We can leave this development to chance and hope for the best. Or we can help teachers and other school staff members recognize that their interactions and choices are part of the hidden curriculum of school and that they need to attend to the messages that they send. We are reminded of the book The Children’s Story ... But Not Just For Children by James Clavell (1963, Dell Publishing).

Clavell is the author of Shogun, among other titles, but he wrote The Children’s Story after his daughter returned home from her kindergarten class asking for money as reward for having memorized the Pledge of Allegiance. However, the girl had no idea what the words meant—she did it out of obedience and nothing more. As Clavell writes in his notes at the end of the book, “It was then that I realized how completely vulnerable my child’s mind was—any mind for that matter—under controlled circumstances” (n.p.). Rather than allow social-emotional learning to remain hidden and rarely discussed, we believe that it should be part of the formal curriculum and thus open for public debate and review.

3. SEL will cause groupthink and anti-democratic thinking.
Given that social-emotional learning has always been part of the classroom, hidden or not, it’s hard to understand why it would suddenly cause groupthink when these types of lessons have resulted in the country we enjoy today. Imagine the number of innovators, inventors, and creative spirits who have been nurtured by lessons that allow them to see differences as sources of pride and the full range of human experience celebrated.

Nancy’s mother was a teacher for nearly 30 years. She retired more than 20 years ago but still tells the story about a young man in her classroom who struggled academically and was being teased by his peers. Nancy’s mom selected the book Leo the Late Bloomer (Kraus, 1971, HarperCollins) as a read-aloud. This young man asked to borrow the book after the read-aloud and sat at his desk studying every page. He asked if he could take the book home to show his parents.

The boy’s mother came to school the next day with tears in her eyes saying, “My little Ben thinks he’s just like Leo. He finally has a role model and he read that book over and over. It’s the first one he’s ever wanted to read.” This child’s attitude toward school changed almost immediately and by 4th grade was doing quite well. Nancy’s mom kept in touch with the family for many years and knows that Ben is now a successful businessman with a family of his own. He just needed a bit of validation and support, which started when Nancy’s mom made a book selection with the intended purpose of addressing the social and emotional needs of the students in her class.

In sum, social-emotional learning is part of the fabric of schooling. But it’s been swept under the rug and has become part of the hidden curriculum. It’s past time to formalize the types of social and emotional skills our society wants students to learn and to engage in public discussions about this curriculum, like we do English, history, science, mathematics, and the arts.

Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey are both professors of educational leadership at San Diego State University and the authors of several books, including All Learning is Social and Emotional: Helping Students Develop Essential Skills for the Classroom and Beyond (ASCD, 2019). Co-author Dominique Smith is the director of student services at Health Sciences High & Middle College. Frey, Fisher, and Smith are also the authors of Building Equity: Policies and Practices to Empower All Learners (ASCD, 2017) and Better than Carrots or Sticks: Restorative Practices for Positive Classroom Management (ASCD, 2015).

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.