A spoof of a man having his emotions managed by a machine

Are educators using SEL to empower or to manipulate?

A recent report on SEL falls short of addressing what schools need to do

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.

Related: Student wellbeing & SEL are more important than you think

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.

Manipulating students

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.”

Learning for well-being

SEL has gained the attention of educators in recent years as studies have demonstrated the direct causal links between social-emotional learning and important human developmental attributes, such as developing self-confidence and empathy, having meaningful friendships and relationships with siblings and parents, expressing personal ideas and emotions, developing dreams and a unique purpose in life, and feeling a wide range of emotions at deep and meaningful levels.

Related: Teacher training does wonders for students’ emotional regulation

All of these positive attributes are based on developing self-understanding. Children with better self-understanding have a lower risk of mental-health disorders and physical health diagnoses such as depression, cutting, and substance abuse.

When we don’t teach self-understanding in schools, we endanger children’s and adolescents’ future potentials in life, resulting in unhealthy behaviors, obesity, anxiety and depressive states, bullying, and gun violence. Children want to learn how to be healthy physically and emotionally. Children have real developmental needs that require a concerted effort to enhance their inner lives and impart protective factors that last a lifetime.

Learning about the self

In the Mental Health for All Toolkit for teachers, counselors, administrators, students and parents, we describe the Integrated Self Model (iSelf), a framework to develop students’ self-understanding based on 30 cognitive and positive psychology attributes.

Research shows that when the self becomes the lens through which students learn, students can balance cognitive with non-cognitive factors to become happy and whole people who are equipped to create a positive life and make contributions toward a better society.

It is time that we ground the purpose of SEL in the psychology of well-being to produce emotionally, physically, and psychologically healthy children. Before implementing SEL best practices, teachers and administrators should ask themselves, “What is the purpose of SEL?”

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