87% of parents believe SEL is important graphic image

Imagine an 11-year-old boy named Matteo. Matteo is in a new school this year; he lives with his abuela during the week because his mother works both days and nights to provide for him, and he is an only child. Matteo is anxious about making new friends and he is also anxious about math, a subject he has struggled with the last few years.

Matteo’s new school is among the 92%[1] of schools that offer social and emotional learning (SEL) as part of their curriculum. But what exactly does SEL look like in practice? Is it just doing mindfulness exercises with students? Or taking them on nature walks? Does it require a special degree? Is it a front for some ideological agenda? Based in brain science, SEL has been substantiated over decades with hundreds of studies about its efficacy and recent polls about its necessity. SEL is an effective—some would say essential—part of the K-12 curriculum with schools worldwide touting its educational benefits.

Here is what it might look like for Matteo, whose new school gives students one hour per week in a small group, facilitated by a teacher, where the students learn to cultivate core capacities like listening to each other, empathizing, and reflecting. This group provides a safe space where Matteo can express himself openly with other students. Through empathetic listening, Matteo learns his classmates have their own fears and challenges, from concerns about body image to worrying about which part in the play they will receive. Matteo has recognized a pattern consistent in this small group and in his growing group of friends at school: everyone feels anxious and alone sometimes, even the smartest, most talented, and most popular kids. Matteo realizes that by supporting others through their challenges, his own don’t seem so scary. And, because he can openly discuss his fears about math, he is also able to receive help from his teacher and from his classmates to find a method that works for Matteo’s own learning style. This hour per week small group has equipped Matteo to succeed not only academically, but it also provides skills that are necessary in every area of life. And this is only one example of SEL.

Lately, though, SEL has become a lightning rod for critics, some with legitimate care and concern and others more misconstrued. Below are a few of the key critiques followed by reasons we stand by SEL and continue to advocate for whole child education.

SEL is a distraction and does not contribute to academic excellence.
Parents, teachers, and administrators have a common goal for education: academic excellence. But how to get there? One Chicago administrator noted that early on she was skeptical. SEL seemed too “soft” to contribute to the bottom line she was accountable for: good grades and test scores. Later, having seen SEL in action, she was swayed by the results. Others, not to be convinced, like one school district in Florida, have deemed SEL as “extraneous” and “not aligned to subject-specific standards.”

But review the research, and you will find “academic performance of students in SEL programs was an average of 13 percentile points higher than peers without SEL exposure.” In addition, SEL programs have been documented as being protective against later behavioral, emotional, and drug-related issues.[2]

SEL belongs at home, not in the schools.
The key skills of SEL (self-awareness, relationship skills, self-management, responsible decision-making, and social awareness), are necessary at home and at school. We agree that parents should guide their child’s education. We also agree that schools should support the “best lessons of the heart,” as author and psychologist Dan Goleman puts it, in the pursuit of student success.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a pioneering force in support of SEL, honors the essential role of families in student achievement. CASEL President and CEO Aaliyah Samuel recently noted, “We need to be intentional about making sure parents are at the table.”[3]

And parents are on board. In a spring 2022 poll, 8 of 10 parents who said their child receives SEL at school wanted to maintain and/or increase SEL learning in schools.[4]

SEL has a hidden agenda.
Some of the more fringe criticism of SEL is that it has a hidden agenda that is meant to indoctrinate kids and it is a vehicle for critical race theory.

SEL is neither. It is a methodology that encourages stakeholders—students, families, and educators—to be in ongoing dialogue about academic performance and the process of learning.

Though it is under attack, SEL continues to be highly rated by both educators and parents.[5]

Since the pandemic, educators rate SEL as being helpful to addressing

  • bullying (95%);
  • lack of student motivation/ engagement in learning (94%);
  • school safety (93%);
  • teacher-student relationships (91%); and
  • transitioning from remote to in-person learning (91%).

Parents say that SEL

  • could be emphasized more (82%);
  • has become more important since the beginning of the pandemic (82%); and
  • is helpful for children learning online (80%).

The Fetzer Institute’s commitment to whole child development dates to the 1990s when we played a significant funding and organizing role in what would become social and emotional learning. At that time, psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman was completing his term as a Fetzer senior advisor and wrote about his sense that a national movement for emotional literacy “may be waiting in the wings.”

Fast forward to 2022. Goleman was right about a national movement in support of SEL. It emerged in response to concern from educators, parents, and administrators about issues like school violence, teen suicide, and drug use.

Thirty years later, we are working with a mission that explicitly invokes love. While SEL came about in the face of school violence, we find that at its best it promises not only to address problems, but to add a love-based set of actions to our educational systems so that all students can flourish.

Want to learn more about Fetzer's dedication to whole child education? Watch "The Science of Teen Spirituality."

[1] Lantieri, L., in "The Science of Teen Spirituality," a Freethink* original video, November 30, 2022.

[2] Taylor, R., Oberle, E., Durlak, J. A., & Weissberg, R. P. (2017). Promoting positive youth development through school-based social and emotional learning interventions: A meta-analysis of follow-up effects. Child Development, 88, 1156–1171.

[3] Field, Kelley, "Social and emotional learning is the latest flashpoint in the education wars," The Hechinger Report, February 21, 2022.

[4] Committee for Children, SEL Research Findings, April/May 2022.

[5] McGraw Hill, "New K-12 Survey Social and Emotional Learning Gains Awareness and Prioritization Amid COVID-19 Pandemic," September 27, 2021.