SOCIAL EMOTIONAL LEARNING
Empowerment or Ideology?
Jason Littlefield and Erec Smith
Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is a hot topic these days, especially because of its adoption of the tenets of Critical Social Justice in K-12 schools. The mere fact that learning focused on children’s emotional development is causing an uproar may be as surprising as it is concerning. Who could be against students learning about emotions and how to handle them in both individual and social settings? No one, we hope. However, because SEL has been revised to reflect elite ideology, and given its new descriptor “Transformative,” there is a growing move to “stop SEL.” Therefore, the shift towards Transformative SEL has produced two issues worth discussing:
1) Because Transformative SEL is based in a theory that views “the individual” as problematic, it is not ideally conducive to individual social-emotional wellbeing.
2) To neglect individual social-emotional development, especially at this fraught moment, could have long-lasting negative effects on both individuals and society.
We are the co-founders of two organizations: Free Black Thought and Empowered Pathways. The latter organization strives to rescue SEL from the illiberal usages of many (not all) activists on the progressive left and to build upon Traditional SEL and apply it to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives to ensure a more generative and civil movement for racial equality. Before we explain why we must save and improve upon Traditional SEL, we will describe the exigence at hand: the detrimental embrace of Transformative SEL by the progressive left.
Traditional vs. Transformative
The original version of SEL can be called “Traditional.” It is most simply described as the cultivation of emotional intelligence in students. Emotional Intelligence is the affective counterpart to IQ, hence its popular moniker of “EQ” to signal its relationship to the intelligence quotient.
EQ consists of four major components: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, and Social (or Relationship) Management. The goal is to cultivate these skills not by avoiding or suppressing emotion, but by “displacing” emotion. Emotions like anger, sadness, and even fear should be felt; they are a part of the human experience. However, EQ promotes controlling these emotions instead of having these emotions control us. What’s more, it shows how emotions can be channeled to best benefit all involved. Ultimately, it enhances resilience and interpersonal skills in healthy and productive ways.
SEL is the pedagogical manifestation of EQ. Psychologist Daniel Goleman, the person most associated with EQ as a theory and practice, gives an example of an ideal longitudinal SEL curriculum. In “The Importance of Emotional Intelligence,” Goleman writes the following.
[I]n the early elementary years students should learn to recognize and accurately label their emotions and how they lead them to act. By the late elementary years lessons in empathy should make children able to identify the nonverbal clues to how someone else feels; in junior high they should be able to analyze what creates stress for them or what motivates their best performance. And in high school the SEL skills include listening and talking in ways that resolve conflicts instead of escalating them, and negotiating for win-win solutions.
Indeed, Goleman argues that SEL is “the active ingredient in programs that enhance children’s learning while preventing problems such as violence.”
In the 10th Anniversary edition of his seminal book on EQ, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Goleman relays the concrete effects of SEL programs, citing a meta-analysis of 668 evaluation studies conducted by Roger Weissberg, former director of the Collaborative of Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL). The results of the meta-analysis were as follows.
The data show that SEL programs yielded a strong benefit in academic accomplishment, as demonstrated in achievement test results and grade-point averages. In participating schools, up to 50 percent of children showed improved achievement scores, and up to 38 percent improved their grade-point averages. SEL programs also made schools safer: incidents of misbehavior dropped by an average of 28 percent; suspensions by 44 percent; and other disciplinary actions by 27 percent. At the same time, attendance rates rose, while 63 percent of students demonstrated significantly more positive behavior. In the world of social science research, these are remarkable results for any program promoting behavioral change. SEL has delivered on its promise.
SEL, in its original manifestation as the pedagogical version of EQ, seems to have powerful results that help students both overcome emotional distress and better ensure a more emotionally intelligent environment. It cultivates “antifragility,” a term popularized by Nassim Taleb, which denotes not only resilience and robustness in the face of trials and tribulations, but the ability to derive benefit from those trials and tribulations, to make lemonade out of lemons, as it were.
However, in the past several years, Traditional SEL has given way to what CASEL has dubbed “Transformative SEL.” One may ask whether the adjective is redundant. After all, Traditional SEL is inherently transformative. It turns out that Transformative SEL is similar to its Traditional forerunner except for a keen focus on “social justice” as a primary goal. The CASEL website states that Transformative SEL “concentrates SEL practice on transforming inequitable settings and systems, and promoting justice-oriented civic engagement.” That is, this new SEL is the cultivation of emotional intelligence insofar as it contributes to social justice ends. This explains why the term “Transformative SEL” is not redundant; it denotes societal not individual transformation.
Nothing is wrong with a social-justice practice that is deeply informed by SEL, but Transformative SEL reflects the converse dynamic: it informs SEL with social-justice ideology. In so doing, Transformative SEL doesn’t supplement traditional SEL, but replaces it.
The push to replace Traditional SEL with Transformative SEL is clear from the number of “BIPOC” activists who now accuse the former of being ineffective for BIPOC students, if not inherently racist. One charge against Traditional SEL is that it doesn’t solve issues like systemic racism and police brutality. In “Antiracism in Social-Emotional Learning: Why It’s Not Enough to Talk the Talk,” writer Tony Weaver insists that SEL, with its emphasis on mindfulness, resilience, and grit, overlooks a vital fact: “A Black child can do every single one of these things perfectly, and still not make it home.” But as important as survival is, SEL was never meant to solve social ills like police brutality or systemic racism. It is, instead, a crucial ingredient for cultivating the resolve and disposition to address those and other detrimental aspects of life, a first step and necessary in the march toward progress.
To suggest that Traditional SEL fails to directly prevent police brutality and remedy systemic racism a red herring. It was never meant to be a panacea for such social ills. Requiring that we replace Traditional SEL because it doesn’t solve racism is like requiring a baker to replace her car because it can’t bake a cake. The car is not supposed to bake a cake, but it can get the baker to the bakery. Likewise, Traditional SEL may be seen as a vehicle that helps us get to the places that we need to go in order to address social problems and achieve goals related to justice. It does this, specifically, by creating the qualities of character required to face the world courageously and resiliently and to interact productively with others.
Weaver’s misunderstanding of what he sees as key terms of Traditional SEL is also telling. He defines mindfulness as a concept that “implores students to remain calm, and take 10 deep breaths when they feel themselves getting angry.” Of course, self-management is a key component of Traditional SEL, but mindfulness as a tool to achieve that component is not just about staving off anger. It is, rather, a matter of being able to assess circumstances and see them clearly for what they truly are.
Moreover, Weaver defines resilience as a trait that “encourages students to hold their heads high despite mistreatment.” Here, too, he has missed the larger point. Resilience is indeed a matter of learning not to let life’s difficulties defeat you, but it does not stop there. Rather, resilience is a quality of character that gets us through life’s inevitable set-backs without losing emotional integrity and allows us to benefit, in antifragile fashion, from negative experiences. Lastly, Weaver writes that grit “tells students to persevere in the face of obstacles.” True, but it doesn’t tell students to resign themselves to said obstacles. Perseverance is necessary in order to, say, combat institutional racism and not give up when setbacks occur.
Proponents of Transformative SEL don’t stop with criticisms like Weaver’s. Dena Simmons, for example, goes so far as to say that any SEL that is not “Transformative” may amount to “white supremacy with a hug.” This sentiment reflects the idea, made popular by Ibram X. Kendi, that nothing is neutral and that one is either fighting racism or perpetuating it: there’s no in-between. Guilaine Kinouani, founder of the British-based organization Race Reflections, calls the attempt to inculcate in black people resilience, grit, and peace of mind “epistemic violence.” For her, the problem with such a project, based as it is in a component of SEL called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), is that it tacitly promotes individuality and relies upon concepts such as “reason,” which she considers Eurocentric and therefore racist to expect from blacks. The 2017 essay in which she made these claims, “Culturally Biased Therapy? (Part 1) Epistemic Violence and CBT,” is no longer available online, but we have provided two screenshots of her article just below.
If black people’s acquisition of resilience, grit, and peace of mind based in CBT, mindfulness, and reason is “epistemic violence,” what does Transformative SEL offer black students (or any student, for that matter) for handling the trials and tribulations of life? The short answer is, Nothing. Transformative SEL is based in philosophies and practices that may negatively impact individual well-being and the capacity of individuals to cooperate in the larger society. This raises clarifying questions: What does Transformative SEL “transform” students toward? and At what cost?
Empowered Humanity Theory
The current reality is that students and adults are struggling with conditions like increased isolation, anxiety, and depression. Their social and emotional needs are not only neglected but exacerbated by the application of Transformative SEL under these conditions. This is the social crisis that keeps us up at night and that we are working to address. We propose a framework designed to strengthen our most positive traits, capacities, and motivations and to mitigate our negative and antisocial ones. Empowered Humanity Theory (EHT) builds on SEL, Emotional Intelligence, and Empowerment Theory. EHT promotes a value-centered identity, and centers human dignity and the cultivation of mindsets of inquiry and compassion rather than those of fear and judgment.
Additionally, EHT encourages individuals to engage frequently and intentionally in three Pathways of Practice:
1. Practices that build awareness and equanimity
2. Practices that celebrate our common humanity and break the walls of indignity; and
3. Practices that build kindness and compassion for self and others.
EHT harnesses advances in our understanding of neuroplasticity to wire humanity, neurologically and socially in profoundly beneficial ways.
Naturally, we expect pushback from the proponents of Transformative SEL, but they are not the only oppositional force. In “The Unexamined Rise of Therapeutic Education: How Social Emotional Learning Extends K-12 Education’s Reach into Students’ Lives and Expands Teachers’ Roles,” Robert Pondiscio, a Fellow and educational researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, insists that even Traditional SEL has no business in schools for two main reasons: first, most teachers are not trained to be therapists and, second, an emphasis on SEL can get in the way of academic learning as the central aim of education.
Regarding Pondiscio’s second point about academic learning, EHT holds that much student underachievement can be attributed to low EQ, not low IQ. Thus, we must address both IQ and EQ in ways that do not threaten but rather support academic learning. SEL was purposed as a Tier I intervention (noninvasive, non-personalized, proactive, universal strategy for all students). Evidence now indicates that Tier II and Tier III practices are being applied by educators without the professional credentials to do so. The Center on Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) defines Tier II interventions as targeted group interventions and Tier III as “intense individualized interventions.” EHT, a Tier I, universal intervention, is not a therapeutic resource, but rather an academic theory rooted in communication and neuroplasticity, which is the thesis that the brain is highly malleable, constantly rewiring itself in response to the thoughts, habits, and environments that it encounters.
Regarding Pondiscio’s first point about the expertise of teachers, we submit that EHT is a decidedly rhetorical endeavor meant to stave off systemic disempowerment, and as such, taps into skill sets that teachers already possess. It’s important to note that we mean “rhetorical” here in the academic sense, denoting “the art of persuasion.” This is not to be confused with the word’s popular connotations of “mere word games,” deception, or superficiality. EHT is rhetorical in the primacy it gives to language and communication at three levels. First, it addresses Self-Awareness and Self-Management by exploring the language choices we use when speaking to ourselves. Second, it addresses Social Awareness and Social Relationship Management by exploring the language we use to address, identify with, and persuade our peers. Finally, EHT addresses Adaptability and Achievement Orientation (competencies of Social Awareness and Social Relationship Management) by exploring how we communicate when collaborating with others on joint projects, such as, for example, those that aim at social improvement. Empowered Humanity Theory renders rhetoric as Social Emotional Learning and Social Emotional Learning as rhetoric. Therefore, EHT falls within the wheelhouse of teachers trained in teaching and effective communication methods.
Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is an example of the brand (e.g., Kleenex) becoming identified with the thing (facial tissue). Unfortunately, in December 2020, the “brand” as monopolized by CASEL switched the “thing” from Traditional SEL’s goals of increasing individual well-being and social cooperation to Critical Social Justice. We are not sure precisely why CASEL made this shift. Clearly, doing so aligns CASEL with the ideological shift toward activism that is transforming many other institutions. In “The State of Social and Emotional Learning in 2022”, CASEL President and CEO Dr. Aaliyah A. Samuel and Board Chair Timothy Shriver discussed the present day quandary of SEL. Dr. Samuel stated:
I think there are two big risks. One is how political the field has become. … In part because of a lack of understanding about what SEL is and using this opportunity to really clarify what Social and Emotional Learning is, is a critical piece. I think it will help remove some of the political nature and the ping pong that SEL is getting caught up in…and I think we run a risk of continuing to be put in the spotlight, so to speak, in a negative way if we don’t clarify what SEL is.
Shriver later added, “When things get a little distracting and politics start to steal away ideas that are being used for political advantage, we have to go back to grounding ourselves.” We hope Samuel, Shriver, CASEL, and SEL professionals across the country will compare Transformative SEL to Empowered Humanity Theory and abandon the practices of the former that break down the individual and human relationships, and adopt attitudes and practices designed to cultivate personal and social well-being.
Shifts in philosophies and practices are to be expected in institutions and are, of course, part of how the individual human mind adapts to changing circumstances. But we believe that this particular shift is different. The underlying principle of this shift is that “the individual” is the root of social problems. Guided by this principle, Transformative SEL negatively affects individual and collective social and emotional wellbeing. The shift thus warrants pause and reconsideration because, ultimately, individual sovereignty is at stake. Furthermore, pause and reconsideration are required because students’ (and educators’) social-emotional needs are simply not being met under the new, Critical Social Justice-inspired philosophy and practice.
Since Transformative SEL only began to be put into practice relatively recently, in December 2020, it’s not too late to question its intentions, critically examine its impacts, and abandon any harmful practices associated with it. It’s not too late to shift toward cultivating the individual and building the foundations of cooperation in ways that draw upon but go beyond the SEL paradigm. Continuing highly ideological practices of dubious value and thereby neglecting the social-emotional wellbeing of students and educators, especially in the midst of our ongoing national social-emotional crisis, may well create negative ripple effects for future generations. We believe that an acute awareness of this danger is the wake-up call we need at this moment to inspire us to empower humanity and affect the wellbeing of future generations in profound ways. It’s up to us to make the shift.
Jason Littlefield is an educator who is passionate about personal wellbeing and establishing a society of individuals at peace within themselves and others. He established EmpowerED Pathways in 2017 and co-designed Empowered Humanity Theory, a framework for life, leadership, and learning. He served as a public educator for twenty-one years in multiple capacities. From 2014 to 2021 he was a Social and Emotional Learning Specialist for the Austin Independent School District. Jason has also served students and families from around the world, including Taiwan, China, and Benin. Through his work with EmpowerED Pathways, Free Black Thought, and The Institute for Liberal Values, he advocates for decreasing human division and increasing personal wellbeing by bringing awareness to the impact and intent of the emerging ideology dominating our institutions and permeating the Zeitgeist.
Erec Smith is Associate Professor of Rhetoric at York College of Pennsylvania. He is a co-founder of Free Black Thought and a co-editor of the Journal of Free Black Thought. His scholarly and extra-scholarly research focuses on the rhetorics of anti-racist activism, theory, and pedagogy. He is a Writing Fellow for Heterodox Academy, a Senior Fellow for the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, and an advisor for Counterweight, an organization that advocates for classical liberal concepts of social justice. His third book, A Critique of Anti-racism in Rhetoric and Composition: The Semblance of Empowerment, appeared in 2019. Follow him and Free Black Thought on Twitter.
Awesome article. This deserves to be read and shared widely. I hope you’re right that the shift to Transformative SEL is recent enough that it can be stopped in its tracks. I absolutely believe that society makes life difficult for most of us in one way or another, but unless we are individually resilient, we cannot work for change in constructive ways.
I am so glad to see you making the distinctions between the original intent and content of SEL and what it has become--Transformation SEL. I have taught meditation to adults and was quite keen to move into teaching these sorts of practices to younger people, and I have friends who were quite involved in the initial mindful-schools movement. The skills that kids can glean such as emotional regulation are really invaluable, and they pay off so much in terms of improved relationships, ability to achieve goals and manage setbacks, navigate change and uncertainty, and even successfully lead longer term (EQ, rather than IQ, tends to separate the good leaders from the great leaders). I love how you are trying not to throw the baby out with the bathwater with your EmpowerED Humanity Theory and associated practices.