I Founded an SEL Company. Here’s Where SEL Is Falling Short

Contributing Writer
EdWeek Market Brief: I founded an SEL Company. Here's What's Wrong With SEL

One of the silver linings of remote learning has been closer relationships between schools and families. Engaged families can improve learning outcomes for their own students while also benefiting the entire school community by supporting extracurriculars, one another, and what’s happening in the classroom throughout the school day. But as we start the 2021-22 school year, educators are facing an unexpected challenge of engaged families: concerned parents.

We started the year with concerned parents attending school board meetings to express their opinions about COVID safety protocols and “critical race theory.” Local news stories detailed shouting matches, and reports of threats that escalated until the Justice Department stepped in, though there is still speculation over just how dangerous the conflict between schools and families really is.

Now, parent concern is shifting to include more rigorous reviews of the curriculum their students are using – with a focus on social-emotional learning curricula. Parents are taking a critical look for hidden agendas of “critical race theory” or “LGBTQIA indoctrination” in the various programs their students are using. For example, Utah Parents Unified recently released a video detailing their investigation into an 8th-grade curriculum.

I’ve had a controversial perspective on social-emotional learning for a long time, but as a founder and CEO of the leading provider of multimedia SEL experiences for pre-K-12 schools, my viewpoint on this growing field in education has remained pretty private. However, given the recent outcry from parents who are concerned about the curriculum they are finding in their schools, I think it’s time to share my two cents:

I do not like the phrase “social-emotional learning.” The phrase is nebulous and unclear in conveying what students are actually learning. What does SEL even mean? I’m not surprised that parents are confused and upset.

Both school districts and subject matter experts need to work together to give families a much clearer definition of what SEL is, and what it is not. This proactively addresses any confusion and lays out the science behind this work. Making this effort has an enormous upside: It will help parents become much stronger advocates for SEL in their homes and school districts.

What Families Need to Know: What Is SEL, Really?

Mental, social and emotional growth are natural parts of child development. Social-emotional skills are developed when children are playing on the playground, taking turns, waiting in the lunch line, participating in team sports, or working with their peers on a project. These skills are developed naturally and inherently in childhood, but in order to have sequenced, active, focused, explicit instruction in skills like self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making,  schools have been turning toward this kind of curricular support over the past 20 years.

As a broad term, SEL is not meant to tell students how or what to think, but rather to help them identify how and what they feel and how to harness those feelings for stronger relationships and to meet and exceed their goals.

In recent decades, neuroscience has proven incredible insights about how environmental factors affect cognitive development. We now know actions and experiences like trauma and grief have a devastating impact on brain development. We also know the conditions that help the brain thrive – like safety and a sense of belonging. This sounds like a simple concept, but it’s a profound shift in our understanding of the brain. Across all socioeconomic backgrounds, not all homes benefit from the same support system, but schools are places where we can ensure a consistent, safe, secure place where all students can learn and flourish – academically, socially, and emotionally.

Generally, when educators talk about “social-emotional learning,” they’re talking about evidence-based practices and experiences that promote healthy mental, social, and emotional development and well-being; experiences like forming friendships, setting goals, and expressing how we feel. It’s the practice of identifying, expressing, and managing emotions in healthy ways that schools should be prioritizing, not necessarily content. Just like academic learning, where students practice writing sentences and paragraphs in class before they’d be expected to write a novel, schools are meant to help students practice conflict resolution skills or problem-solving skills or leadership skills before students have to independently put these same skills into practice in the real world context and challenges of their lives.

Opening Up the Learning Process

While educators need to be sensitive to the concerns of families because their participation in the school community is critical, schools should not shy away from prioritizing the practice of social and emotional skills.

The pandemic has dramatically impacted children’s mental, social, and emotional well-being, along with their academic progress. According to the 2021 C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health, 73 percent of parents reported that the pandemic had a “very or somewhat negative impact on their teen’s ability to interact with their peers,” while 46 percent of parents said “they have noticed a new or worsening mental health condition for their teen since the start of the pandemic.” Attempting to get students back on track academically without supporting their cognitive, social, and emotional development is a futile effort.

Educating families about what we’re calling SEL is one place to start, but schools should go further and bring families into the learning process. Here are some ideas to help schools address parents’ concerns:

  • “Social-emotional learning” happens everywhere, not just in a classroom or through a curriculum. Make sure parents have the background on the social-emotional development they need to support their child’s growth at home.
  • Invite parents to join your evaluation and selection committees to explore, review, and recommend new resources or curricula to promote social-emotional development.
  • Bring parents into the classroom to participate in dedicated social-emotional practice along with their students and ensure that parents have access to the curriculum at home if you’re using one.
  • Implement a common language around social-emotional skills like managing big feelings or working through conflict so that families can reinforce these skills in a context outside of school.

I hope that parents in your community will continue to engage with your schools and explore social-emotional learning, but I hope you’ll help them “look under the hood” at the curriculum your schools are using and make sure they know the core goal of your educators: providing educational experiences that help their children grow into healthy, successful, independent adults who have a sense of purpose and contribute meaningfully to the world around them. As both a parent and the founder and CEO of an SEL company, I know how important and impactful it can be when families are partners in this critical work.

Image by Getty

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