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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

No Place for Social-Emotional Learning in Schools? Are You Sure?

By Peter DeWitt — March 04, 2018 5 min read
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Back in early January, I wrote a commentary for Education Week (read it here) that focused on ways that those of us who care about SEL can get critics to understand why it’s important that schools focus on SEL. If you read the blog, and scrolled down to the comments, you saw that I did not win everyone over. I actually had some people e-mail me to send support because they were appalled by the comments.

Unfortunately, I was not surprised by those comments. I was actually expecting them because I have heard those same arguments before. Unfortunately for the naysayers, they don’t understand what schools are actually experiencing with their student populations.

To the naysayers I ask, “If schools could just focus on academics, don’t you think they would?” Given the fact that they have standards and curriculum that they are struggling to find the time during the day to cover, don’t you think that they would prefer that all students come to school healthy and ready to learn?

Let’s begin with some staggering statistics from the American Psychiatric Association, National Institute of Mental Health, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


  • 1 in 4 people are diagnosed with mental illness over the course of a year in the U.S.
  • Half of all chronic mental health conditions begin by age 14.
  • Half of all lifetime cases of anxiety disorders begin as early as age 8.
  • More than 60 percent of young adults with a mental illness were unable to complete high school
  • Young people ages 16-24 with mental illness are four times less likely to be involved in gainful activities, like employment, college or trade school.
  • Those with a psychiatric disability are three times more likely to be involved in criminal justice activities.
  • Each year, 157,000 children and young adults, ages 10-24, are treated at emergency departments for self-inflicted injuries.
  • One in 12 high school students have attempted suicide.

It’s very difficult to solely focus on academics when students entering school are experiencing issues from the list above. Should we throw them out of school? Would that make the critics happier? Perhaps we should build a wall so they can’t get in? That should work, right?

Adverse Childhood Experiences
Besides students with mental health issues, we have students who are suffering from trauma, also known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), which actually cause some of the issues from above. According to the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS), “trauma is used to describe negative events that are emotionally painful and that overwhelm a person’s ability to cope.” Examples that inspire trauma include “experiencing an earthquake or hurricane, industrial accident or vehicular accident, physical or sexual assault, and various forms of abuse experienced during childhood.”

These Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) are divided into three types, which are Abuse (physical, emotional, sexual), Neglect (physical, emotional), and Household Dysfunction (incarcerated relative, mental illness, domestic violence, substance abuse, divorce, deployed family member and loss of a parent). It’s sad that we have to add school shootings to that list.

Perhaps the critics of SEL have insight into how to help students that experience trauma or ACE? Perhaps behind the anonymous names and posting lies an expert on how to end the need for SEL?

What Can Schools Do?
While we wait for people to provide their solution that will end all traumatic experiences for students, many schools are moving forward with interventions. Many school leaders have gained new flexibility due to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA. For information read CASEL’s guidance here), which allows states and local districts to create school improvement plans that will fund social-emotional programs.

According to the Massachusetts Advocates for Children, and the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, trauma informed schools do the following:

School Wide Policies & Practices - Schools need to have districtwide health and wellness policies that they put into place every day.

Classroom Strategies and Techniques - Strategies that are created in partnership with school counselors and psychologists that focus on the social-emotional growth as well as the academic growth of students.

Collaboration & Links to Mental Health - “Policies describe how, when, and where to refer families for mental health supports; and staff actively facilitate and follow through in supporting families’ access to trauma-competent mental health services.”

Family Partnerships - Ways to communicate with families that encourage inclusion rather than exclusion.

Community Linkages - Schools maintain relationships with state mental health organizations that understand the context of schools. Teachers and leaders cannot do it all, and outside organizations can offer the expertise that school personnel may not have.

In the End
We can continue to argue whether schools should be exploring SEL or we can understand the sad reality that students are suffering from trauma and mental health issues, and do something about it. We can argue about politics, or realize that our schools are not supposed to be war zones.

Students who suffer from trauma, and those with mental health issues are not throw away kids that we toss to the side. They are children who have the potential to do great things in life. That is not a political argument...it is a reality.

In order to have a stronger education system and help students meet their potential, we need to work together as a school community with families and outside organization. We need to stop blaming and starting acting. We need to stop burying our heads in the sand that all of this will go away “when we start focusing solely on academics.” SEL is not a fad, nor is it less important than other things we have to teach. SEL and academic learning are equally as important and we need to find a better balance on how to do both.

Some suggestions on how to change our language are below. Please feel free to add to the list in the comment section, through Tweets or add the pic and the list to your own Facebook page. And as always, thank you for reading.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin Press. 2016), School Climate: Leading with Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press. 2017). Connect with him on Twitter.


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.


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