The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In ‘social-emotional learning,’ right sees more critical race theory

Fifth-grader Aylin Gomez and other students race across the lawn during recess at Patrick Henry Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., in May. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
13 min

Administrators in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin School District were already looking for ways to support students’ mental well-being before the pandemic, driven in part by a string of student deaths, including some suicides. Then covid-19 and remote schooling inflicted fresh emotional damage.

So, this past fall, the district implemented a social-emotional learning (SEL) program — a curriculum geared at helping students manage emotions, develop positive relationships and make good decisions. Schools have worked to develop these skills for decades, and in recent years, formal programming has proliferated coast to coast. In Anoka-Hennepin, elementary schools focused on themes such as respect, empathy, gratitude, kindness, honesty, courage, cooperation, perseverance and responsibility each month. Students learned how to ask for help and spot someone having a bad day.

The complaints began immediately, often from parents already upset about remote schooling and mask mandates. Minnesota’s Child Protection League, a group active on conservative issues, said social-emotional learning is a vehicle for critical race theory, an effort to divide students from their parents, emotional manipulation and “the latest child-indoctrination scheme.”

Conservative activists who have battled schools across the country over issues of race and gender have a new target: SEL programs that until recently were noncontroversial. The pushback is not yet as widespread as protests around critical race theory, the teaching of history and efforts to ban books. But it is being driven by similar forces and is spreading in familiar ways.

“It’s a lack of trust about the schools indoctrinating people. Anything they don’t understand they assume is detrimental to kids or their own personal beliefs,” said David Law, superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin School District outside Minneapolis. “If you tell people we’re teaching interpersonal skills and we’re teaching resiliency, they say, ‘Absolutely.’ If we say we’re teaching SEL they think, ‘What are you doing to our students?’”

At least one school district, in Utah, has jettisoned its social-emotional learning curriculum in response to attacks, and school leaders across the country are worried that pressure will intensify on them to do the same. These issues were debated Wednesday in a hearing on social emotional learning before the House Appropriations education subcommittee.

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Many SEL programs have nothing to do with the identity-politics debates that have galvanized parents and activists. But critics have focused on programming that does involve gender and racial equity, that helps students identify their own biases and prejudices, and that encourages student activism.

Their criticism is traced, at least in part, to an approach called “transformative SEL,” an idea promoted by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or Casel, which has worked to advance the field for many years. Transformative SEL explicitly promotes “issues of culture, identity, agency, belonging, and engagement” as ways of expressing the core tenets of social-emotional learning, according to a 2019 paper by Casel’s leaders.

Individual communities have to decide what version of social-emotional learning is right for them, said Timothy P. Shriver, chairman of the Casel board of directors. In some communities, he said, talking about race is central to students’ lives, and it’s crucial to translate the pain they are feeling into something meaningful. But that might be controversial elsewhere.

In any case, he said, overall support nationally for SEL is strong and growing.

“There’s the story of the loud voices on the extreme, screaming and yelling and demanding change,” Shriver said. “It appears the river is full of venom, when I don’t think that’s the case.”

Teaching the ‘whole child’

Social-emotional learning seeks to treat children as human beings with feelings, life goals and even traumas, not just students learning to write essays and solve math problems. It grew in popularity after the No Child Left Behind law’s push for accountability made schools more reliant on standardized testing, which failed to lift test scores. Many in education concluded something different was needed to improve academic outcomes.

The lessons are embedded into day-to-day teaching and offered on their own, in kindergarten through high school. Sometimes it’s as simple as a daily check-in, circle time or face-to-face greetings for every child. It could mean encouraging children to take a mindful moment or a deep breath when they are frustrated. For older students, classes might work on setting goals and creating road maps to achieve them. Done well, supporters say, SEL raises academic achievement, reduces discipline problems and brings joy into learning.

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With billions of dollars in federal rescue funding available, spending on social-emotional learning has spiked, as schools confront students struggling with mental health deficits and behavior problems created or exacerbated over the course of the pandemic. About a third of districts analyzed by Burbio, a data tracking firm, planned to spend some of the federal covid relief money on SEL, including curriculums and training, according to a report by FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University.

Total spending on social-emotional learning grew about 45 percent to $765 million between November 2019 and April 2021, according to a study this past fall by Tyton Partners, a consulting firm, in collaboration with Casel.

But in recent months, a fierce backlash has unfolded, centered on the nexus between social-emotional learning and racial equity.

Parents Defending Education, a group that collects stories of programming that it deems liberal indoctrination, has called out at least seven incidents of social-emotional learning programs it finds offensive. An Indiana parents Facebook group warned that mindfulness is part of social-emotional learning, and also a tenet of Buddhism. “Christian parents should be aware of what is happening,” one post said.

The Daily Caller, a conservative news site, has published more than 15 articles since this past fall critical of SEL, which it often links to critical race theory, an academic construct that looks at the consequences of systemic racism and serves as a catchall term conservatives have adopted for lessons about race that they find objectionable.

In recent years, many states have enacted legislation to promote or require social-emotional learning in their schools, and at least 19 states have set standards for teaching SEL, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But this year, lawmakers in Indiana and Virginia considered bills restricting use of these programs, and a bill in Oklahoma is pending that would bar use of state or federal funding for SEL.

And in districts across the country, parents have begun to question or outright oppose these programs. Challenges have popped in Idaho, Texas, Indiana, Georgia, Illinois, Rhode Island and Utah, among other states.

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The Canyons School District in Sandy, Utah, south of Salt Lake City, began a formal social-emotional learning program a few years ago, aiming to help students develop character traits of resiliency, empathy, respect and kindness, and skills such as emotional regulation and goal setting, said district spokesman Jeff Haney. For elementary and middle schools, they used a curriculum called Second Step.

Lisa Bruns, whose children attend school in the district, became concerned that academic class time would be used to teach values and beliefs that she found objectionable, she said in an email. This past summer, she and another mom pored over the Second Step curriculum and then detailed 25 pages of objections.

Among their concerns: the curriculum included “narratives of white power and white privilege,” which teach students that some people experience power or privilege based on race, gender or class. They said the curriculum encouraged students to defend the “ideologies” of “gay and transgender issues” and sought to turn children into “social justice activists.”

They also objected to a lesson urging students to “disrupt” and to challenge attitudes that “make bullying and harassment socially acceptable.” The term “disrupt,” they wrote, is “often associated with movements like Antifa and Black Lives Matter.”

At a school board meeting in October, Bruns, who sometimes identifies herself as Lisa Logan, said she was trying to protect her children from “very harmful ideologies” and accused the program of seeking to “indoctrinate” students.

“It is extremely clear that Casel and curriculum like Second Step want to use SEL to reprogram our children into social justice activists for particular causes, causes that make them question objective reality, reject familial cultural or religious beliefs, favor socialism over capitalism, and push them to believe that racial, gender or class identity matters more than unifying as a human race. And that’s not good for them or for our country,” Bruns told the school board.

She succeeded. The district dropped the Second Step curriculum, citing one particular objection: a slide provided a link to a website about healthy sexual relationships that included tips on having sex for the first time, including the need to feel safe, protect your health, prevent pregnancy and be clear on consent. The website also advised users to clear their browser history after visiting.

And while the district was specifically concerned about only the link to that one website, the matter became so controversial in the community that the school board and the superintendent concluded they could not continue with the curriculum, said Haney, the district spokesman. The board vote to discontinue the program was 4-to-3.

Social-emotional lessons are required in Utah, and the district is now working to develop its own version, he added.

Second Step responded to feedback from Utah parents by removing links and references to outside resources, said Polly Stansell, vice president of product for the Committee for Children, which created the curriculum. She said the program was developed by experts based on research and community feedback.

“Parents and caregivers are our children’s lifelong teachers and support system, and play an indispensable role in their development — social-emotional learning in the classroom is aimed to strengthen, not counter, that support,” she said in a statement.

In the Penn-Harris-Madison schools in northern Indiana, controversy erupted last spring over the district’s SEL program. Some parents objected because the high school program included three lessons related to diversity and equity — one about microaggressions, one on implicit bias and one on anti-racism. Some also became upset about how these matters were addressed in a professional development session.

The district responded to the uproar with community meetings over the summer where administrators explained the program and parents broke into small group discussions, said Lucha Ramey, director of school communications.

As a result, the district now posts SEL lessons online every quarter and allows parents to opt their children out of particular lessons. (Those students can read a book of their choice in the library instead, Ramey said.) The program now is focused only on noncontroversial subjects such as insight, regulation, connection and collaboration — concepts taken directly from the state instructional guidelines.

“We follow the Indiana standards,” Ramey said. “These seven standards they feel strongly will make students of Indiana more employable.”

A unifying idea

Many parents don’t understand what social-emotional learning really is, said Aaliyah A. Samuel, president and chief executive of Casel. “They are seeing misinformation on websites, social media,” she said. “My friends, they are like, ‘What exactly do you do?’”

Social-emotional learning used to be considered something of a unifying idea, and one with substantial bipartisan support. Leading advocates of SEL went out of their way to court conservative buy-in. The Aspen Institute assembled a bipartisan National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development that issued a report in early 2019 casting SEL as crucial to academic success and a way to move beyond divisive education debates of the past.

“After two decades of education debates that produced deep passions and deeper divisions, we have a chance for a fresh start,” the report said.

The bipartisanship was part of the report’s power, said former Michigan governor John Engler (R), who served on the Aspen commission.

“We worked very hard to make sure it wasn’t something that leaned to the right or to the left,” he said in an interview. “This was focused on the children, and what are their needs, and what are the barriers to learning.”

But SEL has faced criticism from the left that it did not directly address racism faced by many students of color, and that its focus on management of emotions was a way of controlling students’ behavior — including their legitimate reactions to racism and poverty — rather than addressing the underlying problems.

“What’s the point of teaching children about conflict resolution skills if we’re not talking about the conflicts that exist because of racism or white supremacy?” Dena Simmons, an expert in the field who works with schools on SEL and race, said in 2019. She said SEL could be seen as “white supremacy with a hug.”

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Casel, which evaluates SEL curriculums and has worked for decades to define and promote the field, addressed this by incorporating messages about race and identity into its framework guiding SEL programs. It also introduced “transformative SEL,” which explicitly promoted equity.

The work on identity and equity had been ongoing for some time and was not specifically in response to Simmons, but it stemmed from similar concerns that were broadly shared, said Robert Jagers, vice president of research at Casel, who co-wrote an influential paper on transformative SEL.

The shift has provided fodder for critics, particularly amid rising conservative pushback against teaching and talking about race in schools. SEL is now routinely referred to as another form of critical race theory.

Nova Biro, co-director at SEL4US, a network of alliances that support SEL programs, said Republicans have supported SEL programs as one answer to mass shootings at schools that does not touch on gun restrictions. So the recent pushback caught her off guard.

“We had enjoyed bipartisan support for quite some time,” she said. “We were a bit blindsided.”