teacher and kids in classroom

In this episode of Into the Fold, we explore how today’s toxic political climate may be impacting mental health programs in schools, as described in a recent NBC news article entitled, “Parents protesting ‘critical race theory’ identify a new target: Mental health programs”.

We are joined by Donna Black, president of the Social Emotional Learning Alliance for Texas (SEL4TX) to discuss an educational process known as social-emotional learning, its application in schools, its positive impact on kids’ mental health, and its current mischaracterization in this time of political polarization.

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Podcast Transcript

Beyond Cognitive Learning

Into the Fold: Donna, it is so great of you to join us. How are you doing, and thanks for coming on to the podcast.

Donna Black: Thank you, I’m doing quite well. I appreciate you asking, and I really appreciate this opportunity to talk about something that I’m very passionate about: social-emotional learning.

ITF: We have done other episodes on mental health and schools, you know, but it’s interesting what this conversation has been prompted by, just pure cultural politics. We live in very interesting times, don’t we? I never thought that this would be our occasion for talking about social and emotional learning but, here we are.

DB: And I never dreamed that we would be talking about social-emotional learning in a political context rather than in an educational context either. Who would have ever imagined this? Yes, we are living in very strange times for sure.

ITF: So, as the president of the Social Emotional Learning Alliance for Texas (SEL4TX), what is that like and what are your goals?

DB: Well, let me start by talking a little bit about SEL4TX. We’re a state organization that’s part of a network of state organizations that are affiliated with the national group called the Social Emotional Learning Alliance for the United States (SEL4US). By affiliating with this this larger group, we all are in the process of trying to form a grassroots effort to promote and advance SEL in schools. But we’ve been advancing awareness of SEL for the last 16 years. It’s not new.

Our goal really is to have high quality social and emotional learning become a key part of education in schools and communities throughout Texas.

So, you might ask me why we are promoting social-emotional learning? To be clear SEL is not a program that schools implement, rather, it’s an essential component in the overall learning process.

Children don’t learn in a vacuum. Learning is not only a cognitive process but is absolutely a social and emotional process as well. When you think about how children learn, I would say that all learning is social and emotional.

You can probably remember a special teacher or educator in your past, who made you feel like you were important, who believed in you, who inspired you to do your best. But do you remember a math test you took, or a reading assignment that you were given? Not so much.

That’s because social interactions and emotions play a critical role in the learning process. The parts of the brain that are involved in learning aren’t isolated to one [cognitive]area. The parts that regulate social and emotional development are equally involved. So, what we’re seeing today, because of a lot of research, is that what we have traditionally thought of as learning is not [entirely accurate].

We really must look at the [whole] child and how the child develops socially and emotionally, as well as academically. A colleague of mine once said, “If emotions are churning, they can’t be learning,” and I think that is so true.

So, what began years ago as learning something that was considered ‘a nice thing to do’ with kids, is now recognized as being as important as academic and cognitive development. Social and emotional development is critical to how we instruct and prepare our kids for the future.

Future-Ready Education

ITF: So, within the orbit of the Hogg Foundation and the folks within our world, who share some of our core values and our assumptions, nothing that you’re saying would sound especially controversial.

Part of my job, however, is to scan the discourse a little more broadly, and what I sometimes see or hear is, “That’s not what school is for. School is for reading and writing and arithmetic and all that mental health stuff is for the parents to deal with. My child is fine, I don’t want my child to be bombarded with all of this ‘kooky’ stuff that you’re dishing out through social-emotional learning programs.”

Maybe you’ve caught wind of some of that way of thinking or even witnessed it yourself?

DB: Yes.

ITF: How do you respond to that?

DB: Well, it’s a challenge to respond because there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and a lot of misguided intent from people who are just not understanding what SEL is all about. Like I said, it’s been around for a long time. It’s not something new.

When we talk about social and emotional learning, we’re really talking about the skills that youngsters are going to need. They’re going to be working in jobs that we can’t even imagine right now. Technology is changing every day, and technology is going to drive much of the economy and much of the workforce of the future.

The technical skills they’re going to need can be taught for sure. Even employers can teach those skills. But what employers also looking for are the kinds of skills that they can’t teach. Kids need to develop social and emotional skills that are sometimes called “soft skills”. Skills like problem solving, collaboration, and managing emotions are [also needed]. That’s what social and emotional learning is all about.

It’s hard to quantify social and emotional learning. We can quantify academic skills like reading and math and science, but it’s really hard to quantify these skills. They have to be taught through an integrated process. When SEL4TX talks about learning, we don’t talk about just the academic skills. We talk about developing all aspects of learning, which includes the social and emotional aspects.

Defining Social-Emotional Learning

ITF: What is a good working definition of social emotional learning? Tell us a little bit more about its history and how it developed.

DB: There are a number of definitions out there, but I think the most common one is promoted by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). It’s this organization’s definition that most schools have adopted as their framework for social emotional learning.

CASEL defines SEL as a process, and I emphasize the word process because it’s not a program and it’s not any one thing. It’s a process.

Through the SEL process, young people and adults can acquire and apply knowledge, skills, and attitudes that help them develop healthy identities, manage their emotions, and achieve personal and collective goals. They can also feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions. That, in a nutshell, is their definition of social and emotional learning. Again, with the emphasis that it is a process.

Now I did mention a few minutes ago that SEL is not new, but it’s been around for a long time. Would it surprise you to learn it’s been around for centuries? In fact, in ancient Greek times Plato wrote about it in The Republic. He believed that it wasn’t only people’s minds that needed to be educated, but also their character. He wrote that all learning has an emotional base, and all education begins by educating people’s souls. Does that sound familiar with SEL?

More recently, the awareness of SEL was [heightened] by a book written by Daniel Goldman in 1995 called Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ. Since that publication, there has been growing interest in SEL, and a number of organizations have formed to focus specifically on SEL as an essential component in education and skill development.

But one of the biggest challenges faced by the proponents of SEL has been this confusion over what we call it and how we quantify it, so I want to elaborate on that.

I think many folks confuse what SEL is because they’ve heard it referred to in different terms. The terminology is really important. We have people who talk about it as “whole child development”, or as “positive behavior supports” or “mindfulness”. There are a number of terms that have been applied to social- emotional development, like “emotional intelligence.”

ITF: I come across those different terms all the time too, and one of the reasons I wanted to have you on was to help our listeners [understand more about] the distinctions between these terms that are thrown around.

DB: And that’s the problem. I think words really do matter and we need to be very cautious about how we refer to these concepts, because while they are all related, they are not necessarily descriptive of what we mean when we talk about social and emotional learning.

We’re talking about specific skill development. We’re talking about how to make responsible decisions, how to problem solve, how to develop positive relationships with one another. These are actual skills. Learning to cooperate with one another and learning to empathize with another individual are skills that can be developed.

Sometimes these skills are referred to as personality traits, but that is not what we’re talking about. We’re really talking about skills. I think that’s where much of the confusion comes in.

I’m a parent and I have raised children; I have grandchildren now. And if I heard some of these different terms I would be confused and I would wonder what is going on in my children’s schools. So, we have to be clearer about what we’re talking about. I think that’s part of the problem today.

Confusing Social-Emotional Learning with Critical Race Theory

ITF: I’m afraid that we do have to bring critical race theory into this conversation now, [because some parents are confusing SEL with Critical Race Theory.] How representative, do you think these parents are?

If you ever had the opportunity to directly address some of these parents, how would you address the concerns that they have about mental health education in schools?

DB: I think I would say that we’re in a time when our young people need us the most. Instead of arguing over whose responsibility or whose right it is to work with these youngsters and protect them and support them, we should be working together. These young people are really dealing with a tremendous amount of pressure and as adults, it is everyone’s responsibility to protect them and to identify youngsters in need of support.

So, school practitioners do have a responsibility to know my students and to know which ones are struggling the most. And if I identify youngsters who seem to be needing that kind of support then it’s also my responsibility to alert their parents and to work with them to be sure that these young people are protected and getting the appropriate support that they need.

It isn’t about whose right it is, it’s about whose responsibility it is. Every adult is responsible for ensuring these young people’s safety and making sure they have the supports they need.

Critical Race Theory is not my area of expertise, but what I do know is that it was developed as a tool to help university law students think more critically about the impact of historical and present-day racism, within our legal system.

It’s not something that’s even talked about in K-12 education, let alone taught. So, that’s why it troubles me that Critical Race Theory has been equated with Social-Emotional Learning. They are not the same. There clearly is a distinction between the two.

ITF: Do you have any anecdotal evidence that SEL is coming under the kind of scrutiny that mistakenly equates it with Critical Race Theory? How worried are you about this trend?

DB: I’m not that worried about it coming under scrutiny. However, I am worried about our children and young people not receiving the kinds of skill development and instructional time that they need, because of misguided information and misunderstandings about SEL. What I worry about is that the sacrifice is going to be the children’s [well-being].

And while there’s been a lot of resistance to SEL, chiefly among parents and community members who have a more conservative thought-base, I also want to share the results of a survey of parents conducted by a very conservative think-tank, the Fordham Institute. They found very broad support amongst parents for teaching SEL-related skills in schools but not for the term “social-emotional learning.” The skills were palatable to them, but the term was not. And I found that very interesting.

Now, there were also some other key findings that showed very distinct differences between parents of different political affiliations. There were no distinct differences between parents of different races or classes or even different religions. The differences were really between parents of different political affiliations. So, that worries me. It worries me that this misinformation that’s being disseminated through social media and news media will influence individuals to try to deprive our children from developing the skills they’re going to need.

Addressing Barriers to Learning

ITF: Yes. You know, it’s pretty remarkable that so much of what we think about education really comes down to adults shouting at each other. I don’t think that’s ever been truer than now.

So, although you made clear that SEL is not Critical Race Theory, it does contain a social dimension to it that the Hogg Foundation would see as a focus on equity.  What purpose does that serve?

DB: That’s a great question because I think it’s really important to understand the differentiation between equity and equality, and that they are not the same. Equality means giving each individual or group of people the same resources and same opportunities. That’s not what we mean when we talk about equity.

We know that inequities exist in our education system and have existed for a long time for certain student subgroups. There are many underlying reasons for these inequities. No one thing has created this situation.

We sometimes refer to these inequities “barriers to learning”, which means that some students subgroups simply don’t have the same access to the same opportunities as other student subgroups.

For example, one of the barriers to learning I’m talking about is poverty. It’s a huge barrier to educational opportunity and it creates inequities. Social injustices are also barriers. Experiences of homelessness, or language differences, or abuse and neglect also lead to inequities in our educational system. These experiences translate into barriers to learning.

These barriers lead not only to poor outcomes for students. They also lead to poor outcomes for the school systems that serve them because we are currently under an accountability system that looks at detailed outcomes for systems and for students.

For example, disruptive behaviors can influence educational opportunities and access. Disruptive behaviors can prevent learning because they prevent teaching. This can lead to loss of learning for all students, not just for the students who are being disruptive.

Disruptive behavior can also lead to discipline problems. And what has been found in both nationwide and statewide data, is that almost all states are struggling with the fact that children of color are disproportionately disciplined in comparison to their white peers. Discipline for disruptive behavior can lead to school suspensions, which can translate into not only learning losses for the kids, but also a loss of funding for the school system.

This disproportionate disciplining of children of color can also mean more children of color ending up in the juvenile justice system. We sometimes refer to this as the “pipeline to prison”, because we also have a disproportionate representation of children of color in our juvenile justice system. Our schools are paying a high price for this problem right now, because they’re being penalized for having disproportionate discipline data and are required to come up with a corrective action plan.

SEL’s Impact in Texas

ITF: Do you have any personal stories of SEL’s impact on kids in Texas?

DB: I think that the best evidence we have comes from looking at the school’s data. Many school counselors are reporting higher rates of suicidal thoughts, suicidal ideation and even suicide attempts. It’s a sad situation but I do think that social and emotional learning has been very powerful addressing some of the anxiety and depression and suicidality we’re seeing in our schools.

On a specific case by case basis, I would refer people to their school counselors. they’re, the ones who have all that data. I also know that there are a number of YouTube videos about SEL. We all love to go to YouTube and look at some of the videos that illustrate some of the successes that students are experiencing.

One video that I found to be very moving and very powerful was called “Powerful Video About Mindfulness in Schools.” It shows a group of adolescent high school students who are talking about their struggles with day-to-day life, with anxiety, with depression, with the bullying that occurs in schools. The students reported that the social and emotional learning program that the school was using was life-changing, life-altering for them. It was a very powerful video.

On a very personal note, when I was beginning this process of SEL I began leading a project for the Texas Education Agency back in 2006. The project was really focused on mental health and schools, and we were developing a state model for addressing the issue in our school systems.

One of the school districts that I worked with at that time was outside of Lubbock and had a principal who was just determined to address the behavior and discipline problems on her campus. We began this whole project of implementing a framework for social and emotional development and within one year her discipline problems dropped over 80%.

It was so powerful because parents who were not engaged in the school environment at all, who would not come to any PTA meetings, would not come and do anything at the school with their students because of the negative atmosphere, they turned around.

She hosted an ice cream social at the beginning of the school year and over 1000 parents showed up in this small community. She had to move it out to the lawn of the school just to have room to accommodate the parents. To me, that just spoke volumes about what she had done through her commitment to change the atmosphere and attitudes of the campus. The students were feeling far more safe and secure in the school environment because of that.

I have not, to be honest with you and to be completely transparent, followed up with that school district in the past five or six years, so I couldn’t tell you if they have sustained those efforts. But I do know that there were major dramatic changes from her efforts to implement social and emotional learning during the first several years of her principalship there.

ITF: Donna, I really do appreciate you coming on to the podcast. It’s a lot for our listeners to process, but if they’re faithful listeners they’re used to that by now, I think this was a wonderful conversation.

Mental health in schools, again, is a topic that we have covered before but never quite in this context. To anyone listening I would strongly urge you not to rely upon the most recent news story that you read about mental health or any other topic, but to find out for yourself what’s really going on because the media thrives on polarization and drama. That’s part of the goal of this podcast—to cut through the noise.

DB: I agree. And I have also recently authored a book on social emotional learning. It’s called The Essentials of Social-Emotional Learning: The Complete Guide for Schools and Practitioners and it’s published by Wiley.

I encourage all those folks who are out there hearing the noise to look at the book, because it provides the complete history of SEL and gives you all the data that I quoted today and it’s a more thorough explanation of what SEL is. So. I appreciate you for letting me give that shameless plug there.

And I also want to encourage your listeners to go to the SEL4TX website and join us as we advocate for and promote SEL in schools.

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