Should Schools be Involved in Social-Emotional Learning?

I recently read some remarks by a politician who was ranting about the evils of schools that waste time on “social-emotional” programs. I got the impression that “social-emotional” was code for material related to gender and homosexuality. In any event, the comment made me think about coverage of Child Psychology in a standard college Introduction to Psychology textbook. Generally, child development is considered in three separate sections about development: Cognitive, Emotional, and Social. Of course, the fact that they’re treated in separate sections does not mean that development in these areas proceeds in some linear orderly fashion, such as first kids learn about emotions, then they tackle intellectual pursuits, and finally venture into social development. The fact is, beginning at birth, learning in all three of these areas occurs simultaneously. Even the one-month-old infant is soaking up knowledge about the world, expressing emotions, and socializing with parents, other caregivers, and strangers.

It’s Monday morning and the kids are getting off the bus at Anywhere School. There’s Larry. He’s a bundle of anger, frustration, and jealousy who is abused both physically and emotionally at home. He’s developing into quite a bully and most of the kids steer clear of him. How many Larry’s will show up today? There’s Sally, always smiling and nice. Deep down, however, she’s anxious and scared. Five years ago, her parents and brother were killed in a car accident. She is being raised by her grandparents, and they’re doing a great job, providing Sally with a warm and secure home, and lots of love. But Sally is tormented by anxiety that her grandparents – both in their late 60s – will die and she will be alone. Like Sally, Jennifer is obsessed with anxious concerns about “tomorrow,” but Jennifer’s issues revolve around fear of being shot. Her cousin lives in another state, and his school was attacked by a lone gunman. She and her cousin regularly text, and Jen is convinced her school will be next. Then there’s Pete, a post-pubescent 9-year-old with raging hormones. Pete, however, is attracted to Adam, and he worries about being some sort of weirdo. How many Pete’s are at school today struggling with their self-esteem and identity? Maybe Shawna? She’s wearing her usual long-sleeve blouse to cover up scars on her arms from self-inflicted wounds. She wonders a lot if the world would be better without her around.

There are a lot of good data showing that mental health problems are increasing significantly among young people. That’s not surprising when we think about how many kids – bolstered by social media that amplifies negative emotions and damages connectedness with others – isolate themselves with their problems, and turn emotions like anger, anxiety, sadness, and frustration upon themselves. Over-protective parents add to the problem. They think they are helping their kids feel good about themselves, when in fact their hovering has the opposite effect: “Mom and dad are always there to bail me out of trouble. It’s obvious they don’t trust me and doubt my ability to do the right thing. I guess they’re right – I’m not able to manage my own life.” Well-meaning parents who overly shelter their kids to ensure that they succeed and feel good about themselves seem to forget something important: life, and that includes education, can be hard. It is not always fun and games, and failure is a part of the learning venture. Psychologists have shown that we learn more from failure than from success. The idea behind parenting should not be to make sure kids enjoy regular and uninterrupted success; it should be about teaching kids how to face problems, how to initiate actions, and letting kids discover how to address failure, not avoid it.

The notion expressed by that politician that schools have no business in the “social-emotional” part of kids’ lives is ill-informed, absurd, and dangerous. Psychologists know that kids can be taught coping-enhanced behaviors on a large scale, behaviors that can help them navigate the variety of stressors they experience. Exhibit A is Seligman’s program for preventing depression in children. The program, summarized in the 1995 book, The Optimistic Child, describes an effective strategy for preventing depression in preteenagers that lasts through adolescence into adulthood. The program shows parents and teachers how they can instill resilience and persistence in their children to develop optimism, and use it to prevent depression. The kids come to feel more competent, and collateral effects include better school performance, and improved physical health. These skills provide children with the resilience they need to increase self-esteem and manage their teenage years and adulthood with more confidence. Seligman says, “Teaching optimism is more than I realized than just correcting pessimism…It is the creation of a positive strength, a sunny but solid future-mindedness that can be deployed throughout life – not only to fight depression and come back from failure, but also to be the foundation of success and vitality.”

Unfortunately, society has not taken Seligman’s insights to heart, and we are not winning the war he identified nearly 30 years ago. The recent study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on the status of mental health among youth in 2021 shows that kids are not alright. One in three teen girls have considered suicide; 46% of youth 18-24 say they are emotionally troubled; 12% report having no close friends, and only 22% feel part of a close-knit family; Covid and climate change weigh heavily on youth and half worry that humanity is destined for extinction. While unknowledgeable adults argue about what books to ban, assigning bathrooms, and how to disenfranchise non-Whites and gays, we overlook the fact that our youth are our future, but we are assisting them to become psychological invalids. Shame on us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: