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

June 23, 2017

by Karen R. Effrem, MD


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.


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.

Archive: Karen R. Effrem, MD

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

  • Joe Ferrandino says:

    This is the exact reason to abolish the federal school system it’s unions and its power. Return education to the states with no federal controls competition breeds strength .Aristotle said all who have meditated on the art of governing mankind are convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of the youth. In all this time have we learned nothing?

  • Denis Ian says:

    Try this goofy after-school routine to giggle your kids … and to blow your mind.

    Grab ‘em by the ankles … turn ‘em upside down … and give a mighty shake. Do it every day … for a week or two … and see what spills out of their little noggins. Then have a good stare.

    Too many schools aren’t just schools any more … they’re head shops. Mind-bending mills where your kids get retooled, readjusted, and reoriented.

    Some schools now knead minds like clay. They glaze kids with a special finish no one ever requested. And when parents wake up … always later than sooner … they seem super-shocked to see what’s happened to their children … because they expected their schools to look like the schools of not-so-long ago … you know, places where kids learned to add and read and make pals. And memories.

    They expected wrong. Here’s why.

    Some kids are actually “kid”-napped … by gallsy-ballsy social justice ganatics who insist it’s their civic duty to evangelize your children into their hare krishna-ed congregation. They’re the anti-apostles … preferring their brand of not-so-free will to any other adult influence. And parents have no role at all because the true-believers have it all covered.

    So schools aren’t those safe spots down the block anymore … and parents had better start sniffin’ the wind … because some schools absolutely reek.

    And they’d better glare these social justice junkies straight in the eye because they think your kid’s easy to pied-pipe. A cinchy challenge. Easy prey.

    A decade back, I met an unusual lady with a mesmerizing sense of sarcasm … and the world’s largest antennae. A highly credentialed nurse, a road-runner, and as politically aware as they come.

    And she was a tough shield-maiden very in tune with her kids. She had three kids deep in the high school thing … and a caboose-baby back in elementary school. All in expensive, suburban, story-book public schools … like the ones Arne Duncan loved to knock.

    The stories she heard from her kids troubled her. A lot. And so suppertime became the “deprogramming hour”. She dug into her kids’ brains … as they dug into her dinners.

    She knew everything about every teacher … their reputations, their politics, and their scholarship. And that mattered to her. And she kept to that dinner ritual as religiously as teenage schedules would allow … and nothing slipped by her. Nothing.

    She knew of every assignment and project. And when she sensed teachers or administrators crossing her line in the sand, she’d pound her shield and sprint into battle … armed to the teeth with irrefutable facts and crystal clear logic. Unusual lady.

    She’s not so unique anymore. Vigilant parents sense what’s going on. And lots are now steel-spined … and unafraid to lock horns with any adult that tries to put a top-spin on their kid.

    Now universities like Brown have your kids in their sights … and they’re openly training secondary teachers to impose their liberal agenda on your kids.

    And these social justice pushers are bolder than ever … because they sense a ripe atmosphere for their social sermonizing. And today’s headlines are in-your-face proof of their arrogance.

    “Rochester School District Designates ‘Black Lives Matter at School’ Day”

    “Philly Teachers Plan Black Lives Matter Week — Not All Are Happy”

    “Bassett Unified Declares all Campuses as Safe, Sanctuary Schools”

    “Kindergarten Teacher Refuses to Let Boys play with Legos in the Name of Gender Equality”

    “’Gender Inclusive’ School District Says Drop ‘boys and girls,’ Call Kids ‘purple penguins’”

    And the all-time nauseating display of the asinine? A pair of teacher-kneelers on Long Island … auditioning for the Saul Alinsky Newcomer Award …. took a knee during the inaugural Pledge of Allegiance. In front of their middle school classes. In a bold display of … prejudice.

    That’s not brave stuff. That’s cheesy manipulation

    These social justice junkies see nothing wrong with this stuff. In fact, they’ll rail about their “higher aspirations” for education … and the “new consciousness” they’re cultivating for the new world that’s under construction.

    They’re real saviors. The saviors lots of you didn’t really ask for at all. Uninvited pests.

    And they think parents are unconscious morons for expecting multiplication or writing or some science to dominate the learning landscape. So those subjects get re-glazed … like your kid … and a geography lesson is suddenly premised on environmental terrorism and the inhumanity of borders. And the Civil War becomes a platform for ripping down 100 year old statues … and forbidding certain flags that just don’t jive with their historical bleaching.

    They don’t even trouble themselves with subtle anymore.

    It’s easy-glib for these guys. And they’re in your face. Replete with corny power salutes, cheapo t-shirts, and jive-epithets … and the ever popular “root cause” pretext. Some schools proudly commit to full-days of hajib-wearing and “white privilege” confessions … set to rap, of course.

    And they get snotty-nervy when someone like my shield-maiden friend calls them out for their own prejudices and intolerance. That’s when they bust out the tattooing language … and smear on labels like bigot, racist, intolerant, xenophobe, and Islamaphobe. You know the spew.

    This goes on in the schools you pay for … by teachers and school leaders in your employ. And they haven’t a blush about sneering at parents who don’t share their vision of the world … and they snicker with that piggish superiority of “Animal Farm”.

    Who recalls a day when these people … paid by us … worked for us and not for some ideology? It wasn’t so long ago that schools were all about kid’s stuff … untroubled by troubled adults. Unbothered by these ideological carpet-baggers.

    And now … Sixties-adoring college sorts want to institutionalize their brand of social zealotry by re-baptizing your children as their ideological foot soldiers … so they can become part of the 21st century American Taliban.

    Choke it off now.

    Denis Ian

  • Jenny McKeigue says:

    Anyone in the Psychology or Counseling professions knows this is unethical. Wish the professional organizations (such as National School Counselors) would step up and denounce this attempt to alter children’s psyches during school hours without parental consent.

  • angrymom says:

    Our district incorporated SEL hook, line and sinker into core academics, unbeknownst to most families. Core classes became diluted and younger parents who are new to schooling just think this is the way it is. Our district did this before it was a “thing” to be done. Our kids were successful before, and they continue to be successful. There are no indicators of success, but we have hired lots of literacy and math specialists (since we now interrupt academic learning, and kids are struggling and working harder), and social workers and psychologists since 2010: http://www.ncps-k12.org/site/handlers/filedownload.ashx?moduleinstanceid=4742&dataid=3836&FileName=101115Nov15CoverLetterforPresentation.pdf

  • Ron McMahon says:

    I couldn’t agree more. It sounds like leftist propaganda similar to common core to manipulate student thinking towards their philosophies. We shouldn’t allow schools to be political breeding grounds especially through k-12, there’s plenty of that in almost every college which also needs to be addressed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *