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Navigating the Landscape of Social and emotional learning: Subtle (and not so Subtle) Threats to Implementation

In the wake of post-pandemic challenges affecting students, families, and educators, the role of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) has become increasingly crucial. The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills,
and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.” SEL is essential for supporting students’ sense of wellbeing and became an integral component for addressing students’
anxiety due to stressors imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The benefits of SEL are well documented in research, yet despite this SEL continues to face significant implementation challenges. From persistent anti-SEL legislation to resistance within school communities, the opposition is widespread. As we navigate SEL implementation in the post-pandemic era, it is important to continue to survey and adapt to the changing landscape, recognizing the universal benefits SEL offers for students and educators alike. This brief explores the subtle and not so subtle opposition SEL faces, shedding light on factors that could undermine the practice or adoption of proven SEL approaches. These threats include:

  • Persistence of Anti-SEL Legislation: Despite a decline in media attention since 2021, anti-SEL legislation persists, and the repercussions of measures introduced during heightened media focus endure.
  • Backlash Across the Political Continuum: Both the political left and right have voiced concerns around SEL practices, impacting the implementation of SEL in schools in distinct ways.
  • Educator Resistance: Considerable attention is directed towards external threats facing SEL, however, resistance to SEL practices also originates within school communities themselves from educators not being bought in.
  • Skepticism from Families: Families express skepticism about SEL due to differing opinions around what topics should be taught at home versus within the school environment.
  • Limiting SEL’s Scope: Despite proven benefits, SEL instruction is often limited to early grades, with waning emphasis in middle and high schools. SEL is also primarily focused on students, often neglecting adults’ social-emotional needs in schools.

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