Student Well-Being

Addressing SEL Skepticism: Tips From Education Leaders for Getting Parents on Board

By Arianna Prothero — June 07, 2023 6 min read
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Explicit teaching of social-emotional skills has become more prevalent in recent years. But just because schools are investing heavily in SEL, doesn’t mean that all parents are on board with it.

This became especially obvious when social-emotional learning was swept up in the furor over critical race theory and linked to larger debates over how racism is taught in schools and districts’ diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.

Even if a district has been spared that high-octane political pushback, it’s still best practice to get parents on board with district social-emotional learning initiatives or at the very least make sure they understand what SEL is and why their district is investing in it. That’s the advice of a superintendent and two district-level SEL directors who participated in a panel discussion June 6 as part of the 2023 EdWeek Market Brief Summit.

“What’s happening in the home dramatically impacts what’s happening in our classrooms,” said Aaron Spence, the superintendent of the Virginia Beach City public schools in Virginia. “Social-emotional competencies and the kind of learning that we’re talking about is something that matters in the home as well as in our schools, so ways we can engage and partner with our families as they work to support and raise their children is important.”

The panel discussion about teaching SEL in a tumultuous era also featured Cynthia Treadwell, the executive director of Chicago Public Schools’ office of social-emotional learning; and Iyuanna Pease, the director of SEL and equity at Folsom Cordova Unified School District in California.

Here are five steps these leaders are taking to address pushback and skepticism from parents on social-emotional learning.

1. Define social-emotional learning

Social-emotional learning can be tricky to define, and it might look different depending on the district and what that district’s goals for its social-emotional learning investments are.

“I think confusion comes when there is a level of misunderstanding or lack of knowledge,” said Treadwell.

That’s why it’s vital for each district to define SEL for their school community and make sure all teachers, administrators, and support staff know the definition and can communicate it fluently with parents and community members.

When social-emotional learning got pulled into the debates over critical race theory, Spence created message maps—a document breaking down an organization’s reasoning for a decision or product offering into key points—for staff members, he said, so they were prepared to discuss the district’s SEL initiatives with parents and the broader community.

“What I found is that when you say social-emotional learning, a lot of parents thought, ‘wait, are you doing psychotherapy in your classroom with my child without my permission?” he said.

While there is some overlap between mental health and social-emotional learning, it’s important to clarify the differences, Spence said.

2. Focus on skill development

Another important messaging lesson Spence said he has learned is to talk about the specific skills that social-emotional learning teaches, which can go a long way toward clearing up parents’ confusion or disinformation on the subject. He said he shares with families reports from McKinsey & Company, a renowned global management consulting firm that says social-emotional skills are vital for success in the working world.

“When we laid out the skills themselves instead of the name [social-emotional learning], and said here’s what we’re hoping that kids will learn, and by the way, if you’re looking at this the McKinsey report and others and they’re saying these are the skills that employers have identified as important skills, and you show those to a parent, I have not had a parent yet say ‘I don’t want my kids to learn those,’” said Spence.

Skill development is also the focus of discussion when Pease, from the Folsom Cordova district, talks about SEL with hesitant parents.

“All of those skills lead to healthy individuals who are going to enter the workforce, so we’re building life skills for young people,” she said. “If we find a way to infuse that type of language into SEL curricula, it’s more likely to take off even further.”

3. Be transparent

Whether it’s showcasing the research district leaders are reading when they make decisions around SEL programming, or the instructional materials teachers will be using in their classrooms—share that information with parents.

That can help demystify a nebulous, wonky education term and serve as a counterpoint to disinformation about SEL that parents might be hearing from other sources.

Pease said this is how she responded to parents during the pandemic who started asking about her district’s SEL strategy.

“There was an increase in interest among parents to know what was being taught in the SEL curriculum because of the political climate,” she said. “Being open and transparent and allowing people to view modules and materials, that really helped minimize friction points for parents.”

4. Connect one-on-one

Never underestimate the power of the personal touch. Pease said when a parent is concerned about SEL, she reaches out directly to parents and guardians to answer their questions. She said she’s found that concerns about SEL are driven by fears of the unknown and it’s worth taking time to answer their specific questions and dispel any myths they’ve heard about SEL.

“If I can eliminate that fear and that friction point for them, I’m willing to do it,” Pease said. “I think as educators we were so used to doing things in our silos and expecting parents and communities to trust us.”

By talking directly with families and addressing their specific and unique concerns, the majority of them come around, she said.

“They may not necessarily be excited about it, but they understand where I’m coming from,” she said.

5. Ditching SEL terminology isn’t a cure-all

A 2021 survey of parents by the Fordham Foundation and YouGov found that the term “social-emotional learning” isn’t popular with them, especially Republican parents. Parents’ term of choice, according to the survey, is “life skills.” These findings have led to some discussions in education circles about whether the wonky term “social-emotional learning” is overdue for a rebranding, especially as it became a flashpoint in the education culture wars.

But, Treadwell said, changing the name of something because it’s become politicized might be setting a bad precedent.

“I think it is fear-based and it causes unnecessary contention that we just don’t need to dig into,” she said.

While it might make sense to use the term “life skills” at the high school level to help older students connect the skills they are learning with how they will use them in life and careers beyond school, Treadwell said it’s not necessary to stop using the term social-emotional learning.

Spence said his district is not entertaining the idea of using a different name for SEL, but he acknowledged that for some districts it might make sense to use other terminology that is less politicized. But Spence said that other terms, such as character education and life skills, may also come with preconceived ideas of what they are.

“Life skills historically in education has had a different connotation,” he said. “Typically, life skills was the skills class that were taught to students who were not successful academically. So, we have to be very clear if we’re going to use terms like that, what we are talking about.”

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