How schools can rise above resistance to social and emotional learning

"The negativity out there is around a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding," says Shelley Berman, lead superintendent for SEL at AASA, The Superintendent's Association.

There are no controversies over the all-in approach to social and emotional learning at Alexandria City Public Schools in Virginia. SEL, which has been equated with indoctrination by some conservative groups, has been so widely embraced in Alexandria City that district leaders have added an “A” for academics to the acronym.

Since students returned to in-person learning, at least 30 minutes of each school day—at all grade levels—have been devoted to “SEAL” activities. “Everyone is openly embracing the importance of social-emotional learning,” says Wendy Gonzalez, the district’s chief of teaching, learning and leadership. “It’s not something to be hidden—our principals talk about it and our students look forward to it because they want more time to talk things out.”

SEL focuses on community building and self-regulation in Alexandria’s early grades and shifts to conflict resolution and maintaining healthy relationships in high school. The SEL activities, some of which have been developed by Alexandria City’s educators, are also being embedded throughout the academic day beyond the 30 minutes dedicated solely to social and emotional learning, Gonzalez says. For instance, an English teacher might use a community circle to discuss emotions stirred up by a difficult topic that has been raised in a book that the class is reading.

“We see it as a complete K-12 continuum,” she explains. “And we needed not to let SEL happen just by chance—our children are energized and getting to where they love to talk and share.”

Is there really a social-and-emotional learning controversy? 

But some districts now facing resistance to their social-and-emotional learning programs in the wake of the political battles over masks, critical race theory, and social justice. This pushback is one reason several leading education organizations launched the Leading With SEL coalition in September.

“The negativity out there is around a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding,” says Shelley Berman, the lead superintendent for social-emotional learning at AASA, The Superintendent’s Association, which is a member of the new SEL coalition. “Schools do social-emotional learning no matter if we intend to or not, so it’s better to do it consciously rather than unconsciously.”

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Some of the uproar is being caused by politically motivated members of special interest groups who do not even live in the districts they are challenging, adds Justina Schlund, the senior director of content and field learning at CASEL, an organization that is one of the pioneers of SEL in schools and the facilitator of Leading With SEL. “The vast majority of parents support social and emotional learning,” Schlund points out. “The controversy is a little bit manufactured and it’s distracting from the actual work that parents want schools to focus on.”

Administrators can pave the way for social and emotional learning by creating a graduate profile. Many districts are taking this approach to detail the skills—both academic and interpersonal—that students should have developed by the time they complete high school. School leaders should also make time to connect with parents who aren’t showing up to school board meetings. “If SEL is a mystery, more districts and schools can make it clear to families what it looks like day to day in classrooms and schools, that it’s time for teachers and students to connect,” Schlund explains. “They can make it really clear by inviting parents in to see that.”

Berman advises leaders not to get embroiled in debates about social and emotional learning. Instead, they should articulate to their communities how SEL guides students in developing critical, future-focused social skills and creates a school culture where all students feel they belong. “SEL is a gift we’re giving to students and families,” says Berman, the former superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky and the Eugene School District in Oregon. “We have to stand up for the right work because you can’t actually have a great deal of success without doing it.”

The anti-SEL political campaigns appear to be a coordinated attempt to strip local control away from the district and building leaders and their teams, Schlund adds. “It’s an effort to ban social-emotional learning in schools that have been doing the work really well and in partnerships with their communities,” she says. “It’s sad and dispiriting that they’re trying to use education as a weapon against something like SEL that has long had bipartisan support and the support of an overwhelming majority of parents.”

‘Soft skills’ are hard skills to develop

One misconception that community members may have about SEL is that it is just the “fluffy stuff,” says Francesca Sinapi, the equity, access and engagement officer for the Hillsboro School District outside Portland, Oregon. “These ‘soft skills’ are hard skills to develop,” Sinapi says. “Self-awareness, responsibility—that’s what going to you a job and what’s going to get you fired.”

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Sinapi and her team, who now oversee all district SEL activities, take every opportunity to explain the concept to parent and school committees, at professional development sessions and other events. “You can’t be a district that says you are equity-focused without having social-and-emotional learning,” she adds. “And you can’t be an SEL district without looking through an equity lens to ensure everybody is being built up and nurtured as a valued asset.”

Like in many districts, teachers in Hillsboro’s early grades start the day with an SEL-based morning meeting. Teachers are now building CASEL’s five core competencies—self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making—into their instructional standards and lesson plans.

In high school, SEL—particularly relationship skills, and responsible decision-making—has become the focus of advisory periods. Teachers can more intentionally build relationships with students and emphasize the importance of community while also allowing space for the student voice, says Xylecia Fynn-Aikins, a secondary-level universal support teacher.

The prioritization of SEL is also benefiting the district’s educators because they are now getting to know their students on deeper levels than ever before. Teachers are now more aware of students’ backgrounds, cultures and support systems, Sinapi adds. “You can’t say ‘I’m a great science teacher but I’m not into that relational stuff,'” she says. “How great a teacher are you if you don’t know who’s in front of you? If you don’t know their lived experiences?”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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