Social and emotional learning (SEL) is one of the latest fads claiming to improve education and to help ensure our children grow up healthy and well-adjusted. RTI International, a prominent research contractor in the Triangle, calls SEL the “key” to solving North Carolina’s top education issues in 2019. SEL programs are already in place in school districts like Buncombe County and Guilford County across North Carolina.
What is SEL? SEL is a gauzy concept. Simply put SEL assumes that socialization, emotional well-being and emotional literacy are some of the most important outcomes of an educational system. In doing so, schools can become hyper-focused on emotional development and the barriers that lead to healthy development. Of course some of this is not new. Schools have always been concerned with a child’s emotion well being. SEL can prompt a refocus and lead schools to place less emphasis on academics.
As you might expect, that can lead to problems.
Is social and emotional learning encouraging educators to pathologize childhood and view children as trauma victims and teachers as therapists? That’s a question Frederick Hess, Director of Education Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, pointedly asks in a recent blog post.
Hess’s post is well worth the read. He quotes generously from thoughts he received on the subject from Robert Pondiscio. Pondiscio references a book published in the U.K. titled The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education. Pondiscio believes the focus on SEL is rooted in a concept called the “diminished self,” an idea that we are all damaged vulnerable, suffering from low esteem and emotionally fragile. Pondiscio writes:
I first heard of the book from a teacher and blogger in the U.K., David Didau, who wrote that “our preoccupation with therapy . . . teaches us that we’re damaged and that we need professional help to undo this damage. It leads us to label certain families—particularly working-class families—as unable to deal with children’s emotions and invites schools to intrude ever further into children’s lives.”
A year or two after Didau wrote that blog post, I started receiving solicitations for a particular kind of professional development session I’d never heard of before, promoting “trauma-informed teaching.” Sometimes it was trauma-sensitive, or trauma-aware, or some such. In nearly every case, the same data point was cited: that half of all students in the United States have experienced serious childhood trauma. And every time the same question was raised: “How can we best support these students and their families?”
The source of this data point appears to be the National Survey of Children’s Health. Its 2011-2012 survey tallied nine “adverse childhood events” or ACEs, including socioeconomic hardship, divorce or parental separation, living with someone who has an alcohol or drug problem, being the victim of or witness to neighborhood violence, having a parent in jail, or being treated or judged unfairly due to race/ethnicity. According to the Survey, nearly half (47.9 percent) of U.S. children ages 0-17 have experienced one or more ACEs. When it’s two or more, it drops to 22 percent.
I don’t want to minimize the seriousness of any of these incidents, but surely the death of a parent is not the same as a divorce, for example. And using the word “trauma” to apply to a range of events, from the unfortunate to devastating, and putting the worst possible statistical gloss on it—half of all children have been traumatized—says something, I think, about the current moment and mindset in education. I don’t want to overstate it, but I am concerned that we are at least somewhat at risk of pathologizing childhood, and encouraging a therapeutic view of classroom teaching, one that is creeping closer to a branch of social work.
Neither do I want to sound jaded, but to those of us who spent a lot of time as classroom teachers, SEL doesn’t feel particularly new or revelatory. When I began teaching in 2002, we were focused on “teaching the whole child,” for example. And while it’s good to hear the Aspen Institute in particular is taking care to call it SEAD (Social, Emotional and Academic Development), it’s the mindset more than any implementation challenges that concern me. If you view half your class—and in impoverished areas the vast majority of your class—as trauma victims, as struggling or vulnerable, it’s almost inevitable that low or reduced expectations will take root. It would be surprising, even hard-hearted, if they did not.
I just finished writing a book about the Success Academy in New York City, which will be published later this year. I’m not Eva Moskowitz’s cheerleader, but once I was in the room when she was pressed about some of these issues by a potential board member. She responded in a way that struck me, expressing fewer concerns about the effects of race and poverty than that her teachers might apply a different set of standards to kids because they might be poor. “There are a lot of sensibilities around the fragileness of children,” Moskowitz said. “And I think to myself, ‘You’re a white girl from Long Island, you’re the fragile one. The kids have actually been through a lot. Don’t impose your issues on the kids.’”
I’ll leave it there and merely ask: Are we imposing our issues on the kids?
SEL is being adopted in school systems across the country, yet parents and policymakers know little about what’s behind SEL and its impacts. Parents may want to start with a recent Pioneer Institute Report, Social-Emotional Learning:K-12 Education as New-Age Nanny State.