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Why SEL isn’t a dirty word—an interview with CASEL’s Justina Schlund

The politics around social and emotional learning are a distraction at a moment when we should all be focused on students' recovery--and there's a long way to go

Key points:

The concept of social emotional learning​​ (SEL) has been around for 30 years—a bit of esoteric, if well-meaning, academia intended to improve the way kids are taught. Post-pandemic, the phrase has somehow entered the culture wars leaving educators with a delicate balance between implementing these essential concepts without becoming politicized. 

If the pandemic taught us nothing else, it’s that the mental health of students is the first and foremost concern to successful teaching and learning—not to mention their parents, teachers, and everyone else associated with that student’s learning experience. So how can educators and admins cope? We sat down with Justina Schlund, Vice President of Communications at Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) to bang out some specific strategies for schools to employ if this becomes an issue in your district. Scroll down for some of the transcribed and edited highlights:

ESN: It’s best to start at the beginning. What is CASEL’s definition of SEL?

JS: You can look on our website for the official definition but basically, social and emotional learning is about developing all of the skills that last a lifetime. Things like staying motivated, communicating really effectively, understanding other people, and making decisions that are good for ourselves, and the community around us. So it is a sort of developmental process that happens from the time we were born, and now throughout our adulthood.

What the field of social emotional learning then has done has said, if this developmental process is so important, what are some of the evidence-based practices that we can do in classrooms to really support this development of children? And what that has involved? What does this look like in a school or a classroom? 

There are lots of different approaches and ways to do it. Number one, it involves developing really positive strong relationships with and for students, between their teachers, and with their peers. There’s a lot of research that shows that when students feel supported when they feel respected in a classroom, they tend to do better on their schoolwork, right? 

It also involves being really intentional about how we teach academic subjects so that we’re letting children connect both socially and emotionally. So that means that it might be like teamwork, right? I’m having an opportunity to not just learn from the teacher, but I have an opportunity to discuss that idea to see how I personally connect with that idea to have an emotional reaction to it. 

And then thirdly, what most people will traditionally think about is perhaps a program in a classroom that has a scope and sequence that says “Today we’re going to learn about empathy,” or, “Today we’re going to learn about teamwork.” And I’m going to really explicitly put a name to those skills and teach that so that students are able to then take that skill and apply it across their lives.

ESN: What do you make of these recent media reports of SEL getting up in these school board culture wars?

JS: There are definitely earnest concerns and conversations and questions around social emotional learning that I think need to be surfaced. The concern is that parents want more attention to SEL, and they want it done right. They want it done in a way that’s effective for their children. This is versus this political narrative that we’ve seen in many aspects of education right now, which is oftentimes a deliberate misinformation campaign. It’s coming from politicians and extremist groups, really trying to create a wedge issue here. 

And I think that is separate from the actual concerns of parents and educators on the ground. The politics are a distraction at a moment when we should all be focused on the recovery of our kids right now. And there’s a long way to recovery.

ESN: So how can educators deal with this?

JS: Most parents, contrary to what some of the politics may have you believe, take the term SEL at face value. They support it. Now, they want to know what does this actually look like in the classroom and what does this actually mean for their kid. And that’s what I would say is the biggest strategy, particularly for educators is to open that bridge with families and parents and to really begin the conversation away from all the education terms and the jargon…I’m thinking about this educator who we spoke with recently, who shared that he had some pushback from parents. And you know what he did? He said, “Come to my classroom, come see for yourself, what it looks like.” And he invited the parents into his classroom, and I believe a handful of them came and watched what he was doing on a day-to-day basis, both the explicit teaching of SEL, as well as how he was naturally creating these relationships with kids. And he said, at the end of that visit, all of them said to him, “You know what, you’re right. This is something that I want for my kids. And you know, this looks drastically different than this crazy news story I read or this thing that this politician shared.” And that’s what I think needs to happen right now is really like having those conversations because there’s a lot more shared ground than we might think given the media narrative.

ESN: So how does all of this play out?

JS: I hope people are slowly coming to their senses around it. I am seeing some movement there. In Montana recently, there was a state legislator who tried to introduce a bill banning social and emotional learning. And at the hearing, so many educators and parents came and spoke up and said, “No, this is what it actually looks like. This is what we’re doing.” that the Republican legislator—you can see this on video too—she turns around at the end of this hearing. And she said, “You guys have taught me so much. I didn’t have a clear vision of what social emotional learning is. And I could see, I could hear clearly that it is effective, and we need it right now.” And she basically declined to move that bill forward. And it’s all but dead right now. And that’s a state legislator. So I think I think there is an opportunity for movement and growth and a better understanding of what kids need.

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