A politician in the Midwest recently told a state committee that schools shouldn’t be allowed to teach kids about feelings or emotions. A group of Virginia parents demanded to review their school’s online social-emotional learning curriculum, convinced the school was hiding something. In the south, a state department told employees to refrain from even using the phrase social-emotional learning. And not long ago, legislation passed in the Indiana House, prohibiting teaching or assessments that may “affect the student’s attitudes, habits, traits, opinions, beliefs, or feelings without parental consent.”
This is a small sample of the stories I’ve heard in recent weeks. From halted curriculums to debates at school board meetings, social-emotional learning, or SEL, has quickly become the newest target of America’s ongoing education culture wars. Many who oppose it see SEL as a back door for schools to teach critical race theory.
For insiders, this latest target is confusing. Social-emotional learning is decades old, and a staple of many districts and schools. It has been championed by both political parties, often led by conservative administrations. Previously, it had been questioned not by the political right but by the left. In the wake of racial reckonings and increased calls to be anti-racist, SEL was rightfully criticized by education equity advocates for not being culturally responsive enough and doing too little to address persistent racial inequities.
The timing of these latest attacks couldn’t be worse. The social emotional needs of students are at an all-time high. Teachers, parents, and pediatricians are seeing more extreme behaviors and more serious mental health concerns from their kids. And while SEL is different from mental health care, it is a way for schools to prioritize student wellbeing, and to offer lessons and support on building healthy relationships, emotional well-being, self-awareness and decision-making—all crucial for student learning and success outside of school.
Culture war debates rarely acknowledge the myriad ways school staff are trained in social-emotional learning and child development, or their experience meeting students’ real-time social emotional needs. Educators are the perfect partners for parents to support kids in these areas, often bringing expertise and experience that parents wouldn’t have otherwise.
My tween experienced his own social-emotional challenges during the pandemic, and I relied on his teacher for help. She is “on” during the school day, and I am “on” when he is at home. She has special training, strategies and lessons that help him better understand his feelings, strengthen his self-awareness, and explore his relationships in healthy and productive ways. I have seen the positive impact these lessons have had on his success in school, as well as his overall health and wellbeing. He sees his teacher and parents—along with a licensed counselor—as a team, all committed to his care. Every educator needs to be equipped and empowered to support kids in this way, and every student deserves this type of support.
For nearly a decade I have worked with states and schools to stand up social-emotional learning policies, programs and practices. These conversations have always been apolitical because politicians and practitioners have historically agreed that kids learn well when they are well. The same should be true today.
Here are four reasons why we must keep social-emotional learning in our schools and classrooms:
- All learning is social and emotional. Several years ago, I joined more than 200 scientists, youth workers, educators, and policymakers as a part of the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. This commission explored the connection between kids’ learning and their social emotional health. The findings were clear: SEL helps students learn and develop, and master academic content. Every great teacher addresses their students’ educational needs and their social emotional ones. As the final commission report says, “to reach a child’s mind, we must be concerned for the whole person.”
- Kids are in the middle of a mental health crisis. Whenever I connect with people working on the education frontlines, I ask, “How are your students?” Their answers are always the same, and back up recent statements from the US Surgeon General and American Academy of Pediatrics’: We are facing a “youth mental health crisis.” More kids than ever are struggling with mental health challenges. For some, they have diagnosable disorders. For others, their challenges manifest as extreme behaviors in school and at home. We need an all-hands-on-deck approach, with everyone who works with kids prioritizing their health, healing and wellbeing.
- Employers need workers with social and emotional skills. There is significant overlap between social-emotional and employability skills. As a colleague shared with me recently, workers are “hired on the hard skills and fired on the soft skills.” Employer surveys and job training programs back that up. The most universal employability skills are interpersonal ones: communication, self-awareness, personal management, and being able to work with and get along with others. These are the same skills taught in quality SEL lessons and programs.
- This is the work we signed up for. Read any state department of education, public school district or individual school mission statement and you will see a few similarities. Education leaders pledge to help kids learn, become college- and career-ready, and to leave high school prepared to be good citizens. SEL is a critical part of this collective, missional work. When my longtime mentor Roger Weissberg co-founded the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), he and his colleagues championed the idea that learning is always academic, social and emotional. For the past 25 years, CASEL and others have shown how SEL improves kids’ school performance and future life outcomes.
When asked for my advice, I tell educators to avoid acronyms (they’re weaponized) and continue doing what’s right for kids. Educators are not alone in the belief that this work is important. Doctors, employers, researchers, parents and scientists agree too. Social-emotional learning has been targeted by these culture wars, but it does not have to be a casualty of them. Our kids need the people and places in their lives to prioritize their social emotional health and wellbeing, now more than ever.