Student Well-Being

Social-Emotional Learning Persists Despite Political Backlash

By Libby Stanford & Caitlyn Meisner — July 27, 2023 7 min read
Fourth-grade students Briley Williams, 9, left, and Jacqueline Naula, 9, work together in their English Language Arts class at Israel Putnam Elementary School in Meriden, Conn., on Dec. 9, 2022. School accountability measures show Meriden schools making academic gains including attendance and addressing social-emotional learning needs.
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Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that SEL competencies are not incorporated into official state policy in every state. Some states have adopted SEL competencies as guidance or framework.

In February, Montana state Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway proposed a bill that would have banned social-emotional learning in schools, arguing that the lessons that emphasize regulation of emotions, healthy relationships, and empathy violated parents’ right to direct their own children’s upbringing.

However, by the end of the Feb. 27 education committee hearing on the bill, during which educators, lawmakers, and parents lined up to speak in opposition, Sheldon-Galloway, a Republican, had changed her mind.

“The teachers have spoken loud and clear that they believe that this program is an excellent program, and it’s being used in schools in a good way,” Sheldon-Galloway said after listening to an hour of comments criticizing her bill. “Maybe I did not have a clear vision of that, as I was just trying to have a discussion on what people have been asking me for a long time—what is social-emotional learning? So, you have taught me well.”

The committee ultimately tabled the bill, but the discussion highlighted three intertwined themes: Confusion over what comprises social and emotional learning; the political backlash it’s generated in recent years, linked to other political lightning rods like critical race theory; and finally, how the opposition softens once it’s explained.

Through social emotional learning, or SEL, students learn skills to manage their emotions, set and achieve goals, develop healthy identities, feel and show empathy, and maintain positive relationships.

Every state now incorporates social-emotional learning into its academic standards in some way, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, a national group that advocates for SEL.

But the conservative parents’ rights movement that got its start through opposition to COVID-19 school closures and safety precautions like masking requirements has made SEL one of its targets, muddling the message about what SEL is, how it’s used, and how it can help students, said Justina Schlund, vice president of communications at CASEL.

“There has been a deliberate misinformation campaign that has come from political motivations, often groups that don’t represent the vast majority of parents but may have a loud megaphone, may have funding behind [them],” Schlund said.

Which states have SEL in their standards

SEL has gathered momentum quickly in recent years, and the demand for it has grown as a way to complement treatment for and help prevent mental health and behavior problems that have worsened since students returned to school from COVID-19 shutdowns that forced them into isolation, depriving them of in-person social interactions.

All 50 states have adopted SEL competencies into their frameworks or standards that guide instruction for at least pre-K students. Twenty-seven states have SEL competencies as part of their standards for all students, in pre-K through grade 12. Other states have such standards in place primarily for younger students.

Most states have adopted SEL competencies recently. Forty-five states first adopted SEL competencies within the past decade, and 15 states have expanded or adopted SEL standards in the past three years, according to CASEL. Missouri, which currently has SEL standards in place only for pre-K, is developing such standards for K-12 students and expects to adopt them in August, according to a spokesperson for the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Support for SEL comes from a growing awareness of the concept and how it can lead to better academic outcomes, Schlund said.

Research shows that effective SEL can lead to improved academic achievement for students in addition to better behavioral outcomes. Essentially, the research has shown, students with better social and emotional skills tend to perform better academically.

The vast majority of schools teach SEL in some capacity, according to an October 2022 EdWeek Research Center survey. Some both integrate social-emotional learning into academic instruction and set aside time explicitly for SEL instruction. Others, meanwhile, only integrate it into academic lessons, while a different set of schools set aside time explicitly for SEL instruction but don’t necessarily integrate it into academic subjects.

“The pandemic came, 2019-20, and we saw unprecedented attention [to SEL] just skyrocket,” Schlund said. “It was one of the No. 1 priorities of district leaders [and] school leaders. We were getting an unprecedented number of calls at CASEL, anecdotally, from schools, from districts, and from states.”

But with the rise in popularity of SEL have come a political backlash and misunderstanding about what it actually entails, and state education agencies, school leaders, and teachers have had to explain SEL to parents and community members who aren’t familiar with it and have questions.

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Misinformation leads to confusion

In one of two sets of public comments in support of the Montana bill to ban SEL, Alba Pimentel, the chair of the Yellowstone County, Montana, Moms for Liberty chapter, said that social-emotional learning and surveys schools use to assess students’ well-being push values and an ideology that parents don’t want schools to teach to their children.

“When we think of social-emotional learning as parents, we are not thinking our children are being pushed into gender ideologies, talks of oppression, or social justice,” Pimentel said at the Feb. 27 hearing. “Children should be taught skills safely without any agendas or ideologies.”

Those topics are not typically part of SEL programs, but such complaints are common among parent groups like Moms for Liberty and Parents Defending Education, both of which formed following the pandemic and are part of the conservative parents’ rights movement.

Schlund considers those accusations to be deliberate misinformation and said it’s important to separate earnest concerns and confusion from misinformation.

“I think as a community we all have to be working together to be able to build toward recovery,” she said. “When we’re getting distracted by all of this political noise inside classrooms, it’s just an unfortunate distraction.”

CASEL has made efforts to converse with parents directly about social-emotional learning by hosting roundtable discussions. Through these efforts, Schlund said, the organization found parents want more social-emotional learning, and they want it done effectively and in an evidence-based way.

Kent Reed, climate and wellness program manager at the Kansas State Department of Education, has had a similar experience.

The state first adopted SEL standards, which it calls social-emotional character development, in 2012, after it gained bipartisan support in the state legislature and from the state board of education.

In recent years, Reed has found himself having to explain the state’s SEL standards more often as parents and community members are confused about what the standards mean for schools.

“Sometimes, folks have an answer looking for a question,” Reed said. “There are some things that have become triggers—SEL is kind of a trigger. … But when you look at what we’re doing with workforce development, with post-secondary, with statutes providing a safe and supportive school climate, almost everybody can get on board.”

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A student in Stephanie Brugler, during the educational development of SEL with her students of Jefferson PK-8 school.
A student in Stephanie Brugler's 3rd grade class participates in an SEL lesson on emotions at the Jefferson PK-8 school in Warren, Ohio, in November.
Daniel Lozada for Education Week

Clarity is key

When people question Reed about SEL, he always points them to a graph showing a wheel of traits included in Kansas’ SEL framework, titled Kansans Can Competencies. The wheel groups SEL skills into three categories—intrapersonal, interpersonal, and cognitive—and lists skills within each.

For example, students learn perseverance, self-regulation, self-care, and curiosity as intrapersonal skills; adaptability, assertiveness, teamwork, and empathy as interpersonal skills; and creative thinking, time management, organization, and problem-solving as cognitive skills.

“I will pull up the wheel and I will say, ‘OK, tell me which one of those characteristics, which one of those competencies, you would disagree with,’” he said. “When they start looking at them, I say, ‘Would it be goal setting? Would you not teach that? What about time management?’”

Nearly every time, people leave those conversations with a better understanding and less apprehension about SEL, Reed said.

Schlund said states and school districts can develop similar tools for their communities.

States and schools should also set up channels for communication with families as they face misinformation campaigns as a way to dispel misconceptions, she said.

“I find that when schools, districts, and states have engaged parents, they’re almost always landing upon social and emotional learning standards as part of their overall strategy because it’s important to all parents and families,” Schlund said.

Schlund noted that the pushback does not start and end at the state level, but often happens locally. States, she said, should help districts develop opportunities for open conversations with parents and families about SEL.

In Ohio, the state education department has posted SEL standards on its website and made it clear it’s ultimately up to local districts to adopt them, a department spokesperson said in an email.

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DigitalVision Vectors/Getty

A version of this article appeared in the August 16, 2023 edition of Education Week as Social-Emotional Learning Persists Despite Political Backlash

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