Why We Need to Have More Critical Conversations About Social and Emotional Learning

Jean J. Sanders

Social and emotional learning (SEL) has picked up steam in the past few decades. Recent surveys show widespread support of SEL skills from parents, teachers and school administrators, and more curricular programs are being used in districts across the U.S. At the same time, a small but adamant group of voices—typically led by politically conservative community groups—have placed SEL under attack, turning it into a controversial concept. While some SEL advocates are quick to refute these criticisms by explaining that SEL is not, in fact, associated with a political agenda, others argue that SEL cannot and should not be separated from systemic issues deemed political.

Without acknowledging the reality of systemic racism, for instance, some educators argue that SEL can perpetuate a mentality in which social injustices will presumably be solved only if we can “fix” the flawed social and emotional identities of marginalized students. “Without also changing the teaching behaviors, curricula, and school policies that can be assaultive to our students, particularly students of color, incorporating social-emotional learning into teaching will not be enough,” writes Dena Simmons, a previous educator and the founder of LiberatED, a collective that develops school-based resources to address SEL alongside racial justice. Cierra Kaler-Jones, a social justice educator and researcher, agrees, writing that “SEL devoid of culturally-affirming practices is not SEL at all.”

We need to have more critical conversations about SEL. The question is: How can we widen the spectrum of ways it can be critiqued?

As a qualitative researcher and teacher educator in the educational psychology program at Washington State University, I’ve been following the debate and exploring this question of how to broaden critical conversations. To understand this more deeply, I teamed up with a colleague to interview two academic scholars who have been examining SEL through a critical lens via school-based observations and close analysis of literature and curriculum.

Clio Stearns, a researcher, author and assistant professor of education at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, who is in multiple classrooms a week working with and observing pre-service teachers, has been asking interesting questions about how SEL is helpful and how it can be inadvertently harmful. Kathleen Hulton, a lecturer in the Sociology department at the University of Massachusetts, brings valuable historical perspectives about the links between emotion and social control.

In our conversation with Stearns and Hulton, the researchers illuminate how it is possible to be deeply committed to fostering students’ (and teachers’) social and emotional humanity and to question particular elements of SEL itself. The interview transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Emma McMain: What led you to research SEL?

Kathleen Hulton: I came to SEL through the lens of having always been really interested sociologically in emotion. One of the first sociology books I ever read was “The Managed Heart,” by Arlie Hochschild. It blew my mind, the idea that corporations or capitalism had an interest in controlling people’s emotions in the service of profit. My kids, at the time, were really small—this was over ten years ago. I started getting this idea that they were learning about their feelings in school, which didn’t happen to me when I was a kid. And it just was kind of the combining of two worlds.

Clio Stearns: The first part of my career was as an elementary school teacher. I got sent to a Responsive Classroom training—my school was a public school in Manhattan and was pouring a ton of money into getting all of us trained. I just remember sitting there through a week of training over the summer and listening to some of the scripted recommendations that they were making. And I felt really offended as a teacher, and affronted by the ways that my interactions with children were … the scripts that were being suggested.

Both of you have brought up points of conflict with SEL. What are your primary concerns?

Stearns: I have several concerns about SEL. I think by and large, it puts the locus of control over reactions to circumstance in the hands and minds of individual children, rather than addressing underlying social injustices. So, for example, one of the stories from my research had to do with a teacher teaching a Second Step lesson … about what you do when you feel sad, and it’s a scripted program. The upshot was, “When we feel sad, there are things we can do about it, like we can take deep breaths. We can focus on talking to somebody that we care about”—things like this. She asked the kids in the class for an example of a time that they felt sad. And one kid raised his hand and said, “Well, I felt really sad last night because my blanket had holes in it and the heat was broken in my house and I was really cold. I was so cold that I was shivering, and I felt really sad.”

And the teacher, who I think was a very compassionate person, but obscured by the curriculum because she had to follow it with fidelity, said something like, “Right. So José felt sad last night. And so what can we do when we feel sad like that? We can breathe in and out,” you know. And I was stunned by the image of this child. He was from an undocumented immigrant family right at the crux of some of Trump’s most vitriolic discourse around immigration. His family had no access to almost any services. It was freezing in Massachusetts that winter and he was sleeping under a blanket with holes in it. And the curriculum was telling him, “This is your problem. The fact that you’re sad … breathe in and out, use your strategies.”

I’m in probably a dozen elementary schools a week, and none of them has social studies in the curriculum at all. Science a little bit. But basically the days are math, reading and SEL. It’s really easy to slip it into equity discourse: you know, “we have to spend this many hours a week on math instruction or else we’re serving inequity,” right? … Schools always, always in the United States have had a mandate to fill that’s unrealistic given the social structures that they exist within, and the amount of time that they have with children. By and large, early childhood and elementary school settings have certainly prioritized SEL over history education, or over any sort of political or democratic education or involvement. That stuff is barely talked about until middle school.

Hulton: I absolutely agree with what Clio was saying, especially there being this huge disconnect for many children, in terms of what their actual emotional reality is and then the somewhat canned responses [from teachers following curricula]. What is actually safe and ok to talk about at school? I also have spent a lot of time with these curricula, and so many of the examples [featured in lessons] are the examples of middle-class white kids. You know, “someone has my pencil and I want it.” I’m not saying those are not important experiences that children do need to go through and figure out how to manage. But I’ve also read lots of [examples in educational research] of children being told, “Oh, actually don’t talk about that, don’t talk about that huge, horrible thing.” That is problematic. I think SEL is also so simplistic in the way that it assumes a sort of sameness. Human interaction is one of the most complicated things in the world! It has so much shaping by cultural difference.

What is it that makes SEL so appealing to so many people?

Stearns: A big part of it is an ongoing and increasing concern with children’s behavior, which partly has to do with an uptick in academic standardization over the last couple of decades in the U.S. When we ask more of kids, we’re stressing them out. And we’re asking a lot more of them academically—and a lot younger. Often, children have no recourse but to communicate via their behavior, and that in turn stresses teachers out, and teachers start looking for ways to manage behavior. But it’s not very kosher to say, “We just want to get kids to behave.” So instead, we dupe ourselves—I mean, I’m guilty of this as well. We dupe ourselves into thinking we’re helping them emotionally, when I think SEL is just really a way of teaching compliance without calling it that.

Hulton: I would echo what Clio said, and then also add a larger context in terms of wanting to get compliance without calling it compliance. Lots of things that used to be ok in terms of appropriate ways for adults to try to manage children’s behavior aren’t ok anymore. So as the kinds of tools that are available to adults for managing children’s behaviors have changed, they need something—we need something at the end of the day to make children conform to these larger things that we’re asking of them. Our ideas of what children are and what they should be capable of have also changed. We’re asking children to do some pretty adult kinds of skills.

There’s a massive push to present SEL as something that’s apolitical, universally good, progressive and forward-thinking. And then there’s this surge of attack and critique, often by conservative community groups, that are calling it “liberal indoctrination.” Where do you situate yourselves in that constellation of critique?

Hulton: No matter what the debate is about, I think I’m really used to finding myself just not well captured by the sides. Is SEL just some sort of innocent, progressive thing to be celebrated? No, I don’t believe it is. Is it some kind of sinister way to hide over some hidden agenda that the left agrees on? No, it isn’t. I don’t find either of those ways of thinking about SEL particularly true or helpful. Neither of them well capture either the promises and pleasures of SEL or the dangers of it. Neither are captured by that framing.

Stearns: Anything we do in schools is going to be inherently political because schools are a political phenomenon. They’ve never not been. And if anything, the push to see them as anything other than that is one of the most frightening re-writings of American educational history that I’ve ever seen. I think the word “indoctrination” is a really complicated word, because nobody can fully define the difference between indoctrination and education in a generally agreed-upon way. So I do sometimes think there are ways of doing SEL that can be frightening and destructive in a way that does feel very much like a problematic iteration of indoctrination to me. But the idea that it’s somehow leftist indoctrination feels, kind of like Kathleen said, out of thin air. If we’re going to celebrate SEL as a progressive turn in education, then we have to look really closely at what it is. I’ve spent a lot of time studying a range of the most popular SEL curricula, seeing what happens in schools where those curricula are used, and I’ve never seen it do anything other than teach kids that their ways of being in the world inherently are a little bit flawed. I can’t really see that as a progressive turn.

Is SEL worth embracing in our current moment? Even in the midst of efforts to make SEL more culturally responsive and community-led, do some of these concerns remain?

Stearns: I definitely would never say schools and teachers shouldn’t reckon with the emotional lives of children or teachers. I just really think SEL is a misguided way of doing it. I find that it basically drives a bigger wedge between children and teachers. It’s like one more curriculum to get through. I think it’s true that this sort of desperation for relationality and emotional integrity in the classroom is very much there, and yet … there’s a whole host of problems around that. What if teachers had to do a little bit more internal work in thinking about how they want to talk about feelings—their own feelings and kids’ feelings? To me, that’s almost definitely going to be better than having a predetermined set of language and skills.

Hulton: I want to critique these darker sides of SEL, but at the same time, I don’t necessarily think it needs to be trashed. It still shines a light on what a lot of people are missing about childhood, about schools right now. What people seem to be saying they want is more connection and more time to relate to children and for children to relate to one another, and they want ways to deal with the huge feelings that are coming into classrooms. … I like a lot of the tools [in SEL], but I wish they could be presented with more context about inequality.

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