'Social Emotional Learning' Becomes Latest Battleground in School Curriculums

An Oklahoma bill seeks to prevent the teaching of a concept in schools around the state. An Illinois bill seeks to facilitate the teaching of the same concept by establishing guidelines for a task force created to develop curriculums, assessment protocols and best practices.

After months of contention in the U.S. over the teaching of critical race theory and certain racial concepts in schools, social emotional learning (SEL) has become the latest battleground in school curriculums.

The term SEL refers to the "social, emotional and character development" of children, according to Dr. Maurice Elias, a professor in the Psychology Department at Rutgers University who has written several books on the subject. Elias began his work on SEL in the 1970s, but the skills and development it entails weren't referred to as social emotional intelligence until his book Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators.

Others might have come to know it under the term "emotional intelligence," he said, but the sweeping concept has been organized into five skill areas: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, the ability to get along in groups, and ethical and responsible decision making.

Those five skills lay the foundation for what humans need to "get along in the workplace, school, family, community," Elias told Newsweek.

Yet lawmakers, groups and individuals in some states have tried or are trying to ban it from schools. Under the Oklahoma bill, "no public school district, public charter school, or public virtual charter school shall use federal, state, or private funds to promote, purchase, or utilize the concepts of social emotional learning for training, instruction, or education of students."

Additionally, no "public school district, public charter school, or public virtual charter school teacher, administrator, counselor, employee, or volunteer shall use any curricula with content related to social emotional learning in the training, instruction, or education of Students," the bill reads. "The provisions of this subsection shall apply to all learning resources."

SEL Battle
After months of contention in the U.S. over the teaching of critical race theory and certain racial concepts in schools, social emotional learning has become the latest battleground in school curriculums. Above, inside Fallsington Elementary School in Levittown, Pennsylvania, on December 16, 2021. Kylie Cooper/AFP via Getty Images

A Parents' Bill of Rights released by Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita last year focused heavily on SEL.

"SEL programs represent a fundamental shift in the role of teachers from educators to therapists and expand the reach of government into domains of the family," Rokita said in a statement.

There are dozens of other pieces of proposed, passed or failed legislation across the country that either seek to block or boost the teaching of SEL or initiatives and concepts related to SEL, according to a bill tracker run by SEL4US.

But Elias, who has developed his own curricula for the teaching of SEL, said that social emotional learning begins from the moment someone is born, intentionally or not, and stressed the importance of continuing that education.

"We are educating kids socially and emotionally all the time. Parents are the first ones to do that. And then schools also need to do that, as do daycare centers and after school programs. So we're constantly educating kids about social emotional stuff, but we don't always do it intentionally," he said.

Elias said one of the things kids can be taught in a curriculum that includes SEL is the best position in a classroom seat for listening.

"Basically, for listening position, it means that you should have your rear end somewhere in contact with your seat. You should have at least one foot on the floor and you should be oriented toward the source of the sound," Elias said. "You can't make someone listen, but if you are in that position, you are more likely to be able to listen to what's being said to you."

Other methods include instructing children on how to communicate and present themselves based on the type situation they're in.

"You teach kids before they go into a situation, what is the best way to handle it? What was the appropriate body posture, eye contact? What are the right words I should be saying and what tone of voice would be the right one to use?" Elias said.

"We know what it takes for people to grow up and be successful in their careers, to graduate college, to be involved in civic life, to be good parents and family members. And all those things depend on your ability to be sensitive to others feelings, have compassion, be organized, set goals, be a good problem solver, work with other people effectively. And that's why it's important," he added.

Newsweek reached out to Oklahoma Senator Shane Jett, who authored the Oklahoma bill.