Equity & Diversity

As Terms Like ‘SEL’ Draw Fire, Organizations Supporting Schools Sharpen Their Message

By Libby Stanford — June 13, 2022 4 min read
First graders Natalie Walove, left, and Brooke Boone dance and sing during music class at the William H. Rowe School in Yarmouth, Maine.
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Nonprofit organizations that have spent decades offering social-emotional learning and equity-based support to schools are facing a new challenge: defending their existence.

This year, education terms like SEL and equity have become embroiled in the controversy surrounding “critical race theory,” an academic framework that argues racism is a social construct that has been embedded into legal systems and policies.

In some states, lawmakers have passed bills, rejected books, and censored teachers with the goal of preventing the discussion of “divisive topics” like racism and sexuality. In April, the Florida education department rejected math textbooks because they included content related to SEL. Forty-two states have introduced bills or taken other steps to restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how race and sexuality are discussed in class, according to Education Week’s critical race theory tracker.

The discourse has created a difficult situation for nonprofit organizations that have SEL and equity at the core of the work they do in schools and school districts.

“This is the first time I’ve seen the divisiveness and the polarization that’s happened,” said Bridget Durkan Laird, the CEO of Wings for Kids, an organization that works to improve SEL within schools by operating after-school, teacher-training, and curriculum programs in Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

The interest around SEL has always ebbed and flowed, and organizations like Wings for Kids are experiencing that roller coaster in real time, Durkan Laird said. At the start of the pandemic, the nonprofit saw an increased interest in their SEL programs, as educators worried about the lack of support for student mental health when schools closed.

Despite the negative rhetoric surrounding the term in some places, organizations that Education Week spoke with haven’t found themselves losing out on funding or opportunities. But they are being more careful about how they talk about the work they do.

Clarifying just what ‘SEL’ means

For a long time, Durkan Laird spent much of her energy focused on telling people about what SEL is. Now, she’s tasked with convincing people of what it’s not.

“Some of the politicians or individuals that are coming out against it might not necessarily know the true definition of [social-emotional] skills,” Durkan Laird said.

Being aware of the changing landscape, Durkan Laird said Wings for Kids has focused on expanding the definition of SEL when talking to parents, lawmakers, and others outside the education world. The best way to do that, she said, is to go through what those in the field call its “five competencies”: self-awareness, self-management, responsible decisionmaking, relationship skills, and social awareness.

SEL curriculum has teachers work with students so they can master the competencies and be better equipped to handle challenges in the future. Once she explains that, Durkan Laird said she rarely faces pushback.

“I do find myself speaking in terms that are a little bit more definable by a general audience,” she said. “Because I do think that if you say ‘social-emotional learning,’ it’s now becoming pigeonholed in this whole bucket of controversy.”

Urban Teachers, a nonprofit that works to diversify the teacher workforce in schools in Baltimore, Dallas, the District of Columbia, and Philadelphia, has also found success through clearer communications. The organization has tackled the pushback against critical race theory and social-emotional learning by having “open lines of communication” with school leaders and the community, CEO Peter Shulman said.

“We work in education, so we should be educators ourselves to make sure that when we’re talking to someone, we’re working to advance their knowledge and also being honest about who we are and who we aren’t,” Shulman said.

Doubling down on values

Although the rhetoric surrounding critical race theory and SEL can be loud at times, it has not deterred education organizations from being vocal about their work.

“If anything, we’ve doubled down on our values, we’ve doubled down on our program,” Shulman said.

Urban Teachers isn’t coy about its stance on race and racism in its messaging. On its website, the organization writes “Structural racism and inequality have kept generations of urban children from receiving the education they deserve.”

Shulman said the commitment to staying true to the organization’s values has been a necessary part of navigating the current cultural landscape. He’s not the only one who thinks that way.

Naila Bolus, the CEO of Jumpstart, a nonprofit that provides early-childhood education programs in 15 states across the country, wrote in a letter on the organization’s website of the organization’s commitment to being anti-racist and inclusive after lawmakers in several states worked to ban from schools books about race and sexuality.

“After two years of a pandemic that took an immeasurable toll on young learners, it has never been more important to support children’s social-emotional development by empowering them to ask questions and think creatively and critically about the world around them,” Bolus wrote.

Durkan Laird has also remained steadfast in her dedication to SEL, not shying away from promoting the educational method. She said she’s always sure to back up her assertions with data that show the impact SEL has on student outcomes.

“We all just have to continue to believe in what we do and stick together and not back down,” she said.

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