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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

From self-esteem to social-emotional learning

Years ago, I speed-read a self-esteem book about a hedgehog (or some such) who was afraid to go to school on the first day because he didn’t know how to read. By the final page, he’d learned it was OK: His teacher would “love” him “just the way you are.”

Parents love their little hedgehogs. Teachers do not. It’s not their job. Their job is to teach reading, among other things. If “just the way you are” is illiterate, then a good teacher will do her best to change that.

I agree with Checker Finn that the self-esteem movement of the ’80s was an “educational disaster.” Teachers were told to shower students with praise and encouragement, instead of useful feedback. At best, it wasted time. At worst, students weren’t challenged to improve. You’re wonderful just the way you are.

Finn believes self-esteem has lived on as “social-emotional learning, which claims to build the ways by which children learn and apply skills necessary to understand and manage their emotions, make decisions effectively, sustain positive relationships, and practice empathy.”

Dig into social-emotional learning’s five core competencies, as laid out by CASEL, and you’ll spot—among 25 skills students are supposed to learn—just one feeble mention of ethics and none whatsoever of morality. You won’t even find such old-fashioned virtues as integrity, courage, or honesty, and certainly nothing as edgy as patriotism. Though its partisans will contest the point, social-emotional learning does not seem intended to build character in any traditional sense, nor is it aimed at citizenship. It’s awash in the self, steeped in the ability to understand one’s own emotions, thoughts, values, strengths, and limitations.

American society has many vehicles “for advancing social-emotional concepts—the Girl Scouts, religious youth groups, Little League, swim team—while we have essentially no others that will teach children to read, write, or compute,” Finn concludes.

Social-emotional learning is not self-esteem in sheep’s clothing counters Charles Barone.

The self-esteem movement “was centered around making children and young people feel better about themselves,” he writes. “In contrast, social-emotional learning is primarily about teaching students how to make better decisions and manage negative emotions.”

Rather than an attempt at making students feel better, it actually requires that students be fully aware that “happy” is not a perpetual state of mind and that anger, frustration, and disappointment are part of life’s grand deal. The solution isn’t trying to ameliorate those bad feelings through superficial affirmations from one’s self or others but rather to not let them lead to impulsive behavior or irrational decisions.

Barone worked with two of the cofounders of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) in a past life, he writes. “I saw an incredibly well thought-out approach that was grounded in research and informed by ongoing data collection.”

Barone worries about the danger of overpromising, the perils of bad implementation and the risk that “some promoting SEL merely want to deploy it as the newest tool to paper over low academic achievement.” (Our hedgehogs can’t read, but they’re not suicidal.) SEL shouldn’t be used as an accountability measure, he believes. But it’s not chopped liver. Or self-esteem.

Education Week reports on a fourth-grade teacher who teaches students to manage and harness anger by examining conflicts in literature.

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