Between 2021 and early 2023, at least 25 states saw bills introduced into their legislatures to remove social and emotional learning (SEL) from public school curricula. While most failed, the bills rely on talking points developed by right-wing SEL opponents who liken lessons meant to increase students’ emotional intelligence — teaching them skills like empathy, collaborative problem-solving and emotional self-regulation — to a Trojan Horse for left-wing ideologies of race, gender and sexuality.
Right-wing media continually amplify these tropes, and candidates and legislators eager to woo a pro-Trump base repeat their assertions as often as they can, promising their followers that they will not give up until SEL is forever destroyed.
Jennifer McWilliams, a former Indiana elementary school teacher who now works as an educational consultant, for example, told a Parents Defending Education webinar aimed at conservatives that “I like to tell people that critical race theory is the ideology, but social emotional learning is the delivery system of that ideology into our education system.”
McWilliams is not the only right-winger to conflate critical race theory (CRT) and SEL, but conservatives also have a raft of other arguments that they vent to supporters and those they are attempting to win over. Along with other members of Parents Defending Education and groups like Moms for Liberty, the conservative Manhattan Institute and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the right has grabbed on to numerous platforms to denounce anything and everything that they connect to SEL.
Max Eden, a research fellow at AEI and an education policy expert at the Manhattan Institute, for one, told congressional lawmakers that SEL has become a way to displace content instruction, burden teachers and turn educators into unlicensed therapists. Similarly, AEI staffer Robert Pondiscio has questioned whether SEL is “too personal, too intrusive, and too sensitive to be a legitimate function of public school and thus the state.” Meanwhile, Carol Swain, a senior fellow at the ultraconservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, calls SEL “emotional manipulation” and argues that it is responsible for a spate of adolescent suicides throughout the U.S.
These ludicrous assertions have gained traction, and as of late 2023, eight states (including Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Montana, Oklahoma and North Dakota) were considering bills to limit or ban SEL. Among the efforts is S.1442, a pending bill introduced by Oklahoma Republican State Senator Shane Jett in 2022 to prohibit the use of federal, state or private funds to promote, purchase or utilize social-emotional learning concepts in public or charter schools in the state.
As Sen. Jett sees it, “SEL seeks to find traumas in our children as a pretext to push anti-family, anti-logic, and anti-reason philosophies and leftist political ideologies.”
Social and Emotional Learning
According to the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), the main proponent of SEL in the U.S., social and emotional learning aims to teach children five competencies: self-management, social awareness, self-awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. The goal is to boost academic performance, foster healthy peer relationships and maintain mental wellness by helping kids stay motivated, communicate clearly and effectively, work independently and collaboratively, develop empathy, and identify emotions in themselves and others.
Justina Schlund, vice president of communications at CASEL, calls these “life skills.” “The premise is that every child learns more effectively if they feel a sense of belonging, feel valued and are heard,” she told Truthout. “Children need healthy relationships with their peers and with adults. Given the diversity of the U.S. student population — diversity that extends to culture, income, race, gender, religion, and whether they live in an urban, rural or suburban area — it is imperative for kids to learn how to build relationships with people of all backgrounds. SEL is about helping kids understand their own strengths and needs and know who they are. It’s also about nurturing their curiosity and openness to others.”
Social and emotional learning is not formulaic, Schlund adds, and course content is varied based on the age of the group and other defining variables, something that has made it immensely popular with caregivers, teachers, psychologists and child care workers.
In fact, dozens of organizations have joined CASEL’s Leading with SEL coalition. The American Psychological Association, the School Social Work Association of America, the National Parent Teacher Association and the School Superintendents Association are all helping promote, defend and expand the program.
For many coalition members, support for SEL is nothing new, since the ideology that undergirds it has been around for more than three decades and is present in at least some schools in all 50 states. Nonetheless, their efforts accelerated after schools reopened following the 2020 COVID-19 school shutdowns. Their motivation? An upsurge in right-wing anti-SEL organizing.
Many educators attribute this upsurge to backlash over Joe Biden’s presidential win — and Kamala Harris’s becoming the first vice president of color.
Emergence of a Multiracial, Multigenerational Movement
After the police-perpetrated murder of George Floyd, right-wing groups like Moms for Liberty and Parents Defending Education feared the emergence of a multigenerational and multiracial movement for racial justice, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten told Truthout. “They saw thousands of white people coming to terms with racism and expressing empathy with people of color,” she said. “The fact that these groups decided to go after empathy should not be surprising. When SEL is taught to children, they’re encouraged to walk in each other’s shoes. This supports the development of understanding, social awareness and self-awareness. These are essential skills, but the right does not want this. They want us to be anxious. They want people to be afraid and distrustful of those who are not exactly like them.”
Furthermore, Weingarten says that it is not coincidental that the right has targeted the education of impressionable youth.
Rebecca S. Pringle, National Education Association (NEA) president, agrees with Weingarten but says that high-quality SEL requires more than empathy and compassion. “Families and teachers need to ask themselves what kind of world they want students to inherit,” Pringle told Truthout. “SEL used to be referred to as the teaching of soft skills. Not anymore. Schools can’t just focus on academics. The skills that SEL helps students develop are necessary for them to be job ready when they graduate. Everyone needs to be able to collaborate with others, think critically and deal with mental health challenges. SEL teaches these skills.”
What’s more, Pringle notes that while honoring differences and respecting others in an inclusive environment is key, this does not happen automatically but requires buy-in from teachers, administrators, teachers and students. “Everyone wants students to feel secure in school,” she says. The question is how best to ensure this.
“Not a single classroom can function well without good relationships between kids and teachers, kids and each other, and teachers and administrators,” Maurice J. Elias, director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab, told Truthout. “We are at a crossroads. Research consistently confirms that SEL helps move children forward, but SEL is not one program or an indoctrination in one way of thinking. It teaches and references skills to help kids get along in life. Banning SEL makes as much sense as banning the alphabet because the letters can be used to say bad or hurtful things. Thankfully, voters rejected most of those who would ban SEL in the 2023 elections. From my perspective, there are skills and there are values and good SEL does not conflate the two.”
However, some progressive educators maintain that it should.
SEL Without Sociopolitical Context Hurts BIPOC Students
A June 2023 article, “Applying Critical Race Theory to Social and Emotional Learning Programs in Schools,” argues that while SEL has been integrated into K-12 curricula in 27 states and exists in some form in every region of the country, SEL course content has not benefited every student. As the authors, psychology professor Lacey Hilliard and doctoral student Matthew Attaya, write, “SEL interventions have taken a race and culturally-neutral approach to teaching social and emotional competencies to students.” This, they explain, is well-intentioned. At the same time, “when SEL lessons are taught without acknowledging larger socio-political contexts, school communities may ignore prejudice, discrimination and racism that many students experience and that all students observe.”
As early as preschool, Hilliard told Truthout, “kids notice when people are treated differently due to religious, cultural, racial or gender markers and will come to their own conclusions about why this happens if adults do not address it with them directly.” This allows generational harm to continue.
“Education and politics are intertwined,” Attaya adds. “That’s why state and local elections are so important. I think we have an opportunity to shift the political landscape. Sure, it takes bravery for individual teachers to speak out, and they need support from school superintendents and administrators who go to bat for them. Administrators can temper the backlash by taking risks. They can support teachers who address hard topics. An administration that stands up for staff and explains the reasons that they are promoting equity to parents and community members demonstrates that they care for children. They show that they want to address mental health and affirm that all students, but particularly students of color, are given a chance to reflect on their history and experiences.”
Failure to do this, they say, is a missed opportunity since well-meaning SEL programs that teach that everyone is the same, that skin color does not matter, evade the racism at the core of U.S. society. Likewise, empathy without action does not help unhoused students, fill empty bellies or stop interpersonal violence.
“Students, especially Black, Indigenous, and other students of color, are explicitly harmed by school programming that ignores the historical and current implications of racial inequity and systemic injustice,” Hilliard and Attaya wrote. Banning or limiting SEL will not only fail to fix this, they say, but will make disparities worse.
“It’s not easy to talk about racial, ethnic or gender differences,” Hilliard said, pointing out that adults often want to avoid contentious topics. Additionally, widescale book bans and limitations on topics that can be discussed in public school classrooms have made this more fraught than it should be.
Additionally, while SEL encourages empathy, caring and kindness over substantive content, Hilliard notes that there is a price to pay when we avoid difficult conversations.
Critique aside, both Hilliard and Attaya believe that SEL has tremendous value. They simply want to improve it and extend its reach. “To ban SEL is to ban good teaching,” Hilliard says.
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