Newest front in the culture wars: SEL

On Board Online • May 16, 2022

By Chris Carola
Special Correspondent

Since 2018, the State Education Department has had K-12 benchmarks in social-emotional learning (SEL) including developing "self-awareness and self-management skills." Educational organizations active in offering trainings to support schools in developing SEL curricula have included NYSSBA, the School Administrators Association of New York State and New York State United Teachers.

To the surprise of many, SEL has become controversial over the last year. It has been drawn into ongoing debates over how topics such as history, race and gender are being handled in schools.

Articles in numerous national publications have described SEL as the newest hot button issue in America's culture wars. In its April 27 issue, Education Week ran a guide to responding to pushback on SEL.

Critics of SEL include Christopher Rufo of the Manhattan Institute, who is best known for opposing diversity, equity and inclusion programs. "The intention of SEL is to soften children at an emotional level, reinterpret their normative behavior as an expression of 'repression,' 'whiteness,' or 'internalized racism,' and then rewire their behavior according to the dictates of left-wing ideology," Rufo told The New York Times in April. "SEL serves as a delivery mechanism for radical pedagogies such as critical race theory and gender deconstructionism."

Others have claimed specific SEL lessons are age-inappropriate or attack the research that underpins SEL; one longtime critic, attorney Jane Robbins of the American Principles Project, has said SEL is based on "coffee-table psychology."

In some locales, the criticism has been having an effect:

  • A school district in Utah has ditched SEL programs in schools because of opposition.
  • The Florida Department of Education cited "the unsolicited addition of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in mathematics" as part of its rationale for rejecting 54 math textbooks in April.
  • A bill in the Oklahama state Senate would ban use of federal, state or private funds to "promote, purchase, or utilize the concepts of social-emotional learning."

New York is among states with laws and policies that are friendly to SEL. In 2016, the state Legislature passed a law that requires schools to provide mental health instruction as part of K-12 health education.

"Infusing SEL through all facets of school life is a universal intervention that all other academic and behavioral interventions can and should build upon," according to the State Education Departments SEL guidelines released in August 2018 (see ).

"We are currently engaged in collaborative work to review and revise these resources to more explicitly support educational equity, centering on student and adult identity, agency and belonging," SED said recently.

SEL supporters say the criticism is unfair and ill-founded.

"When you get down to the skills we're talking about, it's really not controversial at all," said Elizabeth Devaney, director of the Whole Child Connection at the Children's Institute, a Rochester nonprofit education organization that works to improve the social and emotional health of children.

"SEL is really a process to develop a set of skills everyone needs to be successful," she said. "In school, there's always math, reading and writing, of course. Everything else is SEL. We want kids to be good citizens and learn social skills."

From 2003 to 2005, Devaney was a project director for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a nonprofit organization that spearheaded the development of SEL.

According to CASEL, numerous studies have found that students participating in SEL programs improved their academic performance by 11 percentile points when compared to students who didn't participate and showed improved classroom behavior and better attitudes about themselves and others.

The same skills that foster academic improvements can lead to success as adults, according to CASEL. It identifies five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.

While SEL content varies by grade and differs among schools, lessons and programs often involve:

  • Character education.
  • Communications skills.
  • Resiliency.
  • Behavior self-management.
  • Goal-setting.
  • Empathy.
  • Personal growth.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent annually on SEL lessons and materials by school districts nationwide, according to a 2021 report by the consulting and investment banking firm Tyton Partners. It notes that spending on SEL has increased significantly during the pandemic.

Amber Chandler, a teacher in Western New York, likes SEL so much that she wrote a book about it: The Flexible SEL Classroom, Practical Ways To Build Social Emotional Learning. Her 2017 book was recently updated with lessons from the pandemic.

Chandler, who has taught English language arts for 22 years at the Frontier Central School district in Erie County, said she didn't learn about SEL until about a decade ago.

"I had never heard of it, but it turned out it was the types of things I had always done," said Chandler, who teaches in Frontier's middle school. "I was just happy that it had a name for the philosophy I had . It's all learning about yourself and how best to go through the world and be successful," Chandler said.

School psychologists have been watching the controversy over SEL with concern, according to Beth Rizzi, president of New York Association of School Psychologists.

Some resistance to SEL may come from the fact that it's a comparatively new concept being implemented in some school districts, said Rizzi, a psychologist at John Jay High School in Dutchess County. But that shouldn't preclude educators from employing a proven method for building stronger relationships between students and teachers, especially at a time when many children are struggling with disruptions caused by the pandemic, she said.

"In general, change is hard and human nature is to be resistant to change. Maybe that's what we're looking at," she said. "This has been an incredibly challenging time for adults and kids alike, so it's important to connect on all levels."

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