Is SEL really getting a bad name? Here’s what parents and teachers say

'These attacks we’re seeing on SEL don’t seem to be changing parents' minds,' education pollster says.
By: | May 17, 2022

The controversies swirling around social-emotional learning may have little basis in reality. Even in states where SEL is being attacked by politicians and other outspoken activists, the concept remains widely supported by parents from across the political spectrum, according to a new analysis by Committee for Children, a nonprofit that has been advocating for social-emotional learning for decades.

“For parents, this isn’t political. It’s about teaching their kids the skills they’ll need to thrive,” says Patrick Toomey, the senior vice president of the Benenson Strategy Group, which surveyed 1,200 parents earlier this spring for Committee for Children. “These attacks we’re seeing on SEL don’t seem to be changing parents’ minds.”

A large majority of parents, regardless of their political beliefs, agree that schools have a role in teaching social-emotional skills such as communication, decision-making, coping with emotions and self-esteem. Most parents also said their schools were doing the right amount of SEL instruction or should do more. And only a small number associated SEL with negative concepts such as brainwashing or teachers overstepping their boundaries. These findings also held true in southern states, where there have been more legislative efforts to restrict social-emotional learning.

“Unfortunately we’ve seen misconceptions and pushback around SEL,” says Andrea Lovanhill, Committee for Children’s CEO. “Our polling shows parents and families believe in the importance of teaching social-emotional skills at home and in schools.”

Even in states where political leaders have tried to vilify SEL, the concept is being further entrenched in K-12 classrooms, said Jordan Posamentier, Committee for Children’s vice president of policy and advocacy. While Florida’s governor and other state leaders have cast SEL as a liberal boogeyman, lawmakers have also passed legislation that directs schools to help students build skills such as resiliency, Posamentier says.

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SEL strains & solutions

Still, the attacks on SEL may be taking their toll, according to a separate analysis. A key indicator of the health of the K-12 workforce is the number of educators who say they would encourage others to become teachers—and that number is dropping. In fact, it has declined steeply since just the beginning of the year, when about a third of teachers said they would recommend the profession to someone else. Now, that number stands at just 16%, according to a survey by Teachers Pay Teachers, a website where educators can sell and share lesson plans and learning activities.

More than half the teachers surveyed also said they are considering leaving education, and SEL appears to be a pressure point. Nine in 10 teachers said their concern for children’s mental health has increased during the pandemic and about two-thirds reported that a student or their parent has asked for help with mental health or social-emotional wellness in the past two years. And while only about a quarter of teachers said parents in their district are opposed to SEL, nearly two-thirds of teachers do not feel prepared to handle students’ social-emotional needs on their own.

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However, teachers who feel more connected to their schools and cared for by administrators do feel better equipped to support students’ mental wellness. The Teachers Pay Teachers survey found that educators feel connected when they have sufficient SEL resources and training, and when educators throughout their school are also prioritizing SEL. To assess connectedness, the organization recommends asking teachers to choose the response that best describes how they’ve felt in the past month:

  • I feel like I belong at my school.
  • I can really be myself at my school.
  • I feel like people at my school care about me.
  • I am treated with respect at my school.
  • I feel like my school leader cares about me.

The teachers surveyed also shared the top strategies they use to integrate SEL into their classrooms and lessons:

  1. Classroom opening and closing exercises
  2. Worksheets for planning and goal setting
  3. Conflict resolution practices
  4. Regular mood/feeling checks
  5. Social skills-building opportunities
  6. Mindfulness techniques
  7. Art projects related to an SEL theme
  8. Technology that teaches SEL concepts or skills
  9. Games that reinforce an SEL theme
  10. Journaling or writing

To further support SEL, Teachers Pay Teachers also recommends that administrators: offer more professional development in SEL, hire additional counselors and social workers, prioritize adult SEL, and listen to teachers’ feedback.