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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

You Think Social-Emotional Learning Is a Bad Idea. Maybe This Will Change Your Mind

The skills being taught are likely not what you think
By Peter DeWitt — December 13, 2023 4 min read
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A few weeks ago, I was working with a group of school leadership teams. Part of the process is to engage in collaborative inquiry focusing on a problem that the team is trying to solve. We were on day three of six days together, and on this particular day, each leadership team in the room was engaged in defining actions that would help them solve their problem. One team was struggling. Not because they didn’t know their problem. Nor was it due to lacking the resources to solve it. The struggle was around one teacher back at school who didn’t agree with the problem the team was trying to solve. That problem centered on social-emotional learning.

After day two, when the team went back to talk to the rest of the staff about their schoolwide goal of having a focus on social-emotional learning for students, one teacher put up her hand as if to stop the member of the school leadership team from talking anymore. She looked at the member of the team and said, “I’m going to make this very simple for you. I’m not going to do it. I don’t believe in social-emotional learning.”

In this recent Education Week article, social-emotional learning made the list of 10 buzz words teachers can’t stand. One commenter wrote, “SEL—we’ve been doing it before it was a thing.” The question begs, but have they been doing it correctly?

We know there is a political element to all this as well. Banning social-emotional learning has been part of a conservative movement because its adherents don’t believe it should be taught in schools. In his book How to Know a Person, David Brooks writes, “Between 1999 and 2019, American suicide rates increased by 33%.” Brooks went on to say, “Between 2009 and 2019, the percentage of teens who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness rose from 26 percent to 37 percent. By 2021 it had shot up to 44 percent.

What Is Social-Emotional Learning?

If people are against teaching social-emotional learning, it’s probably due to one of three reasons. The first is that they don’t know really what it is. The second is that they might be uncomfortable on how to teach it. The third and final reason could be because they are going through something in their personal life and teaching SEL is a mirror they don’t want to hold up to their own issues.

Let’s focus, though, on the first reason. Most people, especially those with political reasons for wanting to ban social-emotional learning, most likely have no idea what it is. This is no surprise really because in school communities we often have a common language but lack a common understanding. Just like the phrases “critical race theory,” “science of reading”, and “differentiated instruction,” people have opinions about each one but lack an understanding of what those phrases mean. After all, Stephen Sawchuk’s Ed Week explainer, which you can find here, has millions and millions of views. Ed Week writer Sarah Schwartz wrote this article that included survey results showing that when it came to the science of reading, most people use the words but have no idea what the term actually is.

According to CASEL, social-emotional learning is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.

Understanding social-emotional learning is crucial for students as it fosters their emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and overall well-being. SEL provides students with the tools to navigate and manage emotions, develop healthy relationships, and make responsible decisions. These skills go beyond just academic success, preparing students for a variety of life situations. By promoting self-awareness, self-regulation, and empathy, SEL contributes to a positive school climate, reducing bullying and fostering a supportive environment.

In the End

A few years ago, I wrote this blog about uninformed school board candidates. In the post, I unpacked some of the phrases that school board candidates were using in their campaign to get on their school boards. These candidates were campaigning that no child should be exposed to phrases like “critical race theory” and “social-emotional learning.” Unfortunately, most of the candidates had no idea what the words actually meant, and they could get off easy because many of those voting for them didn’t know, either. They just had a fear their children would be exposed to the words, and that was enough.

The leadership team that wants to focus on social-emotional learning was not going to give up. We actually brainstormed questions they could ask such as, “I know you are resistant to teaching social-emotional learning. Tell me a bit about what you know on the topic and why you are against it?” I strongly believe that within the conversation, common ground can be found. Stay tuned. I’ll let you know if indeed that does occur.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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