January 27, 2023

Even social-emotional learning, which fosters child development, is under attack

If I’m having trouble doing something at home — say, a chore or opening a tight jar lid — my 6-year-old tells me I need a “growth mindset” because saying I can’t do something is a “fixed mindset.”

These are concepts my daughter learned in kindergarten that carry on through first grade. She tells me a growth mindset is thinking positively and challenging yourself.

“When something was hard at school, I tried my best,” she said. A fixed mindset is giving up and not believing in yourself. 

Her public school has integrated “social-emotional learning” in its curriculum. That term includes developing healthy identities, managing emotions and establishing supportive relationships. My daughter is learning how to tell how someone is feeling by his or her facial expressions, and trying to help if someone is sad. And if someone wants to be left alone, she must honor that person’s request. Deep breaths are part of the morning routine, just as is reciting the student pledge.

These concepts are hardly radical, dating back decades in the childhood development field. Scores of books have been written on the subject. Schools all around the country use social-emotional learning curriculum. The modern origins go back to the 1960s, when child psychiatrist James P. Comer piloted a program at the Yale School of Medicine. In 1994, “social-emotional learning,” or SEL, entered into the education lexicon. Psychologist Carol Dweck coined the term “growth mindset.” Along the way, SEL research points to improved academics and behavior for students.

I’m hardly immersed in the literature, and what I know of the origins of SEL is cursory. As a parent, I know enough. I appreciate that my daughter’s school values emotional intelligence as well as academics. Teachers and administrators want students to succeed in relating to one another because being book-smart isn’t enough. Even though I think my daughter is a natural empath, I am impressed that she learned the word empathy at an early age and practices it in various settings. She told me teachers encourage and welcome discussions on feelings. 

One would think these are pretty basic, yet fruitful, concepts. And to my knowledge they are here in Chicago. Chicago Public Schools has an Office of Social and Emotional Learning that touts how the skills children learn can apply to a range of situations, “from figuring out a tough math problem or collaborating on a group project to setting goals for college and career.”

But SEL is being mischaracterized as indoctrination by some school boards across the country. Even more puzzling is that some boards are linking SEL to critical race theory, or CRT — which, by the way, is not being taught in K-12 settings unless your child is a wunderkind moonlighting in law school. 

Earlier this month, a Colorado Springs school board member invoked the words of Adolf Hitler to criticize SEL and CRT in one fell swoop. That’s not an isolated instance. The right has been increasingly linking SEL to the teaching of topics that make some parents uncomfortable, such as transgender identity or racial reckoning. From Indiana to Virginia, the backlash is real.

Society is moving at a fast clip, with the erosion of democracy in the form of vocal election denying and book banning. Neither are appropriate responses. I see the pushback against SEL as part of this larger worrisome trend. 

The impact of SEL is well-documented. Research has shown it is successful at helping children develop and become well-adjusted, and ultimately, do better in school.

Politicizing and mischaracterizing that research is a disservice to children. Indeed, it is demonstrating a “fixed mindset.”

Natalie Moore is a reporter on race, class and communities for WBEZ.

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