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Nancy Bailey's Education Website: Social-Emotional Learning’s Transformation of Schools is Worrisome

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) is being pushed into public schools. It could mean many things, restorative justice, meditation, anti-bullying programs, and much more.

But SEL is not just an add-on program. It’s whole-school systematic change from teaching academics to focusing on students and personality formation.

Books and online programs galore are being written about SEL and school transformation. It’s creating a school climate where students have their behavior scrutinized like never before. That’s what worries parents.

Organizing a school around social-emotional learning raises questions about the meaning of education, teaching and learning.

Here are concerns:

  1. Partners who support SEL. Many of these groups also want to privatize public education: Chiefs for Change, Bose Washington Partners, Center for Innovation in Education, Council of Chief State School Officers, Civic Enterprises, Education Counsel, Learning Policy Institute, National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, National Association of State Boards of Education, Pure Edge, Inc., Raikes Foundation, and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. 
  2. Character education on steroids. Character education has always been controversial because it leans politically right or left, always leaving some parents unsatisfied. Most agree that students should be respectful, kind, and demonstrate good citizenship.
  3. Ignores what public schools need. There’s no mention of lowering class sizes and adding play and recess. More counselors and school nurses would be nice. How about a curriculum with subject variety including the arts? Here’s Allstate, as an example, pouring $45 million into SEL. What if they addressed crumbling infrastructure, lacking resources, spoke out against high-stakes testing, fully funding special education?
  4. For-profit companies. SEL caters to private companies that promote unproven SEL programs which can be costly for a school district.
  5. Big business and SEL goals. Could SEL be training children to be future obedient workers? The same message about fixing the economy is involved with the SEL conversation.
  6. Assumes children need fixing. Most children come to school willing, if not eager, to learn. We have always argued that poor children need what wealthy schools have in order to learn best.
  7. Standards. How do we adequately measure behavior? Whose standards are the right standards? Words like “aligning” behavior to standards sounds creepy.
  8. Academics. SEL instruction takes time. While supporters say it increases test scores, less time is spent on teaching subject matter. Will students learn what they need to know for college and careers?
  9. SEL assessment. Fears of student privacy violations surrounding online collection of SEL behavioral data are widespread. How will this information be used? Will it follow students? Why is so much data necessary?
  10. College and career goals? Here’s Aperture Education to teach teamwork, decision-making, goal setting, and other work-related skills. Don’t students learn these skills in academic classes? Aperture’s assessment. 
  11. Lots of Mindset talk. Parents hope for confident children who care about learning, but a 2018 study found that teaching children they can improve their intelligence if they work hard doesn’t usually work. Think of the frustration this might cause.
  12. Personalized learning emphasis. SEL emphasizes teaching self-regulation. This will lead to all-tech, all the time, without teachers, or schools. (HERE’s an example).
  13. Student introspection. Should children think so deeply about their behavior? Some thoughtfulness is warranted, but too much seems almost cult-like.
  14. SEL is expensive. According to a 2017 working paper, “The Scale of Our Investment in Social-Emotional Learning” the U.S. spends approximately $21-47 billion per year on SEL programs. School districts spend about $640 million per year on SEL products. *See list below.
  15. No research. For all the time and money there’s little research to indicate that teaching SEL works. Here emotional intelligence is challenged.  
  16. Association with Common Core. Many parents dislike Common Core State Standards and see SEL as its non-academic component.
  17. Schools or mental health centers. SEL is not supposed to fix mental health problems in children, but it might be seen as a substitute instead of getting children the real help they needTeachers and staff are not trained psychologists or social workers. Nor do all students require mental health services.
  18. Emotional/behavioral difficulties. Teachers need to identify the emotional/behavioral difficulties students might be experiencing and be able to refer students to the mental health professionals who help. Smaller class sizes would help teachers better know their students and their students’ families.

Feel free to add your concerns about social-emotional learning. If your school uses a program you like, or dislike, that is not mentioned here, feel free to discuss it.

Here are commercial programs for SEL from The Wallace Foundation. Click on each for information. These might have something positive to add to the curriculum, but others duplicate school programs that should already exist. Like Playworks which replaces real recess but is like P.E. It isn’t necessary. MindUp is from actress Goldie Hawn. SEL opens the door to for-profit companies and school privatization.

The 4Rs Program

Caring School Community

Character First

Competent Kids, Caring Community

I Can Problem Solve

Lions Quest


The Mutt-I-grees Curriculum

Open Circle

The PATH’S Program

Positive Action


Second Step


Social Decision Making/Problem Solving Program

Too Good for Violence

We Have Skills

Wise Skills

In School

Conscious Discipline

Good Behavior Game


Responsive Classroom

Before Bullying A.F.T.E.R. School Program

Girls on the Run

WINGS for Kid

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Nancy Bailey

Nancy Bailey was a teacher in the area of special education for many years, and has a PhD in educational leadership from Florida State University. She has authore...