• Joanne Jacobs

Is SEL a 'Trojan horse' for identity politics?

Social-emotional learning (SEL) can mean the sort of things teachers have taught for generations: Count to ten to calm down, take turns, set goals. Or, under the "social awareness" umbrella, it can involve discussing identity, race and "white privilege," writes Meg Anderson on NPR.


SEL is now controversial, she writes, accused of being a "Trojan horse" for critical race theory and transgenderism.

Photo: Second Step

"Some prominent SEL programs do talk about racial justice and racism," writes Anderson. For example, Second Step provides Anti-Racism and Anti-Bias Resources and offers "transformative SEL" to address "racial injustice and . . . drive real change in your school communities."


"Social-emotional learning is so that people can get along better," says Dena Simmons, the founder of LiberatED. "We also have to talk about why people don't get along . . . If we don't apply an anti-racist, abolitionist, anti-oppressive, anti-bias lens to social-emotional learning, it can very easily turn into white supremacy with a hug."


"All 50 states have standards related to SEL in preschool, and more than half have standards in K-12," reports Anderson. "It has existed under different names across the decades: character education, 21st century skills, noncognitive skills. In the adult world, they're often called soft skills."


Trust is low, Rick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, tells Anderson.


Many parents feel "this is a case of big, deep-pocketed, liberal, coastal foundations coming in, led by people who went to elite colleges who aren't from their communities, pushing ideological agendas that they find problematic and then calling them racists and idiots when they push back," he says. "If there's anything more likely to turn skepticism into full blown rebellion, it's hard to think of what it might be."


"Parents agree that schools should be teaching specific SEL-related skills, such as goal setting and understanding people from different backgrounds," writes Adam Tyner, who conducted a survey last year.


"There is near unanimity that students need honest feedback even if it might hurt their feelings, that working hard helps students develop character, that teachers and other school staff should serve as character models, that students’ social and emotional needs must be met in order for them to reach their academic potential, and that school is an important place for learning right from wrong," he concludes. But the term "social-emotional learning" is unpopular, as is "soft skills." People prefer "life skills."

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