Social emotional learning was a hot topic during election season, and shows no signs of cooling off — with conservatives rallying against the long-established mental and behavioral health focused education concept, the debate has taken on a newly political and partisan tone.
The concept has been around for more than 34 years, but was popularized by a New York Times science reporter and Harvard psychologist, Daniel Goleman. Just recently, however, some on the far-right have rallied against social emotional learning, arguing it is evidence of government indoctrination in schools, the Idaho Press reports. The issue has come to a head in different parts of the country, including Idaho, and played a significant role in local school board elections.
The SEL learning approach is focused on teaching children emotional skills and has been implemented in Treasure Valley schools as part of the curriculum. It was praised by state superintendent Sherri Ybarra, a Republican who previously said education is under attack by those co-opting SEL.
Kristin Rodine, a spokesperson for the State Department of Education, said information given to Ybarra and her staff by teachers throughout the valley indicate that they strongly support a focus on students’ mental well-being. In turn, the department has received multiple messages from teachers supporting SEL in schools.
“I have seen firsthand the effects of untreated and unaddressed SEL and mental health needs in the schools where I work/have worked … Idaho’s students need help,” said a message from a teacher, which Rodine shared with the Idaho Press.
SEL was also at the forefront in local school board elections, with opposition from multiple conservative candidates.
A trio of Nampa school board candidates who all won their district on election night had campaigned on opposing critical race theory and social emotional learning, according to an Idaho Education News article.
Critical race theory, also widely opposed by Idaho conservatives, is a concept used in higher education to analyze the effects of racism within policy and law.
Jeff Kirkman, who recently won a seat representing zone 5 on the Nampa School Board, campaigned against critical race theory and SEL. While he said on his campaign website that he believes SEL is valuable and necessary to possess, he is opposed to the curriculum being taught in schools.
“I will be responsible and will teach my children to recognize and deal with emotions,” said the post on Kirkman’s website. “I will teach them positive social behaviors, but I also expect that rather than teaching an SEL curriculum, that teachers will teach children by the example they set in class.”
Kirkman did not respond to a request for comment from the Idaho Press.
The Idaho Freedom Foundation, a local far-right nonprofit group, is a leading force opposing social emotional learning in schools. In October, the group hosted a webcast warning against the perceived dangers of the learning concept. The webcast was only available to those on the IFF’s mailing list, and was sent out in an email titled, “They want to trick you. Don’t let that happen.”
Anna Miller, education policy director for the Idaho Freedom Foundation, said in the webcast that social emotional learning is a “government endorsed morality curriculum” that shifts away from a Judeo-Christian understanding about morality and objective truth. She added that she believes it’s a radical program that can be harmful to students’ health, since it’s not being administered by a medical professional.
A Report of the Surgeon General’s Conference on Children’s Mental Health states, however, that mental health promotion along with SEL delivers optimal child development and school performance. The report was released nearly 21 years ago following the conference held in Washington D.C.
“Fostering social and emotional health in children as a part of healthy child development must therefore be a national priority,” the report released by the U.S. Public Health Service states.
The Idaho Freedom Foundation and Miller did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
MENTAL HEALTH NEEDS
SEL is “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions,” according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, or CASEL.
The Chicago-based group is a lead advocate for SEL, but it is far from the only one. Others include the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, part of the Yale School of Medicine; the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development; Rutgers University’s Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab; the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders at the American Institutes for Research; Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences; the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; and more.
Justina Schlund, the senior director of content and field learning at CASEL, said SEL is an evidence-based concept that helps students pay attention to their mental health needs, which can foster academic success. Schlund said this concept is not a one-size-fits-all narrative, but is applicable across classrooms to teach students how to reflect on their ideas, build positive relationships, think about others’ perspectives that may be different than theirs, regulate their emotions and come up with solutions to work together.
Schlund also said that everyone should learn about how to better understand each other, ourselves, and peoples’ varying strengths, weaknesses, cultures and perspectives, and that SEL can help achieve that.
Schlund said it teaches reflection upon the question, “How can my students be deepening their academic learning by me paying attention to their social and emotional needs?”
CASEL’s research into SEL was conducted by professional psychologists at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Loyola University Chicago. Through years of data, which includes 213 schools and 270,034 students, researchers were able to determine SEL was beneficial for students’ mental health and development. A 2011 meta-analysis even goes as far back as 1955.
OPPOSITION FROM THE RIGHT
Conservative parents opposed to SEL continue to advocate against the approach.
Amy Pope Henry, a parent in the Nampa School District, was invited by the IFF to speak on SEL in the October webcast. She founded Nampa Parents for Freedom and Liberty, testified in favor of Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin’s indoctrination task force efforts and has been involved with conservative legislators’ efforts to influence education. Henry said at the event that she’s been filing multiple public record requests to the district to gather information on social emotional learning.
Henry also did not respond to a request for comment from the Idaho Press.
In the webcast, Henry said that data collection on student behavior within schools concerned her, because she was never informed that such data was being collected on her child. Miller echoed this sentiment in the webcast, calling data collected for SEL “intimate and personal information” that should not be shared or collected by schools.
The Nampa School District says this kind of information is collected to help improve student outcomes.
“We have collected data on student behaviors and have some really impressive data at some of the schools that have implemented strategies to help with minor and major student behaviors,” said school district Communications Director Kathleen Tuck.
Tuck also stressed that many people do not seem to understand what SEL actually is.
“One of our concerns is that folks are confused about SEL. Some assume schools are taking psychological evaluations of students and that simply does not occur. Nor has it ever occurred,” she said.
Henry also said on the webcast that the curriculum is teaching concepts like white privilege and oppression, which she classified as critical race theory — a higher-ed concept regarding racism in law that is only taught in higher education since it was made illegal in K-12 schools. According to Henry, this intertwines with SEL through CASEL’s diversity and equity mission, which she said scared her.
This diversity and equity mission is referred to as “transformative SEL,” in which it integrates issues of class, race and culture. It teaches students to make connections to others’ lived experiences that differ from their own, according to CASEL’s website.
According to Miller, transformative SEL trains students to be “social justice activists.”
“The liberal agenda is pushing for this,” Henry said, adding that SEL has a racially-charged narrative.
Henry encouraged other parents to flood schools with public record requests, something she said she’s been doing fairly often to keep tabs on the district where she learned of SEL within the curriculum, and she gave instructions for parents on how to do it. Henry said she has a whole group that works together to file these requests.
Lance Clow, the Idaho House Education chairman, said that he can understand the concerns on both sides, since, in his opinion, SEL can mean different things to different people.
Clow said that in 2020 there was a line in the education budget that referred to social emotional learning, and it attracted a lot of attention. Clow said he doesn’t think it’s a radical concept, but understands why some have certain fears and concerns regarding it.
“It became a buzzword,” he said. “I’ve heard it’s teaching behavior that parents should only teach. But on the other side of the coin, I see there are emotional issues children face that teachers need to be prepared on how to handle.”
A local group comprising parents and teachers called Nampa Parents for Truth has voiced its praise of SEL. A spokeswoman for the group electing to stay anonymous due to being a district parent, said to The Idaho Press in a phone interview that its members have looked at the data on SEL, and find it to be positive. She said that where parents cannot always step in to teach positive life skills, SEL at school fills in that gap.
The spokeswoman gave an example of her daughter, who was in elementary school at the time, and was able to use resources given by her teacher to manage her anxiety, move to a calmer state, and then quickly return to the lesson at hand through the use of SEL.
“SEL contributes in a positive way,” she said. “Any pushback you’re seeing is fear-mongering. It’s adding to the mental health stigma that has negative consequences in our kids.”
A survey conducted by the Nampa School District, which included responses from both parents and students, showed that 53.93% of the 2,535 people who responded strongly supported social emotional learning, and 24.06% somewhat supported it. The results were shared at a Sept. 20 board meeting in relation to the district budget.
Schlund stressed that SEL is one of the things being thrown into a politicized environment, and it could be detrimental.
“It’s really unfortunate,” she said. “It’s the students that are going to lose out if we let the political take priority over what’s good for students’ development.
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