OPINION: Are parents missing lesson in social and emotional learning?

Cherokee crowd jeered when superintendent said SEL can deter youth suicides
Cherokee Superintendent Brian V. Hightower met with heckling and hisses when he explained the SEL initiative began two years ago when the district saw alarming rates of depression, self-harm and suicide in students. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Cherokee Superintendent Brian V. Hightower met with heckling and hisses when he explained the SEL initiative began two years ago when the district saw alarming rates of depression, self-harm and suicide in students. (Dreamstime/TNS)

First came the denouncements of school district diversity, equity and inclusion programs and critical race theory. Now, suspicions are being directed at social and emotional learning, which helps kids learn to manage their emotions, among other things. Some say schools are overstepping by teaching these concepts, a lament shared on T-shirts worn by protesting residents at a recent Cherokee school board meeting that proclaimed, “I don’t co-parent with the government.”

Cherokee Superintendent Brian V. Hightower met with heckling and hisses when he explained the SEL initiative began two years ago when the district saw alarming rates of depression, self-harm and suicide in students.

So, what is so awful about SEL that parents would jeer a school leader talking about suicide prevention?

When I asked parents to share their concerns about SEL, one told me, “It is a dangerous experiment and should not be taught. Schools are teaching all feelings and very little substance. Kids are becoming so delicate because they are constantly told to focus on how things feel.” Another said overworked teachers shouldn’t be burdened with SEL, which ought to be the parent’s job, explaining, “I don’t co-parent with the government or the school; I can care for my child’s well-being just fine thank you. I need them to handle the education my child needs to succeed academically. I do not send my child there to be in group therapy or to learn someone else’s definition of morals, values, empathy.”

A longtime child advocate and now the executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children, Dr. Erica Fener Sitkoff understands the innate instinct of parents to endorse the setting, approach and values that best suit their own child. “With that said, what we know is that when every child gets their needs met, it helps every other child in the room thrive,” she said.

The goal of social and emotional learning is to meet kids where they are and provide whatever supports they need, said Sitkoff. “I would really love to better understand where the pushback is coming from as I think we all can agree that we want our kids to have problem-solving skills, team-building skills, confidence and self-efficacy.”

The SEL approach dates back to the 1980s when a pilot program revealed it to be an effective tool in improving both academics and well-being in two schools in New Haven, Connecticut. In the last decade, the concept gained traction among metro Atlanta districts. It is not an inexpensive initiative as mental health services do not come cheap, and Georgia has a critical shortage of behavioral therapists and too few school counselors.

In its definition created more than 20 years ago, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning defined SEL as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”

The first mention of the term in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was in a 1998 story about the 14th annual Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy, where the agenda was building emotionally and socially healthy students by focusing “not on deficits, disorders and disabilities, but on abilities, assets and strengths.”

The next reference came in 2010 when a college professor penned a guest column mocking the concept, writing, “A flurry of educators, consultants and government officials has decided to instruct Johnny how to feel, ostensibly in the interests of ‘safe schools.’ Johnny does not merely need to get along with Bobby. He must now like Bobby. And Jeffrey, and Justin, and Jane, and Jameka, and Maria, and Maia. He must get along with everyone and not exclude anyone. The idea of having a best friend is going the way of prayer and patriotism in our schools.”

Echoes of those sentiments emerged in the complaints of Cherokee residents who argued the school system’s role is not to shape their child’s character or social path.

“I can’t quite grasp how parents can simultaneously believe that students should learn social studies and STEM at school and that students should not learn social and emotional skills at that same school,” said Timothy Hedeen, a Kennesaw State University professor of conflict management. “My understanding is that surveys of employers routinely find a preference for students who know how to interact well with others. The soft skills of communication and collaboration are critical within and beyond the workplace, just as they are within and beyond the classroom.”

In parent surveys, bullying and school climate always show up as concerns. Several Georgia districts have been sued by parents of children who attempted or died from suicide, contending that staff and teachers failed to intervene in bullying or alert them to their child’s mental crisis In 2019, the Georgia Department of Education Student Health Survey found nearly half of middle and high school students reported feeling depressed, and more than 78,000 youths and teens reported having seriously considered suicide, said Sitkoff.

Child advocates believe the pandemic left children even more anxious and fearful with the World Health Organization warning that mental health will be the second pandemic after COVID.

Simply reopening schools in the fall will not be enough to restore stability to all children. “Children’s distress and need for behavioral health support will not just disappear when schools can fully support in-person instruction,” said pediatrician David J. Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. “Successful recovery will take time, effort and money. "

The funding challenges are being addressed by the $122 billion federal COVID-19 schools relief package, $4.2 billion of which is en route to Georgia. Many districts are planning to increase their investment in social and emotional learning, which U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona called the No. 1 strategy to better engage students when they return to school.

“We need to make sure our schoolhouses are prepared to meet the social and emotional needs of our learners,” said Cardona, speaking to education reporters a few weeks ago. “We need to make sure all students prefer to learn in the schoolhouse because it’s a warm place for them, a welcoming place where they see people that look like them, that honor them, that respect them.”