No, Social Emotional Learning isn’t a “Trojan Horse” for CRT.
I Wrote a SEL Course: Here’s What to Expect in Schools
My boss answered a Zoom call with his familiar “Eureka!” smile. His face lit up with the glow of a fresh idea bouncing about behind his eyes. Today, he’d discovered the perfect new project to occupy my newly-acquired full-time hours.
At the time, Social Emotional Learning had just become the hot new fad in education. With a nerdy fascination with behavioral ecology, I was ecstatic to learn about the field of SEL. With my work, we’d be able to use our computer science curriculum to help students process a year of pandemic and general societal difficulty. Though a tad stricken with imposter syndrome, optimism and the giddiness of a recent promotion propelled me forward into investigation.
Over the summer of 2021, I wrote a Social Emotional Learning (SEL) course. Very quickly, it became apparent that I’d gotten myself into much more than I bargained for. From the onset, the process provided incredible lessons that radically shifted not just how I see the field of developmental psychology, but also myself, and, more importantly, humanity.
Here’s what I learned:
Shortly after the course was published, I was alarmed to see SEL get swept up into the political scene (talk about timing!). Suddenly, my little course about kindness, empathy, and time management was packaged amongst CRT and the Liberal Education Agenda™. Ensuring the course was apolitical was a primary focus, and frankly, a difficult challenge whilst still reeling from all the dreadful events of the previous year. After completing many revisions to filter out my own political bias, watching it become a talk track in Congress was maddening.
Let me set the record straight: social emotional learning doesn’t need to be political at all, especially for your little ones! The term might already sound a tad scary depending on what news you watch, but it’s actually remarkably benign.
Most SEL courses cover five topics:
- Self-Awareness: students learn to introspect.
- Relationship Skills: students learn to build healthy friendships.
- Social Awareness: students develop their empathy.
- Responsible Decision Making: students learn to make wise choices.
- Self-management: students learn to process hard emotions in healthy ways.
SEL is most effective when students are given the space to respectfully disagree and form their own opinions. The beauty of SEL is when it’s done correctly, it teaches young children to do just that and respect when others are doing the same. Once a student successfully embodies the lessons within SEL courses, I’d wager they’d be less likely to parrot the opinions of the adults in their life.
But, it absolutely makes sense why there’s so much confusion about the whole concept. Even when I began the Social Emotional Competencies course, I got the idea wrong! I assumed SEL content would be the classics of my past education: “Don’t be a bully”, “Stand up for Yourself”, and “Keep a Planner’’. That perspective was quickly obliterated. After reviewing a single lesson, it was obvious that SEL was so much more than the platitudes of 90s assemblies.
While I worked, I couldn’t help but introspect about my own state of emotional education growing up. Writing the course became bittersweet. There’s incredible joy in creating material that can help young students develop their emotions, but it made me starkly aware of all the lessons I wish someone had taught me. The modern understanding of the mind, of childhood development, and of neurodivergence allows us to erase many of the ways the education system failed past generations of kids. The realization felt like a gut punch. I gasped at the unnecessary traumas my friends and I experienced (and caused for others). The writing picked up pace. Though we suffered, I still had time to make the world a little better for those after me.
Without even noticing the transition, I found myself writing to the children like me: the sensitive, the stubborn, the shy, the chronically stressed, and the easily distracted. It wasn’t my intention, but as a result, I inadvertently therapized myself. After work hours, I felt that my inner child and I were getting along a little better, and I was recognizing and counteracting my own red flags more readily.
After writing this one course, I felt happier, healthier, and wiser. Imagine what effect this could have on children whose minds are still developing. SEL education in schools has the potential to radically improve the lives of our children. Setting them up with tools to cope with the harshness of the world could very well make them better adults than we might ever be.
Beyond the curriculum, the ideas of SEL give students a space for meaningful discussion. Teachers, in more cases than you might think, are the last line of defense for student development. Not every child has the privilege of supportive or available parents. Elementary teachers, in addition to teaching Math, English, Science, and History, must also teach developing brains to be self-aware, self-managing, empathetic, and kind. That’s a lot of burden for one person to take on, especially when they only have 8 hours a day to do it on a salary much lower than is deserved.
Aside from the rare few teachers who specialized in childhood psychology and development before their time as educators, even beginning this task can feel overwhelming. With the normalization of SEL in the classroom, teachers gain resources to approach this task. This makes the process less daunting and allows teachers more time to spend directly with their students.
Discovering SEL often felt like being bombarded by new revelations. The greatest of those was the concept of a growth mindset. The idea, backed by the principles of neuroscience, teaches the learner that emotional traits and soft skills can be practiced and improved. Older educational practices seem to define children as their fixed emotional traits; this one is talkative, that one isn’t very curious. Children, when defined in these ways, learn to stay that way, instead of working towards being who they would prefer to be. empathy, patience, and discipline are skills that can be learned and developed like any other academic subject. As soon as I embodied this in my own life, I saw a radical improvement in my well-being. We too can grow, we can make our minds what we want.
I encourage you to seek out resources to learn more about your own Social and Emotional Health. Here are some links for you to start your journey: