Social Emotional Learning (SEL) programs have been a topic of hot debate in public schools throughout the United States. While supporters claim that these programs provide essential life skills to students, critics are quick to dismiss them as a costly scam that doesn’t deliver real value to students or schools.
Proponents of SEL highlight its potential to help students develop crucial life skills like self-awareness, self-management, and relationship-building. However, concerns are mounting among educators and parents that these programs are little more than a clever money-making scheme, leaving many public school systems out of pocket by millions of dollars every year.
In this article, we will delve into the controversy surrounding SEL and evaluate whether or not these programs truly deliver what they promise, or if they are just a wasteful expense that exploits the public school system.
Background on Social Emotional Learning
Social Emotional Learning is defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) as “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” CASEL has been a driving force in promoting SEL in public school systems across the country.
Many SEL companies offer workshops and curricula designed to help teachers implement SEL in their classrooms. These companies often market themselves as experts in SEL, claiming that they have the knowledge and resources necessary to help schools effectively teach and implement these skills. However, there is a growing concern that these companies are more concerned with profit than with actually helping students.
Criticisms of Social Emotional Learning
One prominent critic of SEL is Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College and author of the book “Free to Learn.” According to Gray, “Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is the latest educational fad, and like many fads before it, it has little basis in reality” (Gray, 2019). Gray argues that SEL programs are based on a flawed assumption that social and emotional skills can be taught directly, when in fact they are best learned through real-life experiences and interactions.
Another critic of SEL is Jennifer Berkshire, an education journalist and co-host of the podcast “Have You Heard.” In her podcast, Berkshire argues that SEL programs are a form of “edutainment” that distract from real issues in education, such as underfunding and teacher shortages. She states, “In many ways, the social emotional learning movement is a giant distraction from what’s really happening in our schools” (Berkshire, 2019).
Critics also argue that SEL programs can be harmful by putting undue pressure on students to conform to specific social and emotional standards. Alfie Kohn, an education author and speaker, argues that SEL programs “are based on the same philosophy as traditional discipline: that students need to be taught how to behave properly and then held accountable when they don’t” (Kohn, 2018). Kohn believes that such programs can actually undermine students’ autonomy and critical thinking skills.
Critics also point out that many SEL programs are backed by large corporations that profit from selling their products to schools. Alex Molnar, a research professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, argues that “SEL programs are often promoted and sold by entrepreneurs and corporations that stand to benefit financially from these programs” (Molnar, 2017). Molnar believes that the real aim of SEL programs is not to improve student outcomes, but to create a profitable market for SEL products.
Furthermore, critics of SEL argue that the programs have little to no scientific evidence to support their effectiveness. A review of 82 studies on SEL programs by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) found that “the average effect size of SEL programs was only 0.33, indicating that these programs have a relatively small impact on student outcomes” (Durlak et al., 2011). Critics argue that this lack of evidence means that SEL programs are not worth the cost to schools and taxpayers.
Concerns with Social Emotional Learning Companies
One of the biggest concerns with SEL companies is that they often charge exorbitant fees for their services. In many cases, these fees are paid for by public school systems, which are already stretched thin financially. Critics argue that these fees are unnecessary, as many of the skills taught through SEL can be effectively integrated into existing curriculum without the need for outside consultants. Not to mention all the free sources of information on the internet and Youtube which teach exactly the same concepts.
Research plays a crucial role in evaluating the effectiveness of Social Emotional Learning. Unfortunately, much of the research on SEL is conducted by the companies themselves, which raises concerns about conflicts of interest. Furthermore, much of the research is based on self-reported data, which can be biased and unreliable.
One study published in the Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation found that while SEL programs do show some promise in improving student outcomes, the effects are often small and may not be worth the cost. The authors of the study also noted that many of the studies on SEL suffer from methodological issues that make it difficult to draw firm conclusions.
Furthermore, there is a lack of evidence to support the effectiveness of SEL programs. A report from the RAND Corporation found that while SEL programs do show some promise in improving student outcomes, there is not enough evidence to definitively say that they are effective. This lack of evidence raises questions about whether or not public school systems are wasting valuable resources on a program that may not actually work.
According to Dr. Chester Finn Jr., “If social emotional learning programs are going to be mandated in our schools, then we need to see more rigorous research on their effectiveness, and we need to ensure that they are not being used to push a particular political agenda.” Critics argue that the focus on SEL may divert valuable instructional time that could otherwise be spent on core subjects like math and science, leading to a potential negative impact on academic achievement.
Proponents Of Social emotional Learning
Despite these criticisms, social emotional learning continues to be embraced by many educators and policymakers, who argue that it can help to improve students’ mental health, reduce bullying, and create a more positive school culture. Proponents of social emotional learning also argue that it can help to prepare students for success in the workplace, where social and emotional skills are increasingly valued by employers.
In response to the concerns raised by critics, proponents of SEL argue that the implementation of SEL programs needs to be done properly and with care. They suggest that SEL programs should be based on scientifically valid research and implemented by trained professionals who can ensure that students are receiving the necessary support and resources. They also argue that SEL programs should not be used as a substitute for addressing issues like underfunding and teacher shortages but rather as a supplement to existing efforts.
Given the lack of concrete evidence supporting the efficacy of SEL, I believe that public schools should focus their resources on programs with a proven track record of success instead of investing in Social Emotional Learning Companies. There is currently not enough independent research or data to justify the millions being paid to these companies. In my opinion, it appears to be a waste of taxpayer funds.
It is possible that these companies are running a sophisticated, legal scam to take advantage of gullible school systems. I believe that this is exactly what is happening and hope that more school districts will begin to reconsider investing millions in companies with no evidence to support their claims. Instead, they could utilize free resources widely available if they choose to incorporate social emotional learning into their curriculums.
Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). (2019). What is SEL? Retrieved from https://casel.org/what-is-sel/
Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child development, 82(1), 405-432.
Gray, P. (2019). The case against social emotional learning. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/201901/the-case-against-social-emotional-learning
Kohn, A. (2018). The trouble with teaching values. Education Week, 38(9), 22-23.
Molnar, A. (2017). The commercialization of social and emotional learning. Education Week, 36(16), 28-29.
National Conference of State Legislatures. (2021). Social and emotional learning. Retrieved from https://www.ncsl.org/research/education/social-and-emotional-learning.aspx
National Education Association. (2021). Social and emotional learning. Retrieved from https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/social-and-emotional-learning
Noguera, P. A., Darling-Hammond, L., & Friedlaender, D. (2015). Schools and social-emotional learning: The future of children, 25(1), 1-14.
Payton, J. W., Weissberg, R. P., Durlak, J. A., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., Schellinger, K. B., & Pachan, M. (2008). The positive impact of social and emotional learning for kindergarten to eighth-grade students: Findings from three scientific reviews. Chicago, IL: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.
RAND Corporation. (2019). Social and emotional learning interventions under the Every Student Succeeds Act: Evidence review. Retrieved from https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2748.html
Schneider, E. (2019). The problem with teaching ‘grit’ to poor kids? They already have it. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2019/08/21/752417891/the-problem-with-teaching-grit-to-poor-kids-they-already-have-it