Social Emotional Learning at a Crossroads


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To the Editor:

Curricular development and determining when to introduce complex philosophical, scientific, and social issues to young learners require ongoing transparency and reflection because the solutions are seldom obvious or totally satisfying. Teachers and administrators understandably do not want to be micromanaged by parents over every educational decision they make. Simultaneously, parents, not other adults or the state, are primarily responsible for raising their own children. Unfortunately, some children lack healthy and constructive parental guidance outside of school. Even when accounting for this reality, it is not clear that public schools should be exposing second graders to mature themes and concepts or that they be the vehicles through which the current iteration of Social Emotional Learning’s (SEL) aims are realized. Conflating parental deference in elementary school and demands for curricular transparency with indifference to the mental health of children or ingratitude for teachers weaponizes compassion to suppress important dialogue and discredit concerned caretakers. Aspects of SEL that reference constructs like identity and emotional intuition delve more deeply into the parental realm than other academic disciplines and hence warrant more scrutiny, especially in light of their novelty. An educational paradigm shift like SEL should not occur swiftly, in secret, or be framed in a binary way through the pretense of something like compassion as is occurring in many school districts.

Currently in Darien and throughout Connecticut, RULER is an SEL program being piloted in public elementary schools. CASEL is the most prominent driver of SEL nationally and RULER is a “CASEL select program”.  Proponents cite research supporting SEL’s efficacy in improving academic performance, attendance, and students’ attitudes about learning and socialization. As originally conceived, SEL was a targeted intervention for low performing schools in New Haven whose procedures ostensibly exacerbated behavioral problems that limited academic achievement. Some SEL-inspired programs were successful in the latter decades of the 20th century when utilized in this context. SEL has since morphed into, among other things, part of a system of mental wellness support and resources that include promotion, prevention, early intervention, and treatment” and a means of “redistributing power to more fully engage young people and adults in working toward just and equitable schools and communities.” Whereas, early iterations of SEL focused on improving emotional regulation and interpersonal skills to bolster academic performance, current iterations seek to enhance these qualities as an end itself while also engaging in political activism.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which broadens the definition of scholastic success to include “non-academic indicators like student engagement or school safety”, is implicitly the primary funding source for SEL. A 2017 RAND Corporation evidence review concluded that “educators interested in incorporating SEL interventions into school practices have opportunities to support these efforts by leveraging federal funds ESSA authorizes.” To access this funding, interventions must be supported by evidence from four tiers of methodological rigor. In the RAND review, no Tier 1 (randomized controlled) studies and only one Tier 2 (quasi-experimental) study demonstrated a benefit to academic achievement from SEL. Less rigorously controlled Tier 3 studies showed a positive effect of SEL on a variety of metrics, including academic achievement and intra and interpersonal skills. The relative emphasis on non academic indicators in SEL inspired curricula is a doctrinal shift that may not reflect the priorities of parents. In many communities, self awareness and socialization are reinforced through normal classroom interactions, unstructured play, sports and other extracurricular activities, family and caregiver influence, and feedback from teachers.

In Darien, parents cannot opt their children out of anything that falls under the umbrella of SEL. The “Interactive Wheel” in the CASEL framework places SEL at the center of student development, while families and caregivers are at the periphery. Additionally, CASEL cites SEL as a “Tier 1” or foundational pillar of a child’s mental health. Naturally, some parents are concerned about the potential confluence of a government-mandated system of preventative mental health wellness and clinical psychology practiced by unlicensed providers in a non-medical, group setting and the unintended consequences of effectively pathologizing the mental health of every child. Failing to treat a condition (false negative) and providing treatment in the absence of a condition (false positive) both induce harm though many policies only acknowledge the former. The compulsion to “do something” is generally strong because activity is often mistaken for achievement.

RULER asks that children regularly and publicly chart their emotional state on a “Mood Meter” and reflect on their feelings with classmates and teachers. Proactively intervening with every child instead of identifying psychologically vulnerable children, notifying parents, and providing or facilitating supportive services on a case by case basis isn’t necessarily within the school’s domain. The hallmark of a compassionate society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. Tending to every child as if they’re vulnerable detracts from those who require the most attention and care. Covid policy and prolonged school closures should serve as a precautionary tale about the harms of deeming every child as “at-risk”. Moreover, some SEL programs, with state and/or federal support, position schools as the primary purveyor of a child’s psychological/emotional well being and character, a role traditionally reserved for parents and caregivers. The fine line between prevention and treatment also warrants further clarification.

The matter in which educational initiatives like SEL collect data on minors is also concerning. According to Internet Safety Labs: “Nearly all apps (96%) share children’s personal information with third parties, 78% of the time with advertising and monetization entities, typically without the knowledge or consent of the users or the schools, making them unsafe.” Platforms that support various SEL-related endeavors data mine and sell presumably private information, some of which is normally HIPPA compliant, to third parties that target children with advertisements or unsolicited advice based on feedback from augmented/virtual reality and wearable technology. Some technologies use location tracking, without informed consent from parents, that may physically endanger children if insufficiently secured data ends up in the wrong hands. There is little financial incentive to prioritize privacy and digital rights for children. Pre-pandemic, schools and districts spent $640 million annually on SEL products and programs. Post pandemic, state and local educational systems received approximately $190 billion from various legislative packages. SEL itself will soon be a billion-dollar industry if it is not one already.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) sees opportunities to “piggy back” SEL onto existing educational technology funding streams and venture capital allocation. The WEF also recommends broadening the definition of SEL to further leverage these opportunities. In addition, the WEF champions the potential uses of wearable technology in SEL: “Wearable devices can provide a minute-by-minute record of someone’s emotional state, potentially helping to build self awareness and even empathy, both of which are critical components of social and emotional skills.” This potential, even if realized, may not be desirable considering the privacy and security vulnerabilities associated with preexisting platforms and the jurisdictional concerns pertaining to the practice of group psychology in public schools. Children are often voiceless and generally aim to please adults. Most informed adults would likely not consent to a similar arrangement for themselves at the urging of their employer.

While some technological advances may improve education for the better, allowing the market to shape curricular reform without first establishing ethical and strategic guard rails is tantamount to deferring to defense contractors on foreign policy or pharmaceutical companies on public health. Prioritizing the psychological well-being of children need not be contingent upon an ongoing mental health “crisis” or “emergency” that bypasses sensible regulatory oversight. Furthermore, the influence of current interactive technology platforms that utilize data mining and targeted advertising, mainly social media, on youth mental health is egregious. Initially trumpeted as a way to increase connectivity and unite people via decentralized communities, social media has instead increased political polarization and tribalism, created more informational gatekeeping, and rewarded outrageous, attention-seeking behavior.

Before entrusting technology companies to conduct ongoing physiological and psychological surveillance on children with wearables and implementing a government-mandated, centralized mental health program on a massive scale, children deserve more safeguards that ensure their digital rights and privacy as articulated by President Biden in his State of the Union address. Additionally, further homogenizing approaches to a child’s emotional development through large scale SEL programs empowers state and federal officials, education administrators and tech executives at the expense of individual teachers. The response to social media is evidence that more screen time and data mining doesn’t necessarily create better humans no matter what technology companies and the WEF may proclaim. 

Transforming society from a “neoliberal” to a “critical” democracy, as endorsed by CASEL, also seems like a rather tangential objective for the public school system, especially considering that “such efforts might be inconsistent with or violate existing local, state, and national laws”. The burden is not on children to achieve “distributive justice”, reverse history, and eliminate outcome-based disparities they bear no culpability in creating. Theorizing about how to most effectively allocate resources to achieve societal ends is appropriate in a political science or philosophy class. Advocating for a particular system of power redistribution like critical democracy as an overarching goal of public education is inappropriate. CASEL is not the arbiter of what constitutes “social justice” and how to achieve it. CASEL’s ideological, non-empirical conception of “Transformative SEL” is politically partisan and quasi-religious. In the CASEL framework, Transformative SEL is indistinguishable from the practice of education and “consistent with transformational resistance”.

A transformation is allegedly necessary because the present is tainted by the sins of history; disparate outcomes and power dynamics are the fruit of a poisonous tree regardless of subsequent legislative reforms. Hence SEL must help facilitate the pursuit of social justice “through critiques of discourses of power”. “Doing the work” through transformative SEL is an act of atonement whereby the educational system helps redeem a nation of its original sins. “Transformational resistance”, however, is a means of realizing a societal vision independent of policy makers and elected officials as it’s not compatible with even a reformed version of the current system. Moreover, the public educational system and children are not responsible for engaging in collective acts of penance.

Public schools should, to the extent possible, remain politically agnostic and encourage students to defend multiple positions on complicated issues about which people may disagree in good faith. Determining the degree to which current disparities and unequal outcomes are a consequence of historical injustice is an important question for which there are no simple answers. CASEL’s answer to this question and its vision of society ought not be the primary lens through which something, SEL in this instance, that “should pervade every aspect of a district’s work” is presented. School districts might consider clarifying whether the affiliate programs they’re implementing also embrace CASEL’s conception of “liberation” and critical democracy before expending any additional time and resources on SEL. The most influential voice in SEL, CASEL effectively seeks to undermine the very systems and structures that fund it.

SEL is thus a broad term that refers to a myriad of educational and social initiatives over the course of almost seventy years. Parents should be aware of SEL’s mission creep away from academic achievement and into the clinical/medical domain and political activism. Many of SEL’s stated goals are truisms that shield other, more controversial aspects of the program from oversight. Parents have sincere reservations about sophisticated topics being introduced at the behest of the state before their children are emotionally and intellectually prepared. Suggesting that this position is tantamount to extremism, hatred, or indifference to the mental health of children, as occurred at a recent Darien Board of Education meeting, is akin to suggesting that parents who support the inclusion of any SEL variation into the curriculum are “groomers” or pedophiles who wish to sexualize children. Each of these hyperbolic and intellectually dishonest aspersions stifles potential exchanges about how to create a better learning environment for children.

In summary, parents should seek answers to the following questions before SEL programs are implemented at scale and without the ability to opt out. Educational leaders for whom these questions are completely foreign likely aren’t responsible enough to employ SEL as a tool:

  • Fundamentally, what is the goal of public education and to what relative degree are parents and schools responsible for helping to achieve that end?
  • Should the government or a public school, via a mandatory program, effectively define what constitutes optimal emotional and behavioral coping skills and a construct like character?
  • Traditionally, the state, via the legal system, imposes its values by clarifying what behaviors are off limits (e.g. stealing, murder, etc) to avoid harm, not by defining what is best.
  • How is preventative mental health care differentiated from clinical psychology and assuming a clear delineation, should schools practice either without consent from parents?
  • At what age and under what circumstances should sexualized topics be introduced to children and what are the respective roles of caretakers and schools here?
  • How do federal and state SEL funding incentives interfere with local control of schools?
  • How are schools addressing privacy concerns associated with educational and SEL-related testing (e.g. DESSI-mini), technology and data collection?
  • Is SEL politically neutral or a form of political activism?
  • Are CASEL select programs like RULER aligned with all of CASEL’s goals, including the “transformational” ones?

Schools should serve as an example of how to exchange ideas of all kinds, those pertaining to curricular innovation in this instance, with civility and thoughtfulness while adhering to a predetermined, standardized process that involves all stakeholders, including parents. Elements of the curriculum whose stated purpose is to teach acceptance and emotional coping skills should not be exempt from oversight. Methods and strategy warrant consideration regardless of intent. Policies and initiatives that allege to advance presumably noble ends may lack transparency because they are assumed to be strategically sound. Parents should have a voice in curricular development no matter how seemingly agreeable the acronym or educational campaign.

Douglas Kechijian
Darien, CT