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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Without the jargon, 'social-emotional learning' means ...

Social-emotional learning means "teaching kids to be nice to one another and to be nice to themselves," Liz Mikitarian, a retired kindergarten teacher, told USA TODAY's Alia Wong. Based in Brevard County, Florida, she founded Stop Moms for Liberty to oppose the conservative group, Moms for Liberty, that sees SEL as infringing on parents' rights and teaching new-age and "woke" values.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is no fan of SEL, and school districts are replacing the term, writes Wong. In Palm Beach County, teaching "skills such as self-awareness, empathy and resilience" has been rebranded as “skills for learning and life."

States ranging from Iowa to Montana are targeting SEL, she reports.

Is it "social-emotional learning" or good, old-fashioned circle time?

On Straight Talk, Rick Hess talks to Harvard's Jal Mehta about why "social-emotional learning" became controversial.

SEL's "goals are worthy," says Mehta. "To succeed in life, you need to be able to regulate your emotions, get along well with others, manage conflict, and develop executive functioning."

But SEL has become divorced from academic learning, a little block of the school day all its own.

"Ideally, as you suggest, we’d correct for this by weaving SEL back into the fabric of the school day," says Hess. But that's hard to do now that SEL has "so much baggage" and so many "vendors, academics and advocates . . . repackaging their wares and agendas so they could ride the SEL train."

As I noted a few months back, that’s how you wind up with classroom pets marketed as an SEL intervention. This can also create a lot of ambiguity about what is or isn’t authentically “SEL,” which has helped turn SEL, like the Common Core before it, into a political football. When big-dollar consultants and credentialed authorities start insisting that SEL meant doing privilege walks or micro-aggression worksheets, lots of conservative parents and public officials start viewing it as a backdoor way for advocates to promote controversial ed. school ideologies.

The first step, says Mehta, is to "use real, nonjargony words that are specific and clear and connect to what you actually intend for students. Cooperation. Self-regulation. Executive functioning." Then, be honest about the goal of character formation.

My colleague Ron Berger, who leads professional learning for Expeditionary Learning, has described working in red states and leading off by saying something like: “We probably disagree on a lot of things: gay marriage, gun control, abortion, and who we voted for in the last election. But I think students should be judged by the quality of their work and the quality of their character, and that’s what I’m here today to talk about. Honesty. Integrity. Responsibility. Respect. We may disagree about a lot of things, but I’m guessing that 99 percent of us want those things for our children.”

If SEL is about widely held values,” it will "enjoy widespread support and do much good," Hess believes.

If parents think the jargon is hiding a different agenda, they'll rebel. And "trust us" doesn't have much force any more.

"Much of my work as a kindergarten teacher was teaching young children how to be students," writes Fordham's Nathaniel Grossman. "Even the routine for 'circle time' on the carpet required days, if not weeks, of explicit practice. Making eye contact, waiting one’s turn to speak, and ignoring distractions" don't come naturally to many children, and they're essential for academic learning.

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