How “Social Emotional Learning” Is Turning Children Into Leftist Activists

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Social Emotional Learning (SEL) proponents’ are loudly and robotically chanting the mantra that SEL is the next great education silver bullet “because of strong and consistent scientific evidence that it helps children and provides an underpinning for productive citizenship.” Yet, the true motives of this push, combined with the research evidence inconsistencies (as admitted by SEL experts themselves), are starting to become obvious.

Education Week recently published an article titled “Harnessing Student Emotions in Service of a Cause” that completely confirmed my and others’ concerns that SEL would be used for psychological and political manipulation:

Like many other teachers of language arts, social studies, and math, Hollins is using social-emotional learning, or SEL—teaching students to manage emotions, make responsible decisions, build relationships—to turn everyday lessons into preparation for civic engagement. The goal is to get students to reflect on their emotions and to deal with them in productive ways. A reading or math lesson can teach students to see their personal challenges as part of a wider struggle, where people work together to bring about change, what these teachers call social justice. [Emphasis added]

It is noteworthy that the EdWeek article is sponsored by the NoVo Foundation, which is one of the many leftist foundations supporting the SEL movement that also supports many non-academic political causes. Jane Robbins and I discussed this further in a recent Federalist article on the dangers of SEL:

Another major funder of CASEL [Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning] is the NoVo Foundation, which seeks to use SEL to “play a significant role in shifting our culture of systemic inequality and violence toward a new ethos that values and prioritizes collaboration and partnership.” NoVo’s founders make funding decisions to change “systems [that are] based on domination, competition, and exploitation.” Presumably they think CASEL and SEL will help them overturn these exploitative systems.

One area of particular concern to NoVo is LGBT issues. In December 2015, NoVo partnered with the Arcus Foundation to kick off a five-year philanthropic initiative focused on “improving the lives of transgender people worldwide.”

Tim Shriver, one of the co-founders of CASEL, gave a presentation at a recent Brookings event celebrating SEL and the publication of an entire issue of the joint Brookings/Princeton journal, The Future of Children, on SEL. In it, he included this slide also confirming SEL’s role in “civic engagement,” also known as political activism, even in math lessons:

In mathematics classrooms, for example: students should reflect on how they respond when facing a difficult challenge or making a mistake, learning that with effort, they can continue to improve, and be successful (self-awareness); engaging and persisting in solving challenging problems (self-management); collaborating and learning from others and showing respect for others’ ideas (social awareness and relationship skills); applying the mathematics they know to make decisions and solve problems in everyday life, the workplace, and society at large (responsible decision making). Effective mathematics instruction builds upon these competencies to improve student learning and engagement. [Emphasis added]

In addition to the political activism, proponents still can’t agree what SEL really is, which makes their claims of the concept’s success highly suspect.  One of the articles in the journal issue referenced above fully admits there is no agreement even on definitions and on whether SEL should even be taught in schools:

But what are we talking about when it comes to SEL? Researchers, educators, and policymakers alike have trouble pinning down exactly what’s included in this broad domain—and what isn’t…The recent expansion in popular interest in SEL coexists with what might best be called a healthy skepticism about teaching social and emotional skills in schools. Despite considerable research suggesting that SEL is a vital component of academic achievement and later success in life, various stakeholders hold divergent and often incompatible views as to how or even whether SEL skills should be explicitly taught in schools. To further complicate matters, the existing evidence is somewhat conflicting: some studies find that interventions designed to teach and support SEL skills have positive effects, and others don’t; some students seem to benefit more than others… [Emphasis added]

Here are some other examples from a press release for this same journal issue:

“We know these skills are essential for children, but there’s still a lot we don’t know about ways to enhance them,” said Megan McClelland, the Katherine E. Smith Healthy Children and Families Professor in Human Development and Family Sciences in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences. “The results to date have been mixed.”

We don’t yet know what the ‘key ingredients’ are here,” added McClelland, the paper’s lead author, “but we do have enough evidence to know we need to keep doing this work.” [Emphasis added]

Professor McClelland and her colleagues in the paper referenced in the press release above also admit:

Are early childhood SEL interventions cost-effective? The short answer is that it’s too soon to be sure.

So even the experts don’t agree on definitions, there is no evidence of cost effectiveness, no great evidence of general effectiveness — despite every state having pre-K SEL standards and four states having statewide K-12 standards — and there is clear evidence that these programs are being cultivated to indoctrinate students with the government’s or unaccountable foundations’ version of social activism. Why, then, should parents and taxpayers believe that “this is the moment” to expand SEL nationwide?

I do not often agree with Chester Finn, given that he and the Fordham Institute have so strongly pushed Common Core, which is admitted by many national groups to be promoting SEL, but I found his recent column in Education Week heartening:

…[S]ocial-emotional learning will almost surely turn out to have no real scientific foundation—just a lot of much-hyped “qualitative” and “anecdotal” studies that nobody could replicate via gold-standard research. Indeed, those who are still sentient a quarter-century later may well read an exposé of social-emotional learning by a journalist, perhaps containing another telling quote that one isn’t supposed to utter in front of one’s students.

Given the penchant of both the federal and state governments to harvest social emotional and mindset data on our children, combined with the grave dangers this insidious effort presents to privacy, parental autonomy and the private right of conscience, it is strongly hoped that SEL-related provisions are among the first federal regulations that the Trump administration removes in their laudable effort to decrease the federal footprint in education.


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.