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Ed in the Apple: Does Social and Emotional Learning Belong in the Classroom?

Social Emotional Learning, aka the acronym SEL, has popped up on my computer screen every day since COVID.  Every provider of educational services has an SEL program, in the last few days see Apertureed here and the Wallace Foundation here.

If you’re a teacher you may have already sat through an SEL professional development session. The NYC Department of Education is fully engaged; see a section of the website entitled “Social and Emotional Learning,”

It is the firm belief of the NYCDOE that an environment cannot be supportive if it is not culturally responsive. Culturally responsive environments “affirm racial and cultural identities; develop students’ abilities to connect across lines of difference; elevate historically marginalized voices; and empower areas of social change”. To advance equity, now, and to be culturally responsive, we must ensure that we are creating supportive environments for our students, families and staff during this critical time in our nation.

A supportive environment also comprehensively supports a young person’s mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing. As school communities, we must seek to support the whole child, caring for them as people and helping them develop a strong foundation of emotional skills to cope with challenging situations, resolve conflict, and build healthy relationships.

Don’t think you’d find this statement on the Florida Department of Education site.

The NYC Department of Education urges schools to use an Interactive Toolkit to address Social and Emotional needs, Interactive Toolkit for Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS): Tools and Strategies for Applying Tiered Supports (Open external link)

We’ve skipped ahead, what is Social and Emotional Learning? A simple definition,

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the process of developing the self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life success.

While we may not have given it a name we’d be in agreement with the definition; however, definitions vary, a provider of SEL Professional Development’s definition,

To fully understand Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), it’s useful to begin with a clear definition. SEL is the vital framework through which people of all ages acquire skills in working towards their own unique goals, comprehending and managing their emotions, nurturing positive relationships, making informed choices, and feeling and exhibiting empathy. Learning SEL provides students and young people with the abilities required to succeed in life, both within their school and beyond.

According to this definition SEL is learned behaviors, behaviors acquired in an instructional setting provided through the use of instructional tools.

Max Eden, a researcher, on the conservative side of the spectrum has his doubts,

First, claims that SEL is “evidence-based” have been vastly oversold. Second, SEL has become an ideologically charged enterprise. Third, the data collection involved in SEL implementation poses major risks to the privacy of students and families. And fourth, even without the ideological turn and data privacy concerns, SEL implementation tends to resemble the practice of unlicensed therapy.

For school leaders and teachers, yet another burdensome activity.

Has SEL reduced violence, suicide, depression, any of the angst of teenagers? Are today’s students better adjusted than prior generations? Does SEL reduce stress? Is SEL usurping the role of parents?The evidence is scant.

As a school assignment my grand daughter asked if I was ever bullied, told her I’d have to think about it.

Life was different; when I got home from school I changed clothes and joined my friends: box ball, stoop ball, stick ball, two-hand touch football, and basketball in the school yard. We “chose up sides,” the two best players would choose who picked first, “Odds or evens?” and the leaders would choose by perceived ability. The smallest or slowest or least athletic were picked last.  Did it scar their adult psyche? Did it impact adult behaviors? An interesting topic for exploration.

There were no helicopter parents, no adults at all, dispute resolution easy (“odds or evens?”) and trash talk was commonplace. It was misogynistic and homophobic and undoubtedly hurtful to the closeted LBGTQ kids among us. Interestingly I don’t remember racist trash talk.

We drifted apart; we went to different high schools, some on to college, and others on to work. My neighborhood was Jewish and Italian, we all understood the “unwritten rules,” never disrespect someone’s sister, respect your elders, SEL grew out of our neighborhood cultures. 

Kids still play schoolyard basketball (ever watch at the West 4th Street courts?), trash talk is an art, girls have moved from double Dutch to soccer and volleyball and basketball.

In many ways a different world, in others not so different; trash talk is no longer a boys’ only quality.

I’ve sifted through scores of articles as well as online packages of SEL materials, I recommend Peter Greene in Forbes here.

Teachers are overloaded, teaching content, monitoring attendance, reams of paperwork, test preparation, professional development not chosen by the teacher, and with SEL: therapist. Potential candidates are choosing other professions and current teachers leaving well before retirement. Does imposing SEL improve teaching and learning? Why not a revolutionary step: ask teachers.

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Peter Goodman

Peter Goodman is a career NYC high school teacher, education consultant, and district representative for the United Federation of Teachers. ...