Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

ATTENTION Parents: “Social Emotional Learning” Creeping Into Education Plans


Last month, I reported on invasive social emotional learning (SEL) surveys which are being added to Common Core-aligned tests in many states. While that news alone is alarming, it is unfortunately only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the rapid expansion of SEL across the country.

In a recently published brief, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) boasted about how many states are now adding SEL into state accountability plans mandated under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). With schools having a hard enough time teaching academics due to the inferior Common Core standards — and because of the dangers to parental autonomy, freedom of conscience and privacy that we have discussed many times before — this is not really anything about which to brag.

Here are some highlights (or rather lowlights) of these invasive efforts based on state plans filed with the U.S. Department of Education, followed by some commentary:

Turning Teachers into Mental Health Therapists

CASEL gushes about how wonderful it is that:

New flexibility within Title II, Part A, also allows LEAs to use funds for in-service training for school personnel in techniques and supports for referring at-risk students to mental health services, as well as how to address issues such as safety, peer interaction, drug and alcohol abuse, and chronic absenteeism.

They also feature Illinois and its efforts to expand the notion of teachers acting as psychologists, promoting the schools acting as parents, and bringing in the even more controversial issue of identity politics in dealing with bias:

Illinois proposes using Title II funds to build upon its resources for family and community engagement, SEL, cultural competency, behavioral health issues, and recognizing implicit bias, among other issues.

Here are some of the many problems with this approach:

  • Even highly trained experts, including the president of the American Psychiatric Association, admits that “most psychiatric disorders lack validated diagnostic biomarkers” [there is no physical evidence for them], so “psychiatric diagnoses are still mostly based on clinician assessment.” In addition, the World Health Organization has said, “Childhood and adolescence being developmental phases, it is difficult to draw clear boundaries between phenomena that are part of normal development and others that are abnormal.” So it seems highly unlikely that untrained, overburdened teachers will understand how to properly do these referrals.
  • This can lead to improper labeling of children which, as Jane Robbins and I discussed in The Federalistmay result in “forced treatment with medications that have harmful side effects, or threatened or actual removal of children from their homes if parents refuse the treatment.”
  • Diagnoses may be made on the basis of political attitudes and beliefs as has happened around Second Amendment issues in several cases.

Letting the Government Define “Normal” Thoughts, Beliefs, and Attitudes

CASEL argues that states and schools should “identify evidence-based SEL interventions as a school improvement strategy,” which is very difficult because even proponents like CASEL and many others have not reached a uniform definition of them. CASEL admits in this brief that “states may define and describe SEL skills in different ways…”  The World Economic Forum said in a 2016 brief that “the community” should be “collectively” involved in “defining SEL standards” in order to “help to ensure that everyone understands and supports the implementation of the learning standards.”

If the standards are still being defined, it is highly unlikely, despite proponents’ statements, that there is reliable evidence to show the effectiveness of using SEL standards, especially in high stakes accountability plans mandated by the federal government. In fact, there is significant evidence that the opposite is true.

More importantly, having the parameters of normal thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes set by government entities at any level, is wholly incompatible with the inherent rights of freedom of conscience and parental autonomy so cherished by our Founders and repeatedly affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Side-stepping Parental Consent

CASEL lauds the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support (PBIS) system as a way to improve social emotional issues. Yet, in addition to being ineffective (see this review of a study for a related program called Response to Intervention), this and other similar programs promoted and funded in ESSA cast a wide net for possible referrals for special education evaluations. Schools feel justified in not seeking parental consent when doing these little-explained interventions and collecting lots of sensitive personally identifiable information, because they are short of formal evaluations.

SEL as a Means of Indoctrination

CASEL also touts South Carolina’s ESSA plan because it so strongly emphasizes SEL as part of what CASEL believes is the way states should describe their “well-rounded vision of student success”:

South Carolina’s vision specifies that all students will “graduate prepared for success in college, careers, and citizenship” and has developed the Profile of the South Carolina Graduate as the basis of its plan. This framework identifies the knowledge, skills, and life and career characteristics that each student should have upon graduation from high school, which includes self-direction, global perspective, perseverance, and interpersonal skills that are important aspects of students’ social and emotional development. [Emphasis added]

What does that “global perspective” entail? Who decides what defines a proper “global perspective”? Is that acceptance of Sharia Law and the Five Pillars of Islam as is being imposed in many high school world history courses? Will students be taught about the hundreds of millions of deaths due to communism or that America’s free-market system, despite its imperfections, has produced freest, most prosperous, and most generous nation in the world?

Global perspective needs much more definition, especially in the context of such subjective social emotional learning.

Womb-to-Tomb Data Collection

Because all of this highly sensitive social emotional data is considered academic and not medical/psychological, it is not at all protected by the student data privacy law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which was completely gutted by the Obama administration. If this push for social emotional profiling and data collection is not stopped, it will continue to become much easier for researchers and corporations to gain access to this data. Foundations and corporations have a keen interest in gaining access to this data as well.


Let us all hope that President Trump’s latest executive order to review the extent of federal overreach in education does something to rein in this egregious government effort to take over from parents and religious institutions the critical job of molding  and monitoring the hearts and minds of our precious children. Their futures and ours depend on it.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Karen R. Effrem, MD

Dr. Karen Effrem and her husband have three children. She is trained as a pediatrician and serves as national education issues chairman for Eagle Forum and president of Education Liberty Watch.

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