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Why SEL Should Not Be Controversial

If you’ve paid much attention to the news cycle of late, you may see people on the right complaining about a variety of things that are being done in schools. One of the acronyms they’ve been targeting is something called Social-Emotional Learning.

Rather than try and explain it myself, I’ll give you the textbook definition from this site:

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the process of developing the self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life success.

While I’m not an expert by any means, I look at it similarly to how I look at mental health in the workplace. You simply aren’t going to get the best results from people until you recognize that they are people first, and employees (or students) second. That means that they cannot perform their best when they are also dealing with various life situations and struggles that have nothing to do with the immediate work at hand, and we would get better results if we made efforts to support the whole person and not just the robot that is there to do work.

SEL is that for schools. It recognizes that kids come to school with a variety of issues that would hinder their ability to be successful in school, and makes an effort to support them in those struggles so that they can be more successful not only with school work but with the interactions they have with teachers and other students.

But, this acronym has gotten mixed in with all the other things that some parents are upset about and they are demanding that schools stick to teaching math, science, and reading instead. Let me try and point out why this is a mistake.

First, for the same reason we see people as whole human beings at work, they simply perform better when they can be their whole selves at work. Students perform better when they are in an environment that supports them, is safe for them, and where they are accepted. Kids who don’t have that fundamental safety don’t take risks, struggle to focus, and don’t develop interpersonal skills that would be beneficial later in life.

Second, let me share a couple of anecdotes:

First, from this article titled America’s Secret Epidemic:

Alexandra Hinkson-Dutrevil was teaching a history lesson to her fourth-grade class when a student suddenly burst into tears. Between sobs, he said that his young cousin had COVID-19 and was on a ventilator, and he was afraid his cousin was going to die. Hinkson-Dutrevil could have talked to the student alone or referred him to another staff member so she could continue her lesson. Instead, she invited all her students to discuss their emotions, knowing that, especially during the pandemic, she “shouldn’t dismiss anything for the sake of fulfilling a lesson plan.” The floodgates opened.

Can you imagine the damage that would have been done if that child had shared that news while crying in class and was then ignored so that the class could get back to studying history? Or the lesson that the other students would have taken away from that experience? Would anyone truly want that teacher to ignore the fear that a student had about losing a loved one? Yet it seems that is exactly what some are asking for, the teacher to do next to nothing. To ignore this obvious plea for support until the child’s parents could be reached to deal with it themselves.

I would argue that is about the cruelest thing you could do. Giving that child, and the others, a space to share their fears about COVID-19 did more good than any history lesson would have that day, and it allowed the students to later come back to a safe, supportive, place where they could learn more effectively. Not providing that space would have created a space that was not safe for kids emotionally, and would create a blocker to their ability to learn. Is that what anyone really wants from schools?

Lastly, I want to share with you a video from a school board meeting in Ohio. During an announcement that one of the school board members would be leaving, her son recently graduated and she and her husband are moving out of the district, she talks specifically about what SEL, and diversity initiatives have meant for her son. Her son has dyslexia and ADHD. He simply doesn’t learn in the same way as other kids. He struggled for years with schoolwork and was bullied by other kids. But, the school created a safe space for him to learn in a way that worked for him. He graduated. (He remarks about her son starting at around the 7:30 mark.)

Isn’t that what we want schools to do? Why would we be against schools using whatever tools they have at their disposal to teach all kids?

6/6/22 – Updated to add another link – Do Our Kids Need Social Emotional Learning in School?


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