In the “before time” last year, my daughter came home with some worksheets on “Social-Emotional Learning” (SEL). She got Dojo points for every sheet she completed.
“Make an angry face,” I read. “Go ahead, baby.” My daughter rolled her eyes, thus demonstrating her mastery of “contemptuous,” then gave a half-hearted frown. “Uh huh. Okay, now I’m supposed to make an angry face–whoops, sorry, I was supposed to do that earlier. Now you need to think of situations that make you angry.”
“Doing this stupid worksheet?” offered my daughter.
“Yeah, but we’d probably better not write that down. Um, how about when your brothers annoy you?”
We half-assed our way through the worksheets and got the Dojo points (the person and group with the most points at the end of the week got a “Dojo of the week” certificate). I am not sure that my daughter learned anything new about identifying and dealing with anger, however.
The situation did not improve when classes started meeting remotely, in spite of the obvious emphasis the teacher put on this subject; much of the hourly semi-weekly video conferences focused on feelings, best ways to handle the social situations kids were no longer facing, and practicing “belly breathing” to calm down. My daughter loathed these activities and discussions. Telling her to “belly breathe” when she’s upset has about the same effect as telling an overwrought woman to “calm down.”
We work on social-emotional learning a lot at home, sans worksheets and kumbaya-circle groups. Recognizing and naming feelings, being able to separate emotion from action, having healthy strategies to deal with negative emotions, becoming resilient, not being oversensitive, delaying gratification, knowing how to interact with others in a kind, wise, and healthy manner, being able to apologize and make amends when necessary, and accepting disappointment as a part of life are all important skills. They are absolutely skills that every parent should be inculcating in their spawn. And school should be a place where children practice and develop these skills, as well; the interactions with non-family peers and authority figures allow children to navigate a wider world, provided the school isn’t totally toxic.
I therefore have no objection to teaching SEL as such. Yes, parents should be doing the heavy lifting of cultivating good social-emotional skills in their children, but it does not seem harmful to have these lessons reinforced by teachers. I do, however, have some concerns with how SEL is being taught and, I think, fetishized in schools.
The first concern is effectiveness. Perhaps my daughter’s teacher was using unusually bad curriculum or methods, but given that she was pretty competent at teaching my kid other skills I am doubtful that this is the case. Whatever the situation, for my daughter at least the whole thing was a complete waste of time. The way my daughter learns social-emotional skills is by adult modeling, sympathetic listening when she wants to share something, discussions of actual situations that went well or didn’t, judicious handling of various kinds of distress that may sometimes include ignoring the distress, and consistent reinforcement of reasonable behavior expectations. (Example: It’s okay to be upset at your brother for breaking your toy. It is NOT okay to hit him.) It also makes a difference that our teaching is rooted in a Christian worldview, which emphasizes change from the inside out.
This brings me to another point: Which traits are universally desirable in children? Surely such traits as honesty, diligence, courage, wisdom, discretion, strength, curiosity, love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control–but all of these traits are expressed in very different ways in different people, and SEL seems to privilege only certain modes of expression–and definitely feminine versus masculine modes of expression. In my (admittedly tiny) experience of SEL, I saw no room for dealing with an issue by ignoring it; bonding over an activity with little verbal communication; or allowing rough play. In my slightly larger experience of life, these can all be effective strategies for dealing with an issue. Think about it: Is it really healthy, really, truly a good idea, to brood over every slight and “discuss” it until it’s resolved?
“John, I feel upset when you leave your cereal bowl on the counter.”
“What makes you upset, Mary?”
“I’ve asked you to put your dishes in the sink and run water on them so that food doesn’t harden on them, but you keep on leaving them out to dry.”
“I’m sorry, Mary. I just forget to do this.”
“It makes me feel like my wishes aren’t important to you, and I feel disrespected.”
“I will try to remember to put dishes in the sink, but it is hard for me to break old habits. I feel upset when it seems like you don’t make sufficient allowance for this.”
“I am sorry for upsetting you, John. I will try not to take something personally when I know you are working to improve.”
“I’m sorry too, Mary, for not making this more of a priority.”
“Thank you for listening to me, John.”
I retched a little writing this wretched little dialogue. My ideal handling of the situation would be: Mary puts the damned bowls into the sink and runs a bit of water on them, and never speaks of the matter again to John or lets it fester into resentment. The end. And I don’t think I, personally, want to be married to someone who wants to talk through every. Single. Thing. Ever. I like being married to an engineer-type, who thinks in terms of problem-solving rather than endless navel-gazing. This is a stereotypically male trait, although it is far from universal among men, and we somehow believe that men need to be trained out of it, which is ridiculous. “Social-emotional intelligence” is not the same thing as “exalting feelings over all.”
Even aside from this misguided focus, some techniques are touted as universally effective when they are not so. As aforementioned, belly-breathing does not make my daughter calm down. Depending on how highly-strung she is at the moment, the best techniques we have for her are a good, hard hug; asking her to please vent her emotions elsewhere; ignoring an outburst; and distracting her. My middle child calms down when we use a firm, steady tone of voice or offer a distraction. My youngest child responds best to a hug or some other kind of physical touch.
I’m also disturbed that schools think they can replace actual social interaction, playtime, and hands-on learning with SEL. “Kids have been through a tough time! They’re more stressed than ever! Their home life may be more difficult! They may even be traumatized! And this is why social-emotional learning skills are SO IMPORTANT!” But worksheets, naming emotions, and belly breathing are no replacement for offering children the opportunity to run around, have fun, and play with each other, which are all ways they practice SEL. No worksheet is going to fix trauma. Kids have been given a raw deal in this time, and the kind of support they’re being offered simply doesn’t seem effective to me.
Finally, I think that even well-done SEL is overhyped. It is not the One True Thing that will magically make our kids mentally healthy, send test scores way up, and turn out well-adjusted, productive adults. In truth, no school is equipped to do this for most children, although good teachers can make a world of difference to children stuck in a bad family situation. Families ought to be developing character in their children, and a family that through word and deed teaches virtue to its kids is much better-positioned to encourage healthy social-emotional growth than are our schools.