Supporters of social-emotional learning are going on the offensive in a bid to untangle the teaching of skills like empathy and resilience from the polarization surrounding lessons on racism, sexuality, and even American history.
Twenty organizations have formed a new coalition, Leading With SEL, which is aimed at squelching misinformation about the practice by sharing “three decades of research” demonstrating that “SEL belongs in schools,” according to a statement describing the group and its efforts. The statement was crafted by CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, a nonprofit.
“It’s no secret that over the past year we have seen multiple attempts to turn education [including] social and emotional learning into a political wedge issue for the upcoming election,” said Justina Schlund, the senior director of content and field learning at CASEL. “I think there is a lot of false characterization going on about social-emotional learning. And so, we’re working to clear some of that up.”
The roster of organizations joining the coalition features groups representing educators and administrators—including AASA, the School Superintendents Association; the American School Counselor Association; Educators for Excellence; and the National School Psychologists Association. Other organizations in the coalition include the National PTA and the Education Trust.
Over the past decade, schools have put much greater emphasis on “soft” or “future-ready” skills that educators believe will have value for the long haul. While the term “SEL” means different things to different people, it generally refers to helping students control their emotions, have empathy for others, set goals, embrace persistence, and think creatively.
But partly because it is defined so broadly, social-emotional learning has gotten mired in the same politically toxic quicksand as topics such as racism, sexuality, and critical race theory, an academic perspective that argues systemic racism is embedded in legal systems and policies and not just individual bias.
The conversation has gotten particularly heated as SEL becomes a key tool in helping students navigate the trauma of isolation and loss brought on by COVID-19.
The coalition will provide parents and educators with resources for communicating more effectively about SEL and its goals, Schlund said. And it is working to elevate the voices of parents who it believes are representative of how the majority of families feel about SEL.
“A lot of what’s getting [media] coverage, a lot of what’s getting re-shared on the internet are a small group of parents who are very vocal, who may be politically funded or going to their school board meetings,” Schlund said. “That’s getting a lot of play and I think it is misrepresenting what the actual parent voice and the parent will is on this issue.”
For instance, CASEL points out that 88 percent of more than 2,500 parents surveyed on behalf of the National PTA said they supported teaching respect, cooperation, perseverance, and empathy in schools—all key SEL tenants.
But another report suggests SEL may have a branding problem.
Eighty-nine percent of Democratic parents and 75 percent of Republican parents agreed that in order for students to reach their full academic potential, their social-emotional needs must be met, according to a survey conducted last year by YouGov and commissioned by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
But the name—social-emotional learning—ranked dead last on a list of 12 possible labels for these kinds of lessons. The favorite: “Life skills.”
Michael Petrilli, Fordham’s president, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush, sees a message in there for SEL fans.
The content they’re championing “has been part of school practically forever,” he said. “How do you do kindergarten without teaching kids how to share and get along? Educators are not ideologues, they’re not pursuing an agenda. They’re just trying to teach kids how to work in teams and take care of themselves and things like that.”
But the fact that the concept is so loosely defined leaves room for problematic agenda pushing, he said. While that’s not happening in most school districts, SEL proponents, including the coalition, should consider calling out districts that are using SEL to push a political agenda to show that the coalition is “at least listening to these types of fears and concerns.”