With the current controversy about what is taught in schools and how, it is imperative that we remember why a system of public education was established in the first place: to create an educated populace capable of participating effectively in society.
Indeed, the founding framers believed American democracy depended on the competency of its citizens. The competencies they envisioned went beyond literacy and numeracy. They included the abilities to contribute positively and collaborate with others for the betterment of our society. That mandate instructs us to prioritize the development of whole, healthy students, capable of thriving in an incredibly complex world.
Yet, the state of the American child tells us we must be much more intentional about living up to that long-standing charge to foster well-being in our learning environments. Given the impact of the pandemic, schools, understandably, are intensely focused on mitigating the impact of unfinished learning. But by overemphasizing academic catch-up, we’re failing to meet the significant social and emotional needs of students. This is not a criticism of educators or schools, but rather an observation that the wrong drivers continue to propel the system, even as millions of children are experiencing a mental health crisis. While the pandemic has impacted all students, we must note that it exacerbated existing racial inequalities in student achievement and increased other disparities. Children of color are, for example, more likely than their white counterparts to have experienced the death of a loved one during the pandemic and suffer from mental health challenges.
These experiences require a school culture that prioritizes social and emotional support. Children—and adults—learn best when they feel seen and safe through caring relationships in environments that are responsive to their needs. If we want our education system to foster the development of effective citizens, we must begin by seeing our students as whole human beings whose social and emotional capacities and well-being must be intentionally nurtured. Social and emotional learning (SEL) offers a powerful means to create these environments. Schoolwide SEL equips students with the capacities to fully engage in learning by creating supportive, fair classrooms where the core competencies of self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, relationships skills, and responsible decision-making are fostered.
SEL is an assets-based, system-wide framework for success in school and life, not a mental illness intervention. However, a schoolwide approach to SEL helps to create supportive environment in which all children feel a sense of belonging, building knowledge and skills that contribute to a host of important outcomes, including stronger emotional assets, such as managing stress and depression. As a universal intervention for all students, SEL equips children with strategies that may possibly lessen the need for more intensive support from already overwhelmed mental health clinicians and school staff. Unsurprisingly, evidence-based SEL also leads to better academic outcomes, so this two-for-one approach should be a shoo-in for support across the political spectrum.
However, as is true for anything perceived as a “liberal” idea these days (see, for example, acknowledging that LGBTQ people exist or the 2021 manufactured culture war flashpoint CRT), disinformation abounds. Given the stark realities of our time, it is particularly harmful to misconstrue (willfully or otherwise) SEL as anything but a commonsense approach to supporting the overall health of our schools and well-being of children and families.
This is particularly true now, as many continue to experience housing, food, and income insecurity as a result of the ongoing pandemic and, for some, trauma associated with societal injustice. Contrary to accusations that SEL “indoctrinates” students, SEL involves partnering with families and community, creating coherence across school, home, and other learning environments. Notably, best practices call for schools to learn culturally responsive and/or context-appropriate SEL strategies from families and communities and to utilize those same approaches in classrooms. What might be possible if SEL could be used as a bridge to begin to mend the “us vs. them” mentality present in some schools and communities, allowing us to leverage the knowledge and wisdom of educators and families in service of our children?
SEL may also help us address another notable challenge facing our education system: teacher attrition. Recent reporting by the Wall Street Journal concludes that “the teaching profession experienced a 3% drop between March 2020 and May 2022” and “55% of teachers say they will leave education sooner than planned.” What might happen if education leaders more intentionally focused on teacher social and emotional well-being using the core SEL competency of social awareness, and really listened to teacher’s needs, instead of sending more emails encouraging self-care and supplying breakroom treats (as well intentioned as those kinds of support are)?
For that matter, what if politicians did the same and listened to their educator constituencies?
In the midst of this crisis, how can we contribute to meaningful change? Here is some concrete advice for stakeholders not working directly in schools:
- State and local elected officials, including school board members:
- Ignore manufactured controversy around SEL. The healthy development of the children you’ve sworn to serve must not be politicized, and ensuring high-quality, evidence-based SEL is implemented well in your district or state will only help you reach your goals for students.
- Parents and caregivers:
- Ask what SEL practices and tools your children’s school is using. Ensure your school leaders know SEL is a priority for you and your family, and—as important as academic attainment may be—the well-being of your child is the foundation of their school and life success.
- Ask if all adults who interact with your children at school have received quality professional development in SEL. Some school districts train their school resource officers and other staff, such as sports coaches, underscoring the importance of ensuring all adults are equipped with effective practices when working with children and youth.
- Other community members and local businesses:
- Partner with your local school and support its efforts around SEL in whatever ways you can. Be it through mentoring or reading to children as volunteers, students need developmental relationships with trusted, caring adults to thrive.
- Among organizations or social circles you’re a part of, elevate the societal benefits of fostering a generation educated to manage their emotions, think critically, and act responsibly with the success of all members of their community in mind.
Parents, caregivers, educators, community members, and elected officials across the political spectrum must become champions for social and emotional learning (SEL) and its implementation in our schools, rejecting rhetoric that promotes misinformation and misunderstanding about this essential domain. As the proverb goes, it takes a village to raise a child, and we must be accountable to our society’s children. They desperately need us to stop wasting time being distracted by bad faith actors and their efforts to divide us and come together to take action to ensure their well-being.
The views in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CASEL.
Stacey Hartley is a school board member in Huron, Ohio and works for a public university supporting higher education students who are parents. Pamela McVeagh-Lally is co-founder of SEL Consulting Collaborative and Social and Emotional Learning Alliance for Ohio. Both Stacey and Pamela are parents to school-aged children.