Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Is Social-Emotional Learning Another ‘Self-Esteem Hoax’?

By Debbie Silver — July 09, 2017 8 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Today’s guest blog is written by Debbie Silver, a learning consultant with over 30 years of experience as a teacher, staff development facilitator, and university professor.

In Education Week, June, 2017 Chester E. Finn, Jr. writes that social-emotional learning (SEL) is the same “hoax” as the earlier flawed California self-esteem movement and is grounded in equivalent “faux psychology.” As a senior fellow and president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Dr. Finn is surprisingly short-sighted in his view about this important concept. His uncompromising focus on the alleged misrepresentations by John Vasconcellos, the California state legislator who championed the self-esteem movement, does not correlate with his disparagement of the current SEL movement.

As an educator from the 1970’s I was involved in the repercussions of California’s self-esteem movement. We were told it was our responsibility to build students’ self-esteem by making sure everyone was a winner and never felt diminished by the stature and successes of others. We were advised that if we helped kids feel good about themselves, regardless of their accomplishments, their positive perceptions would translate to better school work. We tried to ensure that our feedback was mostly positive hype and endless affirmations that had little to do with earned success.

However, it did not take educators long to realize this self-esteem theory helped create a sense of entitlement in some students and led to deeper feelings of learned helplessness in others. Today’s SEL movement has made tremendous adjustments to motivational theory based on both qualitative and quantitative data.

Qualitative Vs Quantitative Research
Finn makes a denigrating comment that social-emotional learning has no “real scientific foundation - just a lot of much-hyped ‘qualitative’ and ‘anecdotal’ studies . . . .” I’m quite sure he is aware that social sciences have long relied on both qualitative and quantitative data to inform our practice. William Trochim, professor of the Department of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell University (2006), warns that researchers should not become caught up in the polarizing differences between qualitative and quantitative research. He writes, “All quantitative data is based upon qualitative judgments; and all qualitative data can be described and manipulated numerically” (2006, para. 3).

Finn argues that school should be a place for academics, and teaching social and emotional skills should be left to organizations such as the Girl Scouts, Little League, religious youth groups, and swim team. My question to him is the famous Dr. Phil quip, “So how’s that working for us?” Beyond the obvious decline in social norms, there is scientific data to support SEL as a foundational tool for academic achievement.

A 2011 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Child Development showed an 11 percentile gain in academic achievement for students who participated in well-implemented SEL programs versus students who did not. Improved brain imaging has given neuroscientists important keys to unlocking the connections between academics and emotions. Study after study support the addition of effective SEL programs to the curriculum. Both researchers and practitoners are becoming acutely aware that no matter how much knowledge is made available to a learner, there are emotional and social elements at work determining whether the information will be internalized and used.

Self-esteem is Not Self-efficacy
Most objectionable in his commentary is that Finn equates self-esteem with self-efficacy. My definition of self-esteem is basing one’s sense of value on comparisons to others. It is about being the best, the first, or somehow managing to outshine others. Teachers trying to raise self-esteem often praise students’ intelligence, ease of understanding, or innate talents.

But when we praise children for being naturally gifted or talented, aren’t we essentially telling them we are more appreciative of them being somehow divinely endowed rather than by their making gains through hard-earned achievement? Aren’t we sending the message that natural talent and exceptional ability are what it takes to be successful? Our society is so focused on labeling people as being inherently brilliant, talented, beautiful, and/or physically superior that we have inadvertently conveyed to students the most valued assets are those that are effortless.

Self-efficacy, on the other hand, empowers students to take charge over the things they can control and work around the things they can’t. Albert Bandura, and later Dr. Carol Dweck, theorize that if adult advocates offer feedback that focuses on students’ choices and efforts (things they can control), we can help them build the internal tenacity they need to reach their goals. To encourage self-efficacy value is placed on student resilience, honesty, persistence, integrity, responsibility, and other SEL dispositions under their control. Having feedback from an attentive, nonjudgmental adult interested in their work is one of the best ways for students to become independent, committed, successful performers.

Bandura has studied the character trait of self-efficacy for decades. He demonstrates how it helps students work harder, work longer, accept bigger challenges, overcome greater obstacles, and more quickly recover from setbacks. It is far removed from the concept of self-esteem where every child gets a sticker or a trophy so no one feels bad about themselves. The intention of self-efficacy is not to help students necessarily be the best, but rather to encourage them to do their best.

School Reform and SEL Implementation
I find it incredulous that an educational reformist like Chester E. Finn writes such a negative, narrow view about something as potentially transformative as effective SEL curriculum implementation. Attention to self-skills can be of invaluable assistance in helping students academically. There is also an obvious need for helping students develop social proficiencies such as responsibility, honesty, integrity, empathy and gratitude. Don’t we want our students to be empowered to manage the things they can control in themselves? Isn’t it important for them to be able to assimilate successfully into their communities and workplaces? Shouldn’t educators actively strive to influence them to become contributing members of society who value themselves and others?

Understandably veteran educators may be a bit cautious about fully embracing new trends that add to the already overstretched budgets and fully-packed schedules in our schools, but should that cause the knee-jerk negativity evidenced by Finn? Perhaps we would be better served to start by looking at places SEL logically fits into current curriculum.

SEL skills have long been integrated with other curricular areas and with the regular flow of the classroom. When teaching rules for various games coaches can emphasize honor and provide discussion time for why integrity is critical to sports. English language teachers can use characters in books and stories to help students identify the benefits of perseverance, optimism, and empathy. Social studies and history teachers can use current and historic events to ask students to express empathy with people on each side of the issues. Science teachers can focus on the importance of ethics in conducting experiments and reporting data. With purposeful planning, SEL can be taught as a logical extension to academics and easily woven into classroom management as well as the school culture.

Recently my colleague, Dedra Stafford, and I began researching low-cost, low prep ways educators can incorporate SEL skills into the curriculum. We started by identifying those abilities we thought are most important, malleable, and teachable. We identified the following areas: mindfulness, command of executive functions, self-efficacy and growth mindset, perseverance, resiliency and optimism, integrity responsibility, empathy, and gratitude. We grouped them under the heading Thrive Skills. We provide a free website for educators who wish to find or share SEL ideas, resources, activities, tools, stories, or questions. Teachers can visit www.teachingkidstothrive.com to find ways to hone and practice their own thrive skills as well as those of their students.

Teachers require the same thoughtful foundations, demonstrations, practice opportunities, discussions, and chances for reflection we know are indispensable for teaching students. Educators need to experience support from their administrators at the local level and beyond. Time should be allocated for teachers to observe one another, meet for discussions, and offer collaborative assistance with this or any new program. It is our hope that rather than adopting SEL components as a top-down-latest-and-greatest educational fad, districts will seize the opportunity to truly inspire and empower not only students, but also their adult advocates.

Integrating SEL in schools will require that we as educators purposefully rethink the goals and responsibilities of our system. These skills can lay the foundation for healthy, whole, centered, and grounded young people who are future ready and able to thrive no matter what the circumstances, and that is definitely not a hoax.

Dr. Debbie Silver is a learning consultant with over 30 years of experience as a teacher, staff development facilitator, and university professor. As a classroom teacher, Debbie won numerous awards, including the 1990 Louisiana Teacher of the Year award. She speaks worldwide on issues involving education and is a passionate advocate for students and teachers. She is the author of four bestselling books including, Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed and Teaching Kids to Thrive: Essential Skills for Success.

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.