School & District Management

How School Leaders Can Respond to Pushback Over Social-Emotional Learning

By Arianna Prothero — April 13, 2022 6 min read
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Interest in social-emotional learning is surging as many parents and educators are concerned about the long-term effects of the pandemic on kids’ social skills.

But at the same time, SEL is also facing increased pushback as the concept has gotten caught up in debates and legislative bans over teaching about “divisive” topics such as racism and sexuality. It’s a development that has caught educators off-guard and put some school districts on the defensive.

“I think that you have to generate buy-in for things that you do within a school community early, and I think educators know that,” said Andrea Lovanhill, the chief executive officer of the nonprofit Committee for Children, which provides curriculum and professional development for social-emotional learning. “But sometimes it can feel like you’re a little bit blindsided if you didn’t know something could be contentious at all.”

So, how do school and district leaders walk this tightrope? Here is some advice:

Dump the jargon and explain things in language parents can understand

SEL, like a lot of education policy, can sound like a foreign language to the uninitiated. That creates confusion among parents and community members about what SEL is. It also makes it easier to misrepresent, for political purposes, said Lovanhill.

Parents are largely supportive of schools teaching the skills that fall under the umbrella of social-emotional learning, such as setting goals, managing emotions, and being informed citizens, but the term itself is unpopular, according to a poll by YouGov and commissioned by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank. Parents, the poll found, prefer the term “life skills” rather than social-emotional learning.

Communicate the purpose and goals of your curriculum

Some districts use SEL to reduce student discipline rates, others to address bullying. An increasing number of districts are using social-emotional learning as a means to boost their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, according to a report by the consulting firm Tyton Partners and published in partnership with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL.

The point is, communicating the goals of a district’s social-emotional programming in addressing needs specific to that community could go a long way to addressing parents’ concerns.

It’s also important to discuss the broader benefits of social-emotional learning on school performance factors like student attendance and graduation rates, and that the skills promoted in social-emotional learning—such as collaboration, self-regulation, and resilience—are important skills for the workforce.

Recruit a variety of voices to talk about the benefits of social-emotional learning

Oftentimes, the task of talking to parents about SEL falls to classroom teachers or school counselors, said Lovanhill. But other members of the school community, such as parents and students, and members of the broader community, such as military and business leaders, can serve as important ambassadors for the concept, she said.

Social-emotional skills in general—and resilience, collaboration, self-regulation, self-awareness, empathy, and growth mindsets in particular—are among key skills company executives expect from young workers entering the workforce, according to feedback gathered by Education Week from senior executives from leading companies in the hospitality, automotive, consulting, health care, and information technology industries.

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Don’t wait until it’s already a contentious issue to talk about your programs

There are much more productive venues than emotionally charged school board meetings to talk about your SEL program. So get ahead of the curve by providing information and opportunities for people to ask questions at community events, parent-teacher association meetings, and in district newsletters.

“[Schools] really have over the past couple of years refined a lot of their communications and engagement, and I think they should leverage what they have learned” to put in place better strategies for talking to their communities about SEL, Lovanhill said.

Communicate directly with families about how SEL works and their roles in it

This can take a variety of forms. The Dallas Independent School District has a social-emotional learning family engagement coordinator who provides outreach and materials to families. This includes newsletters describing different SEL themes and exercises to do at home, as well as surveys of parents on the social-emotional skills families want their children learning.

See also

Conceptual image of tug-of-war in classroom setting.
Laura Baker/Education Week and sesame/DigitalVision Vectors and iStock/photo

Districts should also share with families the research and data they are relying on in making their decisions about social-emotional learning programming.

Whatever the approach, it’s crucial that districts solicit feedback from parents about social-emotional learning curricula, experts say, both before and after adopting a program.

Go beyond the headlines to find out how parents feel

Despite pushback—both from parents and conservative groups and activists—it doesn’t appear as though parents and educators are turning away en masse from social-emotional learning. If anything, the pandemic has fueled more interest in the concept.

A majority of educators reported in a November survey by the EdWeek Research Center that support for SEL among parents had either risen or stayed the same over the past year.

Overall, 42 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders surveyed said that parents’ support for social-emotional learning has increased in the past year—either by a little or a lot. Thirty-nine percent said there had been no change while 20 percent reported that support had decreased among parents.

Support, though, varied by location, district size, and whether students had been learning in person.

Educators in the Northeast and Western parts of the country were more likely to say that support had increased than in the Midwest and South. Teachers, principals, and district leaders in schools where classes were all taught online for most the 2020-21 school year were more likely to say that parental support for SEL had risen.

Meanwhile, 34 percent of educators said their personal support for SEL had increased “a lot” and 28 percent said it had increased a “a little.”

Share information about national trends, recognizing that some people are not happy with those changes

District spending on SEL programming grew about 45 percent, from $530 million to $765 million, between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, according to the Tyton Partners report.

American Rescue Plan and CARES Act funds have also poured into schools helping them train teachers, buy new materials, and implement SEL programs. Many states—with governors and education chiefs from both sides of the political aisle—have included social-emotional learning strategies in their plans for using that federal money, according to an analysis by Future Ed, a Georgetown University think tank.

But that doesn’t mean all parents are on board with social-emotional learning. A third of principals and district leaders said in EdWeek’s survey they have heard from parents in the past year that they are concerned that “social-emotional learning is teaching their children values they don’t approve of.”

Principals and district leaders from larger districts, suburban areas, and wealthier districts were more likely to report that they had heard concerns from parents about SEL.

A version of this article appeared in the April 27, 2022 edition of Education Week as How School Leaders Can Respond to Pushback Over Social-Emotional Learning


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