Student Well-Being Letter to the Editor

Is Social-Emotional Learning a Hoax? Readers Respond

In letters to the editor, readers debate author on soft-skills instruction
July 18, 2017 14 min read
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In a recent spirited Commentary, Chester E. Finn Jr. took aim at the “faux psychology” undergirding the social-emotional-learning movement. Education Week received a host of letters in response to Finn’s June 21 essay, “The Dirt-Encrusted Roots of Social-Emotional Learning.” While most readers jumped to the defense of teaching students about emotions, relationships, and problem-solving, others encouraged a more cautious approach to the trend.

SEL Alone Is Not a Panacea

As the person who developed the conceptual framework for what is now one of the most popular social-emotional-learning curricula in the world (Second Step), I made the decision 32 years ago not to include self-esteem training in that research-grounded program. Here’s why: There’s no evidence it’s directly teachable. If it were, every 4-year-old who ever watched Mr. Rogers would be brimming over with it. Social-emotional learning is not self-esteem rebranded, nor is it a hoax, as Chester E. Finn Jr. suggests. It is only a partial truth. Anything that is partial but presented as the whole is, by its very nature, false.

Social-Emotional Learning in the Spotlight

To the degree that social-emotional learning has been peddled as the entire solution to school failure, or even to all behavioral problems at school, it’s false. To the degree that SEL is promoted as one part of a much larger effort in the school and life success for all students, it is as deeply true, evidence-based, and essential as phonics is to reading.

I share Finn’s concern that SEL sometimes seems “awash in the self.” I happen to agree that the somewhat myopic focus needs to be rebalanced. SEL, when it is taught right, is enhanced with character education and explicit teaching of the values of democracy: fairness, honesty, integrity, appreciation for differences, and equity. It is also enhanced when it is specifically linked both to the understanding of personal trauma and to the justice issues that underlie so much of our social conflicts and inequities.

Alice Ray is the co-founder and CEO of Ripple Effects in Alameda, Calif.

Research: Happy Students Thrive

As most would agree, when students develop social-emotional skills and attend schools that are safe, engaging, and participatory, they do better academically and lead healthier and happier lives. Contrary to what Chester E. Finn Jr. writes, there is a strong scientific foundation documenting the benefits of social-emotional-learning approaches that strive to foster these outcomes.

Penn State psychologist Mark T. Greenberg and his colleagues summarized several research reviews of school-based prevention and youth-development programs. Their benefits include improved interpersonal skills, peer and adult relationships, and academic achievement. Problem behaviors, such as misbehavior at school, truancy and dropout, alcohol and drug use, and high-risk sexual behavior, also saw a reduction.

A large-scale meta-analysis of more than 200 school-based SEL programs showed positive outcomes in all six areas reviewed—enhanced social-emotional skills and attitudes, positive social behavior, improved academic performance, and lower levels of conduct problems and emotional distress.

Several subsequent meta-analyses have found similar, positive results for social-emotional-learning programs. These new research syntheses have been conducted by independent research groups across the United States and Europe. They examined hundreds of experimental-control-group studies involving tens of thousands of students. All of them included a control group, and many involved randomized-controlled trials.

Bottom line: This SEL research spans several decades, involves many social-emotional-learning programs around the world, goes far beyond the “qualitative and anecdotal” research Finn criticizes, and considers a broad array of positive and negative indicators of well-being. Across hundreds of thousands of children, a consistent finding is that well-implemented SEL interventions promote competence and positive functioning, improve academic performance, and reduce problem behaviors in the short and long term.

Roger P. Weissberg is the chief knowledge officer of CASEL and a professor of psychology and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago in Chicago.

An ‘Ill-Informed’ Conclusion

Chester E. Finn Jr.’s scathing essay comparing social-emotional learning to the self-esteem movement dismisses social-emotional learning as “faux psychology.” Given the history of education fads, I understand his critical perspective on social-emotional learning’s popularity, though I find his conclusions ill-informed.

The No Child Left Behind Act dismissed the idea of the holistic learner, forcing educators to focus on students’ testable cognitive skills. Ultimately, NCLB was an experiment far more costly than any self-esteem movement. In an effort to mend the system, educators are ushering in a new era of engaged, personalized, and emotionally meaningful learning. We should view the recognition of the whole child as a welcome development and support it with accountability and evidence-based practices.

Finn argues that social-emotional learning and character are not identical; on that, he is correct. Character brings in a strong moral dimension, something social-emotional learning does not typically include. While character may have a place in education, we must be wary of indoctrinating students rather than allowing for exploration and choice. SEL focuses on skills associated with 21st-century learning and employment. Many of those are not moral in nature, but some have character elements, such as empathy, self-management, and perseverance.

The evidence for social-emotional learning does exist. While CASEL has done great work, today’s paradigm shift is beyond one organization. It is a culmination of research from a range of topics, including neuroscience, trauma, resiliency, and life skills. Together, these well-researched fields represent a strong foundation for social-emotional learning. For this reason, I call it social-emotional development; it involves not only learning, but also growth and well-being.

Understanding this groundwork, it is hard to imagine that social-emotional development will be a fad similar to the past self-esteem movement. Being provocative can promote thinking, but being polemical is not going to help us seize this moment of innovation.

Gil G. Noam is the founder and director of The PEAR Institute: Partnerships in Education and Resilience at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.

Focus on Character

Bravo to the esteemed Chester E. Finn Jr. for revealing that present social-emotional-learning programs are rooted in the self-esteem movement and don’t build character. This is understandable, because the movement is basically seeking to make a competitive and objective educational system more student-sensitive—an admirable effort, but not one that develops character.

Picture the caterpillar struggling in the cocoon to develop wings strong enough to fly as a butterfly. Similarly, children need to struggle to develop character and gain the ability and confidence to tackle life on their own. Social-emotional learning is an integral part of that character. But the focus should be on character, not the present system.

Joseph Gauld is the founder of The Hyde Schools.

SEL Develops Workforce Skills

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has a history of ignoring evidenced-based programs that we know help our children learn, while supporting programs that have zero evidence of their effectiveness and only serve to funnel money away from students. She spent millions peddling vouchers and supporting for-profit colleges and brain-performance psychotherapy without any proof that they help educate our kids. Recently, her pseudoscience has spread to other members of her party.

Last month in the pages of Education Week, former U.S. Department of Education official Chester E. Finn Jr. decided to go beyond supporting lackluster programs and attacked social-emotional-learning initiatives that have been linked to positive outcomes inside and outside the classroom.

A meta-analysis of over 200 studies with almost 300,000 students showed that students who participated in social-emotional-learning programs had an 11 percent gain in academic achievement. More importantly, a bipartisan working group found that social-emotional-learning competencies are needed for students to be successful once they enter the workforce. This is one of the reasons why I have gotten bipartisan support for the Chronic Absenteeism Act and the Teacher Health and Wellness Act, both of which advocate for increased social-emotional learning in American classrooms. SEL does not just make sense for students, it also makes sense for our pocketbooks. Studies show that it has been proven to yield a return of $11 for every $1 spent.

Social-emotional learning is a new framework for tried and true ideas. We know the best teachers are not “great” because they get all their students to pass a test. They are great because they inspire and teach their students to become more socially and self-aware. This awareness of the opportunities that exist across the world and within themselves is an integral part of SEL.

Finn falsely described social-emotional learning as being equivalent to self-esteem. SEL is about focusing on the whole child and teaching our students how to make responsible decisions. It’s about looking at character in addition to content so that the next generation develops skills that can transfer across disciplines. Teachers value social-emotional learning because it allows them to teach students the positive social skills needed to build partnerships. Employers value social-emotional learning because it allows them to hire dynamic problem-solvers and effective communicators needed in today’s fast-paced economy.

There is no doubt that we should be careful not to oversell education research, but we certainly don’t want to deprive our students of resources that could help students realize their full potential.

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, serves in the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C.

Author Lacks ‘Understanding’

I’m not sure Chester E. Finn Jr. understands exactly what social-emotional learning is, based on his Commentary. To tie it only to self-esteem or to say it “does not seem intended to build character in any traditional sense” shows a lack of understanding of the many dimensions of social-emotional learning and its proven ties to academic achievement. Schoolwide positive-behavior interventions and supports, or PBIS, have tons of data from schools all over the world showing that when you improve student behavior, academic achievement also improves.

Finn seems to think teaching ethics and morality are the cornerstones of emotional competence, which ignores critical community-building characteristics, such as respect and responsibility. I would hope Education Week would publish something more accurate concerning social-emotional learning.

Deb Childs is a schoolwide positive behavior support consultant at Education Plus in St. Charles, Mo.

Emotional Health Opens Doors

If we lived in a perfect world, all children’s basic needs would be met in safe and secure homes, with outstanding examples of responsible decisionmaking, behavior management, and self-awareness as the norm. High-quality after-school programs would be an affordable option in all neighborhoods, and could ensure kids get the social and emotional skills they need to develop into hardworking, courageous, and patriotic citizens. But we don’t. For many children and families, that world is a hoax.

In the real world, more than half of all public school students in the United States come from low-income neighborhoods. The educators my organization serves work with these students every day. These are students whose top stressors include homelessness, incarcerated family members, and domestic violence. To equate social and emotional learning solely with self-esteem is shortsighted.

Our research shows that when students from low-income communities engaged even peripherally in SEL activities, they were more engaged and confident academically. Lack of social and emotional skills is an impediment to learning, and SEL-specific resources can help. Without those skills, the barriers to learning loom large. And the very real world that affects more than half of all kids in public schools is not a hoax.

Kyle Zimmer is the president and CEO of First Book in Washington, D.C.

What the Brain Science Says

Chester E. Finn Jr. questions the research connecting social, emotional, and academic learning without acknowledging the recent revolution in the science of learning and brain development.

It’s now irrefutable that people learn better when they are interested, invested, and engaged. Science also validates that feeling safe, welcomed, and valued is key to brain and cognitive development.

This scientific consensus has tremendous implications for schools. Learning and youth development depend on the interplay of knowledge, skills, self-regulation, self-awareness, and the belief that academic work is both doable and meaningful. If schools target just one piece, they will make little headway. Students are most likely to learn and retain difficult academic content when the social, emotional, and academic conditions work together. Students are people first, after all. It’s true that some students excel academically when educators only pay attention to academics, but that’s because their social needs and motivational systems are already aligned with academic success. Most children go through school with decreasing interest and investment, leaving K-12 schooling with mediocre knowledge, skills, and qualifications.

We know that attending to students’ social and emotional development pays significant dividends. Solid research supports the connection between students’ social development and academic gains. And eight in 10 employers say that, while social and emotional skills are the most important ingredients to success, they’re the hardest to find in prospective employees.

Science—and kids—tell us that the best way to make a difference in the lives of students is by building on how children naturally learn, by capitalizing on the innate connection between cognition, social belonging, and emotion. This is the only way to align schooling with what we know about learning and youths’ neurobiological and cognitive development.

Camille A. Farrington is the managing director for the Consortium on School Research at the University of Chicago. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang is an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education in Los Angeles. Both authors serve on the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development’s Council of Distinguished Scientists.

SEL Needs a Concrete Definition

In his recent Commentary, Chester E. Finn Jr. perpetuates a misconception that is all too common: the belief that social-emotional learning is devoid of substance. Unlike self-esteem, SEL comprises specific skills needed to set goals, manage behavior, build relationships, and process and remember information. Our studies and others show these skills are essential for educators to teach and students to learn academic content.

But Finn has raised an issue that researchers like us need to tackle head on: No one can quite agree on what SEL is. The current lack of precision can cause confusion, lead to inefficient use of instructional time and resources, and breed the kind of skepticism evident in Finn’s Commentary. We need to set the record straight that SEL is measurable, relevant, and beneficial, but we also must be concrete and transparent about what it is.

Our research, including randomized controlled trials of interventions across ages and contexts, concludes that there are about a dozen specific SEL skills that are clearly linked to school and life success. Adults and students both need these skills. They include: (1) executive functions, such as attention and impulse control, cognitive flexibility, and planning; (2) the ability to cope with frustration, understand other perspectives, and manage emotions; and (3) the social competence to collaborate and resolve interpersonal conflicts.

From our work in schools, we know that SEL interventions can have multiple goals, from facilitating classroom management, to building students’ ability to cope in the face of both normative and toxic stress, to helping teachers avoid burnout. Different SEL skills may be more relevant or necessary in some contexts than others and at different developmental periods. Research is becoming ever more precise about which strategies work best and when.

At the front lines of teaching and learning, educators know that students need fundamental cognitive, emotional, and social skills so that they can succeed—and they see how much everyone struggles when those skills are missing. They need researchers like us to be clear about where they should be focusing their efforts in order to support academic learning rather than distracting from it. The science of SEL—and there is one—can and should guide us.

Suzanne Bouffard is a developmental psychologist in Cambridge, Mass. Stephanie M. Jones is a professor of education and the director of the Ecological Approaches to Social-Emotional Learning (EASEL) Lab at Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. Rebecca Bailey is a research manager at the EASEL Lab at Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 19, 2017 edition of Education Week as Social-Emotional Learning in the Spotlight


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