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School & District Management

5 Mistakes Schools Make When Building SEL Programs

By Arianna Prothero — November 27, 2023 5 min read
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Confusion among parents and the general public over what exactly social-emotional learning is can sink efforts to expand the practice in schools.

That was the tough lesson learned by state policymakers in Missouri when the state department of education tried to implement state social-emotional learning standards that prompted significant pushback.

Social-emotional learning is the teaching of non-academic skills—such as empathy, cooperation, and emotional management—that are important for success in school and life. While that may not sound controversial, SEL has been swept up in larger political arguments over education.

In Missouri’s case, nearly 2,000 public comments on the proposal revealed that many people were both concerned and confused about social-emotional learning—for example, some comments claimed that the SEL standards would interfere with parenting; invite teachers to practice psychology without a license; or be used to justify controversial diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.

The situation in Missouri is by no means unique.

Missouri ultimately opted to make the standards it developed an optional framework for schools. But experts who spoke with Education Week said that the politically charged situation—and others like it—serve as a reminder that there are many ways school and district leaders can unintentionally undermine their efforts to adopt or expand social-emotional learning.

Here are five mistakes school, district, and state leaders make that can cause public backlash when putting together social-emotional learning programs.

1. Not recognizing parents as partners

You’ve heard it before: parents are kids’ first teachers, and that is especially true when it comes to teaching social-emotional skills. That’s why engaging parents and guardians is so important when implementing social-emotional learning, said Justina Schlund, the vice president of communications for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, a national group that advocates for SEL. And key to building those family partnerships is communication, she said.

“The more we open communication lines and partner with parents as educators to talk about social and emotional learning, to bring them into discussing, like, what are the social-emotional strengths of their kids? What are different strategies that work? The more we do that, the better it is not just for the implementation of social-emotional learning but for the kids themselves,” she said.

Some communication approaches include newsletters that describe what students are learning and define certain terms, surveying parents and guardians on what social-emotional skills they consider important for their children to learn, or even starting a social-emotional learning book club for parents.

2. Using educational jargon

Many parents already know intuitively what social-emotional learning is. And a 2021 survey by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning think tank, found that there is broad support among parents across the political spectrum for schools teaching many social-emotional skills, such as setting goals, being good citizens, and controlling one’s emotions.

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But Adam Tyner, the national research director at the Fordham Institute who led the study on parents’ attitudes toward SEL, said that when educators use jargon it has the effect of excluding important stakeholders such as parents.

“Parents have views about their kids’ social and emotional well-being, and they don’t need a Ph.D. or an education degree in order to have informed opinions about how their children are going to learn to cooperate,” he said. “By putting a bunch of jargon around it, you’re excluding people. Why should we be so surprised when people who are skeptical about what is going on in schools anyway have all kinds of cynical ideas about what is going on?”

3. Not defining the concept

After stripping away the jargon, do parents know what SEL is? Do teachers? Do you?

“I think we do have to think critically about what social and emotional learning really is, because there is a lot of confusion about that and you get a lot of different answers when you ask experts in the field,” said Tyner. “Some people will relate it to these age-old things that are pretty uncontroversial, but then other people will say that it’s a distinct, research-based set of aligned practices.”

Because SEL can be a nebulous term, some district leaders have found it helpful to come up with a definition of SEL for their own school community and then make sure all teachers, administrators, and support staff know what that definition is and are comfortable communicating it with parents and community members.

Experts emphasize that it is important to take this step because educational leaders have found that if they don’t define SEL, someone else might do it for them.

4. Using a one-size-fits-all approach

How social-emotional learning is defined and what it looks like should vary from community to community. SEL programming and initiatives are more likely to get pushback if they’re not tailored to the local culture and values, said R. Keeth Matheny, an SEL trainer and consultant and the founder of SEL Launchpad, which provides SEL-focused professional development to schools.

That might mean using “calm moments” to teach students to deescalate their emotions in districts where the community may be uncomfortable with students learning meditation or mindfulness he said.

See also

A group of students share a laugh as they play cards at Sunset High School in Dallas, photographed on Friday, March 13, 2020. The school actively participates in “social and emotional learning (SEL),” promoting and teaching social/emotional skills to high school-age students.
A group of students share a laugh as they play cards at Sunset High School in Dallas, photographed on Friday, March 13, 2020. The school actively participates in “social and emotional learning (SEL),” promoting and teaching social/emotional skills to high school-age students.
Louris DeLuca for Education Week
Student Well-Being What Does SEL Mean Anyway? 7 Experts Break It Down
Arianna Prothero, December 22, 2022
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“All of them are a similar style of intervention, each with slightly different pieces, but the work is still the work: we need to help kids learn how to manage their emotions and calm down when they are escalated,” said Matheny, a former teacher.

“We need to understand as a field that we don’t do this work to a community, we do it with a community, which means that we need to find out what are the community’s priorities, concerns, and worries and make sure that we’re using strategies, methods and terms that fit with those communities’ needs,” he said.

5. Ignoring or dismissing people’s concerns

Dismissing parents’ or community members’ concerns—no matter how off base or silly they may sound—often only serves to harden opposition, said Matheny.

Instead, educational leaders should listen to people’s worries and complaints. Taking the time to listen can help hone arguments for social-emotional learning into a concept that will convince naysayers of its benefits.

Thanking people for caring about their students and schools and highlighting common ground—like wanting all students to graduate and move into the workforce knowing how to get along with people who are different from them—are also important, Matheny said.

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