Our 30 years of experience researching, teaching, and implementing social-emotional learning (SEL) has established that the purpose of SEL is to produce mental health and well-being outcomes for children. However, the current level of thinking about SEL in education is primarily focused on producing academic outcomes.
An example of this level of thinking is The Aspen Institute-sponsored National Commission on Social Emotional & Academic Development report, From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope, published in January.
While we agree that the time has come to fully integrate SEL into our schools, the report calls for using SEL as a tool to make students achieve more academically. We see that as a form of child manipulation. The report falls short of what is needed to address mental health and well-being needs.
What SEL in schools needs to be about
Educators need a framework with a set of methods to be able to impact the emotional well-being of children in their classrooms and schools. In that regard, the authors take a step in the right direction by recommending that schools change instruction to intentionally teach students social, emotional, and cognitive skills, and infuse them in academic content and all aspects of the school setting, not just in stand-alone programs or lessons. Unfortunately, children’s emotional and psychological well-being is not the fundamental purpose for the report’s recommendations.
In addition, the report says, “The promotion of social, emotional, and academic learning is not a shifting educational fad; it is the substance of education itself,” and continues, “It is this vision of possibilities that is motivating students, parents, educators, and business leaders to demand more and to reject the false choice between academic excellence and broader student outcomes.”
Notice that the report is actually putting “academic excellence” and “broader student outcomes” literally on par with each other. In this context, the emphasis shifts away from emotions and emotional awareness—the inner life of children—toward using SEL to produce academic achievement and other external goals.
The report includes a multitude of data and quotes about how school attendance rates increase and how employers want these skills. The focus is on what schools and employers want—not what children and their families want and need. This unfortunately conveys to children that their most important task is to meet external outcomes such as passing tests, meeting new ESSA assessments, and pleasing future employers.
This has serious consequences:
- The emphasis remains on producing academic outcomes as the ultimate goal, above and beyond developing well-being outcomes.
- The focus is on extrinsic agendas, rather than helping children develop intrinsic psycho-dynamics, personal mindset, self-understanding, and a sense of purpose.
- Children understand that educators are using SEL methods and best practices to manipulate them into learning academic content. In parenting, this is called showing “conditional love” rather than “unconditional love.”