Student Well-Being

What 1 State’s Saga Shows About the Status of Social-Emotional Learning

By Libby Stanford & Arianna Prothero — October 31, 2023 7 min read
Children drawing images of faces with emotions.
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Missouri has become the latest state to face strong pushback against plans to promote social-emotional learning in its classrooms.

The state was on track to adopt standards outlining the interpersonal, responsible decisionmaking, and problem-solving skills it expected K-12 students to master. But state education officials have decided to scale back and redefine the proposed social-emotional learning standards as a non-binding, optional framework after nearly 2,000 public comments on the plan revealed substantial confusion and concerns surrounding SEL.

Missouri’s situation illustrates the awkward place that educators and policymakers continue to find themselves in as SEL has simultaneously received historic levels of pushback and investment in the past two years. It also underscores how confusion among the general public over what, exactly, SEL is can undermine efforts to expand it in schools.

After releasing the proposed standards to the public for feedback in September, the state found that people are more bewildered than ever about SEL, Missouri Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven said at an Oct. 17 meeting of the state board of education.

“What has become clear to us is that what we were trying to do in bringing together and unifying an approach that we could all support has had the opposite effect. It’s created a bit more divisiveness than we would like to see,” Vandeven said.

Social-emotional learning is the teaching of non-academic skills like managing emotions, setting goals, and building healthy relationships—colloquially known as “soft skills” or character education—that are critical to success in school, work, and life.

But in the public comments, people shared concerns that SEL would require teachers to practice psychology without a license, allow schools to interfere with parenting, and be used to justify diversity, equity, and inclusion curricula.

“Stop raising more emotional [sic] fragile snowflakes,” one commenter wrote. “Educate on real skills, real facts, real history instead of revisionist history and leave the psychobabbles out of public schools.”

“Define ‘kind,’” read another comment. “What am I required to do ... to be considered kind? From which camp and whose worldview are you advocating for? Teacher’s unions, or the parents’?”

Missouri’s decision to downgrade what it had initially described as SEL standards reflects a national trend of red states shying away from SEL as it becomes more politicized. State school chiefs in Arizona, Florida, and Oklahoma have all said schools should not teach SEL or use books with SEL content.

At the same time, districts have leaned into SEL during and in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic as students continue struggle with mental health and behavioral issues, often using federal pandemic aid to fund those efforts. In Missouri’s case, the impetus for adopting SEL standards was part of a broader effort to help attract and retain teachers. The state has identified student misbehavior as a major factor in attracting and keeping teachers in classrooms.

How politics shapes perceptions of SEL

While lawmakers across the country have introduced bills to ban SEL from schools, no such bill has become law, largely because it’s nearly impossible to ban SEL from schools as lessons about conflict resolution, empathy, goal setting, and emotional regulation are commonplace in classrooms.

Ultimately, whether a red state-blue state split around social-emotional learning is emerging depends on how state policymakers define the collection of skills that make up SEL, said Adam Tyner, the director of research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning think tank.

“I have no idea if blue states are going to be doing more of that than red states because it’s stuff that good educators and schools have always done. I don’t think that red states are giving up on that stuff, but they are pushing back against an SEL industrial complex that has popped up,” he said, citing a constellation of organizations that promote “a certain set of aligned practices under an acronym with a bunch of academic jargon that a lot of people don’t understand.”

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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.
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. Meriden schools have made progress on attendance and addressing social-emotional learning needs.
Dave Zajac/Record-Journal via AP

But what looks like a growing partisan divide over social-emotional learning may obscure a surprising amount of consensus among parents on the topic. Tyner’s research has found that there is broad agreement among parents that the explicit skills and practices that make up SEL are important for students to learn and it’s helpful for schools to reinforce them outside the home.

Where there is a partisan split among parents is over the term social-emotional learning. Republicans are especially allergic to it, but it’s also not popular overall, a 2021 survey by the Fordham Institute and YouGov found. Parents much prefer the term life skills.

This problem isn’t unique to SEL. Other polls have shown that people’s attitudes toward education terms—like Common Core State Standards, charter schools, and vouchers—often differ from the practices or policies they represent.

Some SEL advocates see confusion over social-emotional learning and whether state SEL standards are mandatory as creating an opening for detractors to link the concept to issues unpopular with the right, such as critical race theory.

“This is a very small minority that essentially has very loud voices,” said Lakeisha Steele, vice president of policy at the Collaborative for Academic and Social-Emotional Learning, or CASEL, a group dating back to the 1990s that has been a major force in promoting the adoption of SEL state standards and promoting research-based SEL instruction. “This is a clear indication of a parent-pundit gap. When you look at what parents want in schools, one, they want increased investment in public schools, and the second thing is that parents want social-emotional learning in schools. We overwhelmingly continue to see that.”

Steele said she is worried that the politicization of SEL will frighten state policymakers away from supporting districts’ work in this realm, cutting educators off from critical resources and supports to teach social-emotional learning with the latest research and evidence-based practices.

“We see report after report around the lasting harms of the COVID-19 pandemic, which we know only exacerbated inequity in our K-12 schools,” she said. “The story here is, how will this political push [lead] to harm to kids?”

Can rebranding standards solve Missouri’s SEL problem?

Last December, the Missouri State Board of Education’s climate and culture committee tasked the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education with developing K-12 SEL standards that would parallel the state’s academic standards. The idea was that SEL could help combat classroom misbehavior, a top reason Missouri teachers leave the profession.

The state developed a set of proposed standards broken into three components: “Me,” “We,” and “Others.” Under the standards, students would learn how to develop a healthy sense of self (“Me”), build healthy and lasting relationships (“We”), and practice prosocial skills that have a positive impact on themselves and their communities (“Others”).

See also

Image of dissatisfied, neutral, satisfied.
ThitareeSarmkasat/iStock/Getty

There was no immediate mandate for districts to follow the SEL standards, but once codified they could have eventually become a requirement through other avenues. The state was considering, for example, incorporating the standards into its district accreditation process, but that decision had not been finalized, a Missouri education department spokesperson said in an email.

But after receiving pushback to the standards in the public comments, the board changed course—at least slightly. At its Oct. 17 meeting, the board decided to instead call the SEL standards a framework to clarify that schools would not be required to adopt them. The state will not incorporate the framework into its accreditation process, according to the department spokesperson.

Instead, the framework will be made available as a resource on the Missouri education department’s website for school districts to refer to if they choose to incorporate SEL into their curriculum. Board members, who all agreed with the move, said it would make clear that incorporating SEL into instruction is still a local decision, rather than a state one.

Vandeven, the state superintendent, who also announced at the mid-October meeting that she planned to step down on July 1, 2024, recommended that the Missouri board of education and education department work together to find other ways to address students’ behavior problems. And while board members felt that now is not the time to implement SEL standards, they emphasized at the meeting that it’s important for Missouri students to learn the widely recognized SEL competencies, such as emotional regulation, problem-solving, and goal setting.

“Many of the comments said, ‘well, we want our teachers to concentrate on teaching and not this,’” Carol Hallquist, the state board’s vice president, said at the meeting. “Well, guess what? They cannot concentrate on teaching until they have a class under control.”

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