Expanding Unproven “Social Emotional Learning” Will Not Make Schools Safer

April 13, 2018

by Karen R. Effrem, MD


The National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning, a joint effort of the Aspen Institute and the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), has recently released more “calls to action” for teachers, youth, and families. These include calling for expanding SEL interventions and involvement in the school safety realm in the wake of the Parkland shooting. Examples of some of their desires related to school safety include:

  • Create space where students feel physically, intellectually, socially and emotionally safe. [Families]
  • We need to feel like we belong and are emotionally and physically safe in our schools so that we can take academic risks that lead to our success. [Students]
  • Schools policies should ensure that we are safe by creating learning communities that aims [sic] to resolve conflicts collaboratively. [Students]
  • The physical environment of a school should be designed in ways to invite learning. [Students]
  • Enabling students to feel respected for their cultural identities and perspectives and to learn culturally relevant material is an essential element in creating safe, affirming, and inclusive classrooms. [Teachers]
  • By addressing the social and emotional dimensions of learning along with academic development, teachers get to know their students better, recognize the strengths that each student brings to the class, and create an environment where all students’ cultures and backgrounds are leveraged as assets for learning. Teachers can further personalize the learning environment by providing customized instructional strategies and evidence-based supports and by promoting positive relationships with multiple adults in the school.

While these ideas may sound great on the surface, they are extremely contradictory on a multitude of levels.

First, public schools and universities were not created to be the monitors and promoters of emotional safety and growth. While, of course, the learning environment should not be abusive (as it has often become, especially for students trying to maintain traditional, Judeo-Christian values or learn the principles of freedom that founded this nation), the emotional development of children is supposed to be under the primary purview of families. One of the main reasons the American education system is having so many problems is because schools and teachers are being asked or, in many cases, forced to take on the roles and duties of families. This trend is in turn caused by the government-induced epidemic of single-parent families. The evidence is clear that two-parent families and religious involvement are far more effective at closing the achievement gap and preventing social emotional distress than any school-based SEL program could ever be.

Secondly, there is nothing in any of these documents about maintaining firm, consistent discipline, which is integral for creating the school climate called for in these documents. As has been previously discussed (here, here, and here), the lax Obama school discipline policies — imposed upon schools via threats of extensive civil rights investigations or via bribes of million of dollars in School Climate Grants — have dangerously decreased school safety for both students and teachers. While it is true that behavior incidents are higher in African American students than for other races, this, as the research clearly shows, is not due to discrimination, but to the fact that children raised in single-parent households, especially boys, are more likely to have behavioral problems or be involved in criminal incidents. It is hoped that Secretary DeVos will continue the move to rescind this policy as the work of the School Safety Commission proceeds.

Thirdly, significant studies show that SEL is not as important for success as academic achievement — and some show SEL doesn’t work at all:

“Early math skills have the greatest predictive power, followed by reading and then attention skills. By contrast, measures of socioemotional behaviors…were generally insignificant predictors of later academic performance, even among children with relatively high levels of problem behavior.”  [Emphasis added — Duncan, et. al., School Readiness and Later Achievement – Developmental Psychology, 43(6), 1428-1446]

In fact, experts cannot even agree on a definition of SEL, much less what programs or curriculum works best:

To create SEL standards and assess progress toward those standards presupposes that we agree about what SEL is. Yet neither researchers nor practitioners nor policymakers have come to such a consensus.

Finally, the individualized, inclusive, multi-cultural perspective that teachers are requesting in the teacher document has several major problems. It distracts more from academics when there are already so many distractions and academic performance has stagnated. And it is very difficult to see how teaching and learning can be further individualized when the Common Core standardizes teaching, curriculum, and assessment; machine-based “personalized” learning (competency-based education) severely diminishes the student-teacher interaction; and a multi-cultural emphasis can further balkanize students instead of creating unity.

We must continue to work against the psychologizing of education to protect the minds, hearts and futures of our children and our nation. That is best done by using tried and true academic methods, maintaining discipline, and promoting two-parent family formation.


Dr. Karen Effrem is trained as a pediatrician and serves as president of Education Liberty Watch and the executive director of the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition.

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