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How ‘Social and Emotional Learning’ Became the Newest Battleground in the Classroom Wars

9 minute read

Wendy Turner sees social and emotional learning as central to everything she does in her classroom, from how she welcomes her second-graders each morning to how she guides them through math activities.

“It’s the base layer of education,” says Turner, a teacher at Mount Pleasant Elementary School in Wilmington, Del., who was named Delaware’s Teacher of the Year in 2017. “It’s really all about helping kids develop and nurture skills that help them be successful human beings—which is going to translate into success in school, and then outside of school, on the sports field, on the bus, in their homes, in the community, as they grow into adults in society.”

But the practice that Turner sees as essential to supporting her students has recently drawn backlash in some states.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is a longstanding educational concept aimed at teaching children skills like managing stress, treating others with respect and empathy, working cooperatively, and recognizing emotions.

But even as some educators have turned to social-emotional learning as a tool to help students navigate the loss and disruption brought about by the pandemic, conservative groups and lawmakers who have sought to restrict how race and gender are discussed in school have also turned their attention to SEL, arguing that it too can be a vector for discussions about identity and equity.

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What ‘social and emotional learning’ really means

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a nonprofit that has been championing SEL since 1994, defines it as a practice that helps students “acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals,” in addition to showing empathy for others, maintaining supportive relationships and making responsible decisions.

CASEL’s framework focuses on teaching children five core skills: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

Stephanie Jones, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has researched social-emotional learning and childhood development, says that while the academic terms can cause confusion, SEL simply refers to the foundational skills that are a basic part of learning in any classroom environment. When students raise their hand instead of yelling out an answer, listen carefully to a teacher’s instructions, and work productively with a group of peers, they’re exercising SEL skills, she says.

Emotions and social interactions are a daily part of children’s lives, both in and out of school, which is why many educators argue it’s valuable to teach students how to manage them—even if ideas like “self-awareness” might sound extraneous to the subjects often thought of as core classroom material.

“I think that if we said, ‘These things are not part of school,’ we’re doing a disservice to the richness of human development, to the richness of human life, and we’re not actually taking advantage of something that could help us in our work in school,” Jones says.

“When a child is struggling, when they’re frustrated about something that they’re learning or not yet able to do, if they can’t talk about it and be validated for that frustration, they might feel ashamed of it,” she says. “That’s not what we want. We want kids to be able to surface what’s hard, talk about why, and then get on with it.”

‘Problematic elements’

Nevertheless, some lawmakers and parent groups have recently criticized SEL practices.

Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who has championed the backlash to critical race theory that has swept schools and statehouses in the last year or so, argues that SEL “serves as a delivery mechanism for radical pedagogies such as critical race theory and gender deconstructionism,” the New York Times reported.

Critical race theory (CRT), a graduate-level academic framework, explores how institutions perpetuate racism and is typically not taught at the K-12 level. But the term has become a target of critics who argue that lessons that acknowledge and address systemic racism can divide children and “indoctrinate” students with a particular view of the world. Now, SEL seems to be joining CRT, becoming a hot-button phrase that summons ideas of so-called “woke” pedagogical methods.

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Some social-emotional learning principles do, in fact, promote racial equity. CASEL’s “Transformative SEL” framework includes “academic content that integrates issues of race, class and culture,” and helps students develop skills “such as reflecting on personal and social identities, examining prejudices and biases, interrogating social norms, disrupting and resisting inequities.” Such reflection is part of the self-awareness that SEL methods aim to foster.

But this month, as Florida leaders move to ban “divisive concepts” from classrooms, the Florida Department of Education rejected more than 50 math textbooks from being used next school year, citing reasons that include “references to critical race theory” and “the unsolicited addition of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in mathematics.” One of the “problematic elements” in textbooks identified by the department included a page that outlined an SEL objective for a math lesson and said students should “build proficiency with social awareness as they practice with empathizing with classmates.”

In Oklahoma, a Republican state Senator introduced a bill prohibiting certain funding from being used to promote SEL.

The case for SEL

Still, Turner, the teacher in Delaware, has embedded SEL practices throughout the school day, aiming to better support her students and foster more empathy in her classroom.

She begins class each morning by asking students, “How are you feeling today? What’s on your mind?” She doesn’t force them to answer, but she says students often choose to.

“I just find out so much of what’s going on in their lives,” Turner says. “They hear from each other, and that can really help me respond to them throughout the day.”

Wendy Turner, who teaches second grade at Mount Pleasant Elementary School in Wilmington, Del., says social and emotional learning is essential in her classroom.Courtesy of Wendy Turner

She lets students pick out a colorful rubber bracelet to convey how they’re feeling—green for good, blue for sad, yellow to indicate they’re in between and maybe a little worried.

It’s part of how she teaches core academic subjects, too. Before her students went outside to measure playground equipment during a lesson this year, she reviewed both the math skills they would focus on—measuring with rulers and yardsticks—and the SEL skills: “We have to be kind to our partner. We have to use the tool properly. We have to stay on task.”

Some critics argue that social-emotional learning is an unnecessary addition to classrooms that should be focused on core academics. “Math is about getting the right answer,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said during a press conference about the recently rejected math textbooks. “It’s not about how you feel about the problem.”

But educators like Turner see emotional well-being as directly related to academic success, noting that students can’t learn when their basic needs aren’t met or when they’re feeling upset.

“By giving kids skills around awareness and management, we’re actually helping them stay in the learning zone more often,” Turner says.

Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow focused on K-12 education at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, has raised concerns that SEL represents an “unwelcome expansion” of the role of public schools and could overburden educators with a topic they might not be trained to teach. “Not everything that benefits children or contributes to improved educational outcomes is schools’ proper or obvious responsibility to address,” he wrote in an October report. “The risk is that schools are assuming powers and responsibilities far beyond their brief and asking educators to work beyond their training and expertise.”

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But some proponents of social-emotional learning argue it’s now more important than ever, because of the many challenges caused by the pandemic; some students lost family members and others struggled with months of isolation during remote learning. More than a third of high school students students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic, according to a CDC report published April 1.

Accordingly, school and district spending on SEL increased about 45% during the pandemic, from $530 million in November 2019 to $765 million in April 2021, according to a 2021 report by Tyton Partners, a consulting and investment banking firm. And about a third of local education agencies included in one report planned to spend COVID-19-relief funds on SEL lessons and materials, according to an analysis by Georgetown University’s FutureEd, an independent think tank.

“Because of the trauma that everyone has been through with COVID, because of the disruption to the learning system, because so many students around the country have lost a family member to COVID,” Turner says, “we have to really meet them where they are. And that means embedding good SEL practices into our classrooms to help them get to a place of learning and process all that trauma.”

Studies have found that SEL programs are associated with decreased classroom misbehavior and decreased emotional distress, and improved social skills and higher test scores. A 2018 paper, published in the education journal Phi Delta Kappan, looked at four meta-analyses of SEL programs and found that students who participated in such programs exhibited more positive social behavior and higher academic performance than students who did not.

“A large research base can now confirm what many educators have seen firsthand—that SEL is not a tradeoff for rigorous academic instruction; it’s a catalyst for teaching and learning,” Melissa Schlinger, vice president of programs and practice for CASEL, wrote in the 2021 Tyton report.

In light of that evidence, Jones worries about how students will be affected if efforts to limit social and emotional learning are successful.

“I just worry that we’ll undermine what kids need, and we won’t identify the kids who are really struggling. There are kids, especially now, as we all know, who are really struggling, and they need support, and they’re in school for a long time every day,” Jones says. “That’s a place where we have an opportunity to support them.”

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Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com