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There’s Pushback to Social-Emotional Learning. Here’s What Happened in One State

By Evie Blad — February 13, 2020 9 min read
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When Idaho state education leaders pitched a social-emotional learning proposal to lawmakers this week, one member of the state’s House Education Committee compared the plan to the dystopian behavior control in the futuristic novel Brave New World.

Others said it’s parents’ job—not schools'— to help children develop self-control and relationship skills. Some were skeptical, noting that social-emotional learning is part of a national movement being embraced in schools across the country, which they considered problematic.

And, as Idaho Ed News first reported, some walked out of the hearing altogether.

Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra told Education Week Thursday that she was puzzled by the response, especially since the budget presentation focused largely on helping teachers work with students who’ve been exposed to trauma.

“We want to make sure we are connecting parents and students and teachers with the right tools and the right resources to get them the help that they need,” Ybarra said. “I don’t think there is any other way to talk about this. It is not a blue issue. It is not a red issue.”

The reception Idaho leaders faced is a slice of pushback that occasionally bubbles up around the country as interest grows in social-emotional learning efforts.

Ybarra, an elected Republican, said she’s learned since the meeting that some lawmakers had circulated materials from the Massachusetts-based Pioneer Institute, which is known for its opposition to the Common Core State Standards. That organization refers to SEL as a “new-age nanny state.”

At the hearing Tuesday, Idaho Rep. Tony Wisniewski, a Republican, asked his fellow committee members to remember their own childhood experiences.

“Think about the school environment that we had,” Wisniewski, says in a recording of the hearing, “and the respect that we had for teachers and other students. And the discipline that was enforced not only by the teachers but by our parents, who, if they found out we were misbehaving in school, would undoubtedly support the teachers and take us to the woodshed if necessary. ... Now we jump forward to the 2020s. To me ... it appears we are trying to get the collective behavioral approach that was depicted in Brave New World.”

SEL is an education approach that emphasizes direct instruction of skills like how to resolve conflicts and understand differing points of view, changing school policies to be more developmentally sensitive, and working with family and community partners to meet students’ non-academic needs.

As schools become more interested in nurturing children’s social and emotional skills and creating better learning environments, states have also gotten on board. They’ve helped vet social-emotional learning programs programs, they’ve charted out developmentally sensitive benchmarks that show what qualities like social awareness look like at different grade levels, and they’ve offered teacher professional development in “whole child” approaches to education.

Those efforts are often well-received in many areas. But they’ve also faced resistence reminiscent of some other contentious education policy debates over issues like state standards (one Idaho lawmaker even raised the common core in this week’s discussion of SEL).

At the heart of the arguments over SEL are common questions: What is the role of education? How should schools define success? What does good character look like? Who should be allowed to define it? Those questions are often intensified by skepticism of national education movements.

In 2016, for example, Tennessee quickly pulled out of a multi-state collaborative organized by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, less than a month after joining the effort. The U-turn followed posts by bloggers who alleged the federal government wanted to track and monitor students’ feelings and questions by state lawmakers about the value of collaborating with other states.

Idaho’s Social-Emotional Learning Plan

Ybarra and Eric Studebaker, director of student engagement and safety coordination at the Idaho education department, had pitched a budget request to the House education committee Tuesday: $1 million in new funding to help develop and deliver statewide professional development for educators and administrators in social-emotional learning. The training would start with a cohort of districts and charter schools that would be selected after a voluntary application process.

Among the things the training would address: How to identify evidence-based SEL programs, how to assess a school or district’s readiness to implement those programs, and how to help teachers recognize students’ emotional struggles and address misbehavior.

The proposal was developed at the recommendation of a state task force and cosigned in the governor’s budget request. And it was tied into conversations about student safety that followed high-profile school shootings in 2018, Ybarra told Education Week.

“This is really all about creating the best conditions in a learning environment to support students so they can be successful,” Ybarra told lawmakers Tuesday. “It’s a conversation that’s at the forefront across the nation. And there’s growing recognition that we need to make sure that students develop the self awareness, problem-solving skills, and impulse control needed to overcome the challenges so that they can thrive.”

Teachers have asked for help addressing disruptive student behaviors that may be tied to issues like traumatic experiences, she said. Idaho has one of the nation’s highest suicide rates, and about 22 percent of the state’s high school students reported suicidal thoughts on a 2019 survey, Ybarra and Studebaker noted. They also cited recent emotional testimony by state teacher of the year Stacie Lawler about school mental health efforts and her own son’s struggles with suicidal thoughts.

Rather than imposing a uniform training on schools, state leaders want to allow them to voluntarily select their own approaches, giving them the training necessary to select and implement programs effectively, Studebaker said.

“The environment for kids is changing,” he said. “Our classrooms nationwide are seeing common behavioral issues. But how this funding request seeks to address this problem will be uniquely Idaho.”

But many Republican committee members seemed to approach the proposal with a defensive tone, asking whether the state had already invested enough in school counselors and other well-being efforts, and questioning the evidence Studebaker presented that connected strong SEL skills in early childhood to better outcomes later in life. One lawmaker said it was “troubling” that schools would try to measure students’ social and emotional skills at all. (This is a debated issue, even among SEL advocates who say such measurements shouldn’t be used for high-stakes purposes like grades and teacher evaluation.)

“How much time are we actually talking about [for SEL] as opposed to time for what we think education really should be? You know: reading, writing, arithmetic,” Rep. Barbara Ehardt, a Republican, asked. “When we’re talking social emotional, we’re talking about more time spent in an area ... that really is a role that should be dealt with in the home.”

But others, including committee Chairman Rep. Lance Clow, a Republican, and Rep. Steve Berch, a Democrat, defended the proposal.

“I am not interested in building a bridge to the mythical 1950s where every parent was Ward and June Cleaver,” Berch said. “The experience that we on the committee had as students is not the reality in today’s classroom.”

He listed trends like growing rates of teen suicide and depression, concerns about the effects of social media, and other stressors.

“We’re talking about disruptive behaviors that are not expellable and affect everyone else in the classroom,” Berch said. “And simply wishing that some parents raise their children better is not a solution.”

In a Wednesday meeting, Clow said that it would be wrong to conclude that all of the committee members who walked out of the hearing did so out of protest. Some just had other hearings and issues to attend to, he said.

Common Pushback to State Social-Emotional Learning Plans

Idaho’s efforts sit in a national landscape of SEL adoption, propelled in part by a consensus among some education researchers that schools need to be more sensitive to students’ social and emotional development.

As states’ SEL efforts grow, usually following more intensive work by their own districts, leaders report they need help addressing skepticism, busting myths, and making their case to the general public, CASEL reported in a 2018 look at its state efforts.

“Some states have encountered pockets of political resistance to having schools involved in SEL at all,” CASEL reports. “Opponents of SEL often say it is the primary responsibility of families. These communication challenges can be successfully weathered. Critical to success is deep listening to understand concerns of the community, as well as a clear plan for communicating with and engaging stakeholders. The plan should identify key goals and audiences, clarify key messages, and prioritize key strategies for sharing those messages.”

A few common concerns:

  • The CASEL report also acknowledges confusing language around SEL, which is referred to by a range of names, including character education, soft skills, 21st century skills, and grit. Programs may vary significantly in focus and scope, and different educators discuss SEL differently, sometimes depending on the school context. It’s sometimes billed as an intervention that reduces misbehavior, which may give the perception that it is for a small pool of students. At other times, it’s billed as a way to prepare all students for jobs in a changing economy.
  • Some conservative critics of SEL say an emphasis on tolerance may threaten to counter messages students receive at home about issues like gender, which may be grounded in their families’ religious beliefs. And some have raised questions about assessing and tracking students’ SEL competancies, which not all schools do. Can such qualities be reliably measured? Will children be treated differently because of the results? Will the data affect their “permanent record” ?
  • While some SEL critics reject the notion that it has some sort of devious undercurrent, they question whether the programs are really effective and whether schools have the capacity to properly put SEL strategies into place. (More on that debate here.)

There are also some interesting tensions in the debates. Some lawmakers reject SEL in favor of “developing character,” but some in the education field say those two concepts are often very similar in practice. The confusing language and diffuse media environment may lead some lawmakers to talk past each other in these debates.

Policymakers across the political spectrum have responded to school safety debates after shootings in places like Parkland, Fla., by calling for efforts to address isolated students, to identify potentially threatening behavior, and to respond to students’ mental health needs. Proponents of SEL say their strategies can help meet those mandates, but they still face resistance, sometimes from the same lawmakers who called for that approach to safety.

As social-emotional learning efforts continue to grow and evolve, it will be interesting to see how leaders and educators take on the challenge of addressing concerns and misconceptions about the work.

Ybarra’s request for SEL funding is still on the table. It will be considered by a joint appropriations committee in the coming weeks.

Photo: Getty

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