What is SEL? Parents push back against CRT 'Trojan Horse', say it advertises suicide

Social Emotional Learning becomes the latest victim of culture wars, as angry parents slam programs being implemented nationwide

                            What is SEL? Parents push back against CRT 'Trojan Horse', say it advertises suicide
Co-teachers at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 give a lesson on September 27, 2021, in New York City. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

A new culture war has broken out over Social Emotional Learning (SEL), a program that is now being slowly implemented in schools nationwide. Some angry parents say it "promotes suicide" while those in support argue it's a vital tool to understand emotions, sexuality and race identity. 

Before SEL, Critical Race Theory (CRT) was widely condemned by parents, educators and the Republican Party, even though it was rarely taught at the school level. Hundreds of school board meetings were filled with angry parents ranting against CRT, with one dad even saying it was the "life support" keeping racism alive. The debates have also reached the federal government with General Mark Milley forced to defend the military's adoption of CRT in a June House Armed Services Committee hearing.


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Even though the furor appears to show little sign of simmering down, there's now a new target in town - SEL. It's not as widespread as CRT just yet, but it's already grabbing headlines. Wondering what it is? Well, here's your answer.


What is SEL?

The Committee for Children describes SEL as "the process of developing the self-awareness, self-control and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life success." Basically, it's a framework that is meant to help children develop their social and emotional skills. Those in favor argue that SEL helps students "better understand their thoughts and emotions, to become more self-aware, and to develop more empathy." 

To be clear, there's no clear designed coursework or curriculum for SEL. Like CRT, it's an abstract subject that's usually woven into other subjects in a school's curriculum. Younger students are usually taught how to handle their emotions and feelings while older children are often taught how to talk about sexuality, race, and other personal topics. The roots of SEL go back to 1994 when it was founded by a group including author Daniel Goleman and educator-philanthropist Eileen Rockefeller Growald.

To date, only three states - Illinois, Kansas, and Pennsylvania -  have fully-designed standards for implementing SEL in schools. Some schools in other states have their own take on the topic, but no other states have ever formally implemented it. The National University argues that SEL can "help students develop the “soft skills” required of many jobs, such as teamwork, and ability to understand others, and problem-solving."

Arguments against SEL

Critics, including GOP candidates, have been quick to dismiss SEL as another "woke agenda" by the left. Kandiss Taylor, who is running for the governor of Georgia tweeted, "Let's vote for who represents us BEST! A hardworking, non politician, public school educator who will ensure CRT, SEL, CSE or any other communistic, evil, divisive curriculum will never be taught in GA will do just fine." In September, one mom at a Texas school board meeting said, "Counsellors need to get back to the business of prepping our kids for higher learning. Not promoting suicide. These kids are trying to get through the day - get through compacted math, algebra, go to cotillion on Sunday - they are not thinking about these issues."



Days after that, parents in Carmel, Indiana began calling for the district to fire its mental health coordinator from her "dangerous, worthless job." Conservatives have also argued it's a "trojan horse" for CRT, claiming that teachers are embedding CRT lessons in SEL. In Wisconsin, GOP lawmakers proposed legislation that would outlaw SEL and other educational concepts that they labeled as "state-sanctioned racism."

Many parents believe the topics should be left to them to teach, not the school. But that argument has been counteracted by Amal Anthony, one parent in Carmel. "While we all like to think that our kids are going to come to us first, sometimes that’s not the reality," she said. Adding fuel to the fire is the sharply rising rate of suicide, gun violence, and sexual violence amongst school children. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among children, with a 31% increase in attempted suicides as of early 2020, as compared to 2019.

SEL proponents argue that this is exactly what the framework can help address. One Southlake Texas mother said, "I personally cannot understand why a parent would not want their child to understand - even if their child doesn't have any mental health issues ... what depression looks like, what anxiety looks like." But many don't see it that way, fuelled by the GOP-led propaganda that SEL is a substitute for CRT, which they have successfully turned into a major cultural battle. 

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