Student Well-Being

Pushback Over SEL Bubbles Up in Idaho

By Evie Blad — February 25, 2020 6 min read

When Idaho state education leaders pitched a social-emotional learning proposal to lawmakers recently, one member of the state’s House Education Committee compared the plan to the dystopian behavior control in the futuristic novel “Brave New World.”

Others said it’s parents’ job—not schools'—to help children develop self-control and relationship skills. Some at the Feb. 11 meeting were skeptical, noting that social-emotional learning is part of a national movement being embraced in schools across the country, which they considered problematic.

And, as Idaho Ed News first reported, some walked out of the hearing altogether.

Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra told Education Week that she was puzzled by the response, especially since the budget presentation focused largely on helping teachers work with students who’ve been exposed to trauma.

“We want to make sure we are connecting parents and students and teachers with the right tools and the right resources to get them the help that they need,” Ybarra said. “I don’t think there is any other way to talk about this. It is not a blue issue. It is not a red issue.”

The reception Idaho leaders faced is a slice of pushback that occasionally bubbles up around the country as interest grows in social-emotional learning efforts.

‘New Age Nanny State’

Ybarra, an elected Republican, said she’s learned since the meeting that some lawmakers had circulated materials from the Massachusetts-based Pioneer Institute, which is known for its opposition to the Common Core State Standards. That organization refers to SEL as part of a “New Age nanny state.”

At the hearing Tuesday, Idaho Rep. Tony Wisniewski, a Republican, asked his fellow committee members to remember their own childhood experiences.

“Think about the school environment that we had,” Wisniewski, says in a recording of the hearing, “and the respect that we had for teachers and other students. And the discipline that was enforced not only by the teachers but by our parents, who, if they found out we were misbehaving in school, would undoubtedly support the teachers and take us to the woodshed if necessary. ... Now we jump forward to the 2020s. To me ... it appears we are trying to get the collective behavioral approach that was depicted in ‘Brave New World.’ ”

SEL is an education approach that emphasizes direct instruction of skills like how to resolve conflicts and understand differing points of view, changing school policies to be more developmentally sensitive, and working with family and community partners to meet students’ non-academic needs.

Across the country, states have helped vet social-emotional learning programs; they’ve charted out developmentally sensitive benchmarks that show what qualities like social awareness look like at different grade levels; and they’ve offered teacher professional development in “whole child” approaches to education. Those efforts are well-received in many areas. But they’ve also faced resistance reminiscent of some other contentious education policy debates over issues like state standards.

A $1 Million Ask

Ybarra and Eric Studebaker, the director of student engagement and safety coordination at the Idaho education department, had pitched a budget request to the House education committee: $1 million to help develop voluntary statewide professional development for educators and administrators in social-emotional learning.

Among the things the training would address: how to identify evidence-based SEL programs, how to assess a school or district’s readiness to implement those programs, and how to help teachers recognize students’ emotional struggles and address misbehavior.

The proposal was developed at the recommendation of a state task force and cosigned in the governor’s budget request. And it was tied into conversations about student safety that followed high-profile school shootings in 2018, Ybarra told Education Week.

“This is really all about creating the best conditions in a learning environment to support students so they can be successful,” Ybarra told lawmakers Tuesday. “It’s a conversation that’s at the forefront across the nation. And there’s growing recognition that we need to make sure that students develop the self awareness, problem-solving skills, and impulse control needed to overcome the challenges so that they can thrive.”

Teachers have asked for help addressing disruptive student behaviors that may be tied to issues like traumatic experiences, she said. Idaho has one of the nation’s highest suicide rates, and about 22 percent of the state’s high school students reported suicidal thoughts on a 2019 survey, Ybarra and Studebaker noted. They also cited recent emotional testimony by state teacher of the year Stacie Lawler about school mental health efforts and her own son’s struggles with suicidal thoughts.

But some Republican committee members asked whether the state had already invested enough in school counselors and other well-being efforts, and questioned the evidence Studebaker presented that connected strong SEL skills in early childhood to better outcomes later in life. One lawmaker said it was “troubling” that schools would try to measure students’ social and emotional skills at all. (This is debated even among SEL advocates who say such measurements shouldn’t be used for high-stakes purposes like grades and teacher evaluation.)

Others, including committee Chairman Rep. Lance Clow, a Republican, and Rep. Steve Berch, a Democrat, defended the proposal.

“I am not interested in building a bridge to the mythical 1950s where every parent was Ward and June Cleaver,” Berch said. “The experience that we on the committee had as students is not the reality in today’s classroom.”

He listed trends like growing rates of teen suicide and depression, concerns about the effects of social media, and other stressors.

“We’re talking about disruptive behaviors that are not expellable and affect everyone else in the classroom,” Berch said. “And simply wishing that some parents raise their children better is not a solution.”

As states’ SEL efforts grow, usually following more intensive work by their own districts, leaders report they need help addressing skepticism, busting myths, and making their case to the general public, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, an organization that promotes SEL in schools, reported in a 2018 look at its state efforts.

“Some states have encountered pockets of political resistance to having schools involved in SEL at all,” CASEL reports. “Opponents of SEL often say it is the primary responsibility of families. These communication challenges can be successfully weathered. Critical to success is deep listening to understand concerns of the community, as well as a clear plan for communicating with and engaging stakeholders.”

There’s also a tension in some places: Policymakers across the political spectrum have responded to school safety debates after shootings in places like Parkland, Fla., by calling for efforts to address isolated students, to identify potentially threatening behavior, and to respond to students’ mental health needs. Proponents of SEL say their strategies can help meet those mandates, but they still face resistance, sometimes from the same lawmakers who called for that approach to safety.

Ybarra’s request for SEL funding is still on the table. It will soon be considered by the legislature’s joint appropriations committee.

A version of this article appeared in the February 26, 2020 edition of Education Week as Pushback Over SEL Bubbles Up in Idaho

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