Opinion: Stop harming our children to score political points

A former GOP Jasper County Commission chair urges parents to put aside political differences and focus on what children need in school, including social and emotional learning that teaches them to communicate, resolve conflict, interact with others and manage emotional responses.  (Hyosub Shin / AJC file photo)

Credit: hshin@ajc.com

Credit: hshin@ajc.com

A former GOP Jasper County Commission chair urges parents to put aside political differences and focus on what children need in school, including social and emotional learning that teaches them to communicate, resolve conflict, interact with others and manage emotional responses. (Hyosub Shin / AJC file photo)

Jack Bernard, a retired business executive and former chair of the Jasper County Commission and Republican Party, was the first director of health planning for Georgia. In a guest column, Bernard urges schools to embrace social and emotional learning.

SEL has gotten caught up in the debate about how schools teach about race and racism. While most surveys show parents endorse SEL and want schools to address children’s mental health, a vocal minority are showing up at school board meetings to demand an end to the programs.

For example, Holly Terei, Gwinnett leader of the conservative group No Left Turn in Education, criticized SEL at a recent Moms for Liberty forum in Duluth. Terei told a panel of Republican lawmakers, “Social-emotional learning taps into the innermost corners of a child’s mind that should only be formed through the worldview that the parents decide. ... We need to get social-emotional learning out of our schools.”

By Jack Bernard

“Social-emotional learning and emotional intelligence are a must in the 21st century. Regardless of our political affiliations, let us prioritize the well-being and future of our children. Investing in social-emotional learning is a win for everyone involved, ensuring that our kids have the tools they need to thrive academically, emotionally and socially. Our children deserve nothing less.” — Georgia native Otha Thornton, 53rd National Parent Teacher Association president.

I have been a local county member of both political parties. When people ask me why, I say, “There’s no blue or red way to pave a road.” Further, the parties must cooperate to get things done on the local, state and national levels. Otherwise, we end up with paralysis, as can be seen in the speaker circus that occurred in the U.S. House of Representatives recently.

A decorated and retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, Georgian Otha Thornton served as White House Communications Agency Human Resources director and Presidential Communications Officer under President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama. Plus, he has an extensive background in education. And he is 100% correct about social and emotional learning.

Jack Bernard

Credit: Courtesy Photo

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Credit: Courtesy Photo

We should not politicize SEL as some parents are doing. There is no Republican or Democratic way to improve the mental health of our children. We must stop harming our children to score political points.

As the nonpartisan, nonprofit Committee for Children states, “Social-emotional learning is the process of developing the self-awareness, self-control and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work and life success.” SEL is simply an essential tool to help our kids cope with the extraordinary stresses of modern life and succeed in fulfilling their aspirations.

When done correctly in our schools, school SEL programs are a clear win-win. Everyone benefits, including our kids, our schools and our broader society. Bullying goes down, less physical aggression occurs and our kids are happier. And because of these factors, so are their relieved parents.

Studies show just how effective SEL is in helping our youth. When SEL becomes a part of classrooms, schools see higher GPAs, improved attendance and fewer referrals for detention and suspension. Everyone I know wants student improvement in these areas.

It does not matter to which party you belong or your political leanings, left or right. As Otha Thornton told me, “I firmly believe that our kids deserve better.” He is correct. All rational Americans believe that our precious children should be both safe and happy. That is the obvious purpose of SEL, and we should all endorse that aim and advocate for adding SEL to our schools.

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