Trust. Empathy. Interpersonal skills and conflict resolution.
These are some of the tenants of social-emotional learning, or SEL, a decades-old framework embedded in the curriculum and practices of countless public schools across the country.
But in an ongoing fight with public schools over political and family values, critics have accused schools of using the pretense of social-emotional learning to indoctrinate children with radical gender ideology or teach comprehensive sex education. .
At least 20 states have introduced legislation similar to Florida’s so-called ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law, aimed at curtailing curricula on loosely defined ‘concepts of division’, while parent rights advocates see SEL as a “Trojan horse” for radicalism.
The attacks on social-emotional learning are reminiscent of some of those on critical race theory, with SEL replacing CRT as the three-letter acronym du jour serving as a lightning rod for heated political debate.
The attacks are “very concerning for anyone who cares about public education,” said Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.
“They very often distort what’s really going on,” Rader said. “They all seem to have the common thread of people believing that schools impose political ideology on students. And I would say there is no truth in that.
Connecticut has not experienced the same level of rancorous opposition as in other states, but confusion and some opposition persists in some cities where SEL has been introduced.
Connecticut defines social-emotional learning as: “The process by which children and adults acquire emotional intelligence through the skills of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. “.
Social-emotional learning can be integrated into the curriculum or the classroom environment, and class time is also set aside for workshops and exercises.
Modern approaches to social-emotional learning date back to the 1990s, although the fundamental concepts date back even further. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, formed in 1994 and created a curriculum framework still used by schools across the country.
Many Connecticut schools have been introduced to social-emotional learning through something called RULER, an evidence-based approach developed by Marc Brackett, founder and director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.
RULER focuses on teaching students how to identify, understand, express and regulate their emotions. It uses tools like the ‘Mood Meter’, which children can use to indicate how they are feeling that day, and the ‘Master Plan’, a guide to conflict resolution.
Frances Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, implemented the RULER approach as a superintendent in public schools in Hamden and later Bridgeport in 2015.
In Bridgeport, Rabinowitz says, the results were clear. Average daily attendance has started to improve, while chronic absenteeism has decreased. Teachers began to witness “booming academic growth”.
“I can’t imagine running a school district without [social-emotional learning] being a very important element, an essential element,” Rabinowitz said.
“When a child can self-regulate their learning, they can stand up for themselves,” said Irene Parisi, director of studies at the state Department of Education.
Social-emotional learning can take different forms.
Guidelines set by the state Department of Education are broad, and local school boards are free to work toward growth goals as they see fit.
West Hartford, which used the CASEL framework to ground the district approach, uses semi-regular meetings to deepen social-emotional learning concepts.
Elementary students participate in morning meetings, where the goals mirror those recommended by the state: develop a positive self-concept, identify emotions, understand rules, and develop positive interpersonal relationships.
SEL programming takes place during a morning consultation period for middle schoolers and during the community block for high schoolers, as teachers introduce increasingly sophisticated concepts.
Much of the scrutiny related to SEL, in West Hartford and elsewhere, concerns what elementary school students learn about gender and sexuality.
The district was the subject of a National Review article last November that amplified the availability of books with transgender characters for elementary school students. School officials said they received dozens of death threats afterward.
But lessons about human sexuality are not part of social-emotional learning, said Paul Vicinus, assistant superintendent of curriculum, assessment and instruction at West Hartford Public Schools.
There are books with transgender characters, just as there are books about families with different structures. Students have one gender identity lesson per year, which can include lessons demystifying gender stereotypes and how to respect the identity of others.
“There is a lot of misunderstanding that we provide dramatic depths of teaching about, [for example], this is what a divorce is – no,” Vicinus said. “We just try to provide examples in the literature in the stories we read, so it’s not the first time a child has heard of these differences.”
“We’re not trying to usurp family values, we want those conversations to start at home,” he said. “We’re just trying to teach students to have a positive self-image so that if their experience is a minority or diverse thing, they don’t feel less than that,” he said.
Not all parents in the neighborhood are sold, but discussions are underway. Roszena Haskins, director of equity and advancement for West Hartford Schools, says the district does not “debate or refute a family’s personal perspective.”
“Our values are that every student should feel welcome, safe and accepted within our school community,” Haskins said.
The concepts behind social-emotional learning are crucial, especially for young students, says Michelle Doucette Cunningham, executive director of the Connecticut After School Network and member of the Willington School Board.
Similarly, learning is damaged when students are hungry, “Your brain can’t process and store memories, can’t learn, if it’s dealing with emotional issues,” Doucette Cunningham said.
This could include a student who lacks the skills to express or regulate their feelings, or a student who endured negative childhood experiences.
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But intolerant learning environments disproportionately affect LGBTQ youth, who experience verbal and physical bullying at school and face higher risks of suicide and self-harm.
Mental health experts agree that the pandemic has worsened young people’s mental health, which was deemed a crisis in December by the US Surgeon General.
Nearly 20% of high school students said they had considered suicide and 9% said they had attempted it, according to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The numbers were worse among girls and LGBTQ youth.
Schools are now looking to learning loss, but also to the mental health checkup.
In the wake of the pandemic, school districts are taking an interest in SEL programs. Tyton Partners, an education consultancy, found that national spending on SEL programs increased by around 45% between November 2019 and April 2021, while student wellbeing became a top priority.
“If we want to prepare children to work together in a diverse world…we need to develop skills for them that deal with empathy and understanding people who are different from them,” Doucette Cunningham said.
Seamus McAvoy can be reached at [email protected]