How school leaders can overcome parents’ attacks on social-emotional learning

'Avoid jargon and get specific about what you want kids to learn under the umbrella of social-emotional learning,' researcher says.
By: | December 21, 2021
Most parents support teaching students collaboration, self-confidence, empathy and civic engagement though some are wary of the phrase 'social-emotional learning.'Most parents support teaching students collaboration, self-confidence, empathy and civic engagement though some are wary of the phrase 'social-emotional learning.'

Attacks on social-emotional learning that equate the concept with indoctrinating students may be one of the more startling developments of the recent incursion of culture wars into U.S. schools.

Here’s a sampling of some recent headlines:

  • ”Social and emotional learning’ is often just cover for progressive indoctrination of kids” (New York Post)
  • “Conservative activists call ‘social-emotional learning’ a Trojan horse for critical race theory” (Washington Examiner)
  • “Social-Emotional Learning: The Insidious Teaching Tool You’ve Never Heard Of” (The Daily Signal)
  • Beware social and emotional indoctrination in schools (Boston Herald)
  • Hamilton holds off on social-emotional learning curriculum amid parent concerns (The Holland Sentinel)

In many districts, of course, administrators and teachers are ramping up SEL programs to help students cope with trauma and stress they’ve experienced during the COVID pandemic. And a majority of parents appear to support these efforts, says one conservative-leaning think tank.

While there is broad support among parents for teaching SEL-related skills such as goal-setting, approaching challenges positively and self-confidence, the phrase “social and emotional learning” is less popular than terms such as “life skills,” says Amber Northern, a co-author of the Fordham Institute’s “How to Sell SEL” report. “How we talk about this is super-important,” Northern says. “You should avoid jargon and get specific about what you want kids to learn under the umbrella of social-emotional learning.”

The study also found parents overwhelmingly supportive of teaching students to be informed citizens, to regulate emotions and to stand up for people of different backgrounds. So to build support for SEL, educators should also be clear that social-emotional learning will not replace core subjects such as math or ELA but that SEL skills will be integrated into instruction throughout the day, Northern says.

“If a teacher who is a tough grader and sets high expectations for students says, ‘This is a high goal and I can help you get there,’ that’s social-emotional learning,” Northern says. “In an English class, if the teacher assigns fiction with characters who overcome challenges, that’s also social-emotional learning.”

One specific target of SEL opponents is teaching about mental health, depression and anxiety. Some parents have expressed fears that such instruction could give students ideas about considering suicide though research has found that is an unlikely outcome. Again, Fordham’s research found a majority of parents are supportive of teachers cover mental health and of schools hiring more counselors and therapists, Northern says.

How SEL helps us heal and move forward

In some parts of the country, SEL opposition is not a local, grass-roots movement but is being pushed by outside groups seeking to promote a political agenda, says Justina Schlund, senior director of content and field learning at CASEL, the organization that pioneered the modern concept of social-emotional learning.

“SEL has historically had bipartisan support because it’s about the shared goals we want for our children,” Schlund says. “It’s about developing healthy relationships and skills needed to achieve career and life goals and contribute meaningfully to the community.”

Educators should help parents understand that SEL is not about teaching a specific agenda or way of thinking and that, rather than being a one-size-fits-all concept, it can take different shapes in different districts. Parents should also be able to see how SEL connects to core academic learning, Schlund says.

“During math, for instance, it’s having opportunities for students to work together and have disagreements respectfully, and resolve those disagreements and come up with solutions,” Schlund says. “In history, in English, it’s how to think about different perspectives.”

She advises administrators to listen to parents’ concerns but not to get lost in the current political climate. Like the Fordham study, CASEL has found overwhelming support for schools expanding SEL during an era of constant disruptions and increased concern for student mental health.

“The degree to which schools and districts can really stay true to the evidence and research that shows what works for students, what helps them focus, what helps them build critical relationships, what will help us heal and move forward, that will protect high-quality education,” Schlund says.

How to gain instructional time

To increase community understanding, administrators should consider offering SEL training to parents to help them understand their district’s initiatives, says Dido Balla, director of educational innovation and partnerships for MindUP, a nonprofit social-emotional learning provider.

It’s critical for educators to attach their visions for SEL to parents’ goals for their children—such as developing empathy, building meaningful relationships and achieving college-and-career success, Balla says.

Educators can also share with parents the research that shows how SEL builds resiliency during a time when depression and anxiety, already increasing before the pandemic, is continuing to rise. “Things are not getting better,” he says. “Students aren’t less anxious, they aren’t less depressed—it’s the opposite.”

Finally, administrators and teachers can show parents that SEL can help maximize and increase instructional time.

“When you incorporate SEL practices, and students understand themselves better and know how to regulate emotions and how to treat each other, as a teacher you’re gaining time,” Balla says. “When you open class with SEL practices, you set the stage for an environment where students are no longer disputed or disengaged and you don’t have to stop class to deal with interruptions or misbehavior.”