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Social-emotional learning: just another fad?

Updated: May 9, 2023

Does it really make kids more resilient?

Every decade brings a new trend that grips the American edu-political zeitgeist. The 2000s were all about No Child Left Behind, while in the 2010s we heaped scorn or adoration on Common Core. This decade's term: Social Emotional Learning (SEL)- and it is no less divisive. SEL is meant to help students develop healthy identities, manage their emotions, develop empathy, establish positive relationships, and make thoughtful decisions. Sounds good so far!

SEL has been around since the 1990s, and the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) provides free training, guidance, and advice for choosing and implementing SEL curriculum - of which there are many. Proponents believe that decades of empirical research support its use to:

  • reduce anxiety and anti-social behavior

  • improve both academic performance

  • improve school climate.

Detractors say that if you look at broader society, the $1 billion invested into SEL has not achieved its objectives. In fact, CASEL was once politically neutral, but then 2020 happened. Last year, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) published an online piece that claimed the once non-partisan CASEL began including destructive Marcusian ideas and training that undermined the very system it stated it was trying to uphold. CASEL denies this. Detractors also point to CASEL's recent misleading headline in which they site a meta-analyses only as proof that it works.

In addition to this, many schools administer online SEL surveys produced by Panorama (*important*) on school children to understand their home lives, their fears, thoughts, and why they feel the way they do about family, school, and relationships. This data is then stored on servers and used to help administrators make decisions on creating better learning environments.

Middle ground

SEL programs have received disdain and plaudits from families and those who align with the major political parties, so there may be good middle ground to build on. Even the former and oft-vilified-by-the-left Secretary of Education (Betsy DeVos) touted its importance. Ultimately, it is up to schools and educators to carefully evaluate and choose the SEL curriculum that best aligns with family and the community's goals.

Not all SEL or character-education curriculums are politically charged or have political agendas. When families are placed at the center of an SEL or character education program, it can have life-changing effects. Whatever your view of SEL, and however inconsistent the research is behind many of the programs, with $1 billion spent in the past 3 years alone, it is likely here to stay for the remainder of the 2020s.

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