SEL enriches nonprofits and boosts administrators while pilfering taxpayer money. Worse, it steals control from parents, teacher safety, and quality education from kids
Part of a developing series on Social Emotional Learning
SEL’s Radical, Misunderstood Purpose
Even for some conservatives campaigning against it, “Social Emotional Learning” is basically unthreatening: “A broadly bipartisan endeavor” promoting “‘self-awareness’ and ‘social awareness’” that Democrats have made into a “Trojan Horse” for Critical Race Theory. But this definition doesn’t reckon with what SEL is to its practitioners: A radical social rearrangement that shifts authority over children from families to schools.
As early as 1995, this project was signaled by Daniel Goleman—the New York Times science reporter who popularized SEL (along with Yale President Peter Salovey) and the co-founder of SEL’s Yale-based flagship nonprofit CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning)—when he declared that “as family life no longer offers growing numbers of children a sure footing in life, schools are left as the one place communities can turn to for correctives to children’s deficiencies in emotional and social competence” using “tensions and trauma of children’s lives.”
Goleman’s “death of the family” prediction is at the very least premature, and his definition of trauma stretches psychological practice to encompass any life event. But the holes in his theory never received scrutiny because for a quarter-century SEL was an academic abstraction: Channeled into society by Democratic billionaires and politicians through nonprofits out of public view. Now, in the wake of recent political tidal waves, SEL is no longer so obscure.
When the Biden administration committed $122 billion to fund social and emotional wellness in schools, it tapped into a network of organizations and operators CASEL helped support or inspire. What the ensuing scrutiny revealed, and not just in coastal metropolises, is an increasingly obvious project to give schools a larger stake in children’s emotional development—at the expense of parents, teachers, and children themselves.
Superintendents Start the Push with CASEL’s Help
In Minnesota, CASEL’s influence is pervasive; and in Minneapolis it comes from the top. Ed Graff, until less than a year ago superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools, spent his six years there garnering national attention by making SEL one of the top four priorities in the system’s 72 schools, alongside “equity.”
CASEL and its associates provided Graff with substantial support. One of many grants to Minnesota Public Schools, provided by the regular center-left donor the NoVo Foundation, which is also a core CASEL funder—supports daily Wellness Checks on students “integrating . . . trauma; restorative justice; and maintaining good mental, physical, and community health.”
Another grant from the left-wing Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supports CASEL-MPS collaboration on implementing SEL including regular school walkthroughs by CASEL teams to measure progress. Minnesota Public Schools itself also funds at least one PhD who studies SEL implementation along with a CASEL-funded PhD. And it supports SEL off the efforts of the District’s Chief of Accountability, Research, and Equity as well as through its Equity and School Climate Department.
Minneapolis’s Twin City isn’t far behind. In South St. Paul, the local school district contracted with CASEL’s national counterpart, BARR (Building Assets, Reducing Risks), which “provides an organizational approach to SEL,” becoming the first district in the nation to implement it from K-12—with the help of a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
And the St. Paul School District’s Office of Equity partnered with AmazeWorks, a Minnesota-area consultancy created by two former teachers, which “fosters social-emotional learning through the lens of anti-bias education.” Meanwhile, the St. Paul School District Office of School Support urged a special focus on “trauma-centered education” to create “a trauma-informed school” off the understanding that “toxic stress and trauma affects us all.”
Local Vendors Make Trauma the Theme
In cities like St. Louis, Missouri, which is less influenced by CASEL but where school districts can still receive social-emotional funds from the federal government, local vendors in the mold of St. Paul’s AmazeWorks keep SEL running strong.
In 2015, Project Lab St. Louis, a public charity whose founder is a vocal advocate of SEL, was launched in Normandy Schools Collaborative in Northern St. Louis County. 98.8 percent of the county’s high school students are minority, 53 percent need financial assistance, and the Math-Reading-Science proficiency percentages are an abysmal 5, 18, and 2 percent, respectively.
But the change Project Lab helped implement at Normandy didn’t provide more math teachers or better proficiency programs. It instead addressed “causes of toxic stress and trauma in and out of school.”
Project Lab St. Louis is not alone. Opportunity Trust St. Louis, an “upstart education think tank and advocacy organization” supported heavily by out-of-state-funding, prepared an SEL survey for 10,000 St. Louis-area students across three dozen schools to chronicle “[how teachers] are implementing SEL . . . [to] address students’ chronic trauma and stress.”
It also sponsored the Catalyst Awards, one of whose recipients was Dr. Bonita Jamison, executive director of Integrated Support and Accelerated learning for Ferguson-Florissant: the site of the 2014 Ferguson protests and where 69.2 percent of students need financial assistance, 9 percent of high schoolers are proficient in math, and 32 percent are proficient in reading. Yet Dr. Jamison used the funding for a conference to help students address “significant trauma due to the pandemic, coupled with the racial injustices currently occurring.” She’s since been appointed superintendent of Maplewood-Richmond, a neighboring and higher-income district, where she plans to “strengthen social-emotional support for students.”
Finally, Alive and Well, another local organization, takes Dr. Jamison’s focus on “racial injustices” a step further: “Re-orienting the trauma-informed movement . . . to recognize the trauma caused by racism.” Alive and Well, which is based in St. Louis and Kansas City, reported training 1,200 teachers across Missouri and training 4,092 people in Trauma Awareness in 2022.
Trauma in the Classroom Equals Underserved Students, Shut-Out Parents, and Endangered Teachers
Clearly, SEL consumes tax dollars and increases debt—federal, local, and state. It also provides work for nonprofits, consultancies, and administrators as well as money and publicity for superintendents and schools. But exactly how deeply it’s penetrated into the classroom—exactly how much control schools are taking over children’s emotional development by the day, hour, and minute—is unclear, mostly because SEL updates from schools and nonprofits don’t tell us.
Still, from even snippets of outside reports, it’s clear that SEL changes the learning experience. “Seminars, discussions and coaching workshops” erode time for math, science, and English. Teachers give students advice about parent-child interactions. Emotions take precedence over lesson plans: Matthew Sanchez, a Minneapolis Public Schools social studies and homeroom teacher, told a Minnesota newspaper that “he never knows when he’ll need to pivot and change the direction of his class” since “‘I’ll be up at my desk, teaching . . . and a kid will come up and out of nowhere talk about this incident of encountering severe personal violence a few years ago.’” And, in the name of SEL, districts have stopped suspending students for substance abuse and instead referred them to counseling.
In the meantime, superintendents in the region talk about yearly goals not in terms of achieving English, math, and science proficiencies but rather in terms of securing “a federal, four-year $3.8 million grant to expand and conduct SEL projects at the high school” and meeting a “very comprehensive equity audit.”
National promoters and regional SEL trainers want the shift to go even further, “reflected in all school operations and practices.” According to one teacher trained in SEL, “I asked [the trainer], ‘If all we do is try to get kids to tell us their feelings when does English happen?’ and I was told, ‘English can’t happen ‘til their heads are in the right place.’”
In practice, according to this teacher, the focus becomes using SEL’s expanded definition of trauma as well as its trauma-infused language to explain why kids’ heads aren’t in the right place, mostly at the expense of parents (e.g., “I couldn’t finish the homework because mom and dad were fighting, so I was dis-regulated.”) This creates rifts between children and parents, especially lower- and lower-middle-income minority parents, who often work more than one job and may not have finished high school themselves. As this teacher sees it, tension with their kids and discomfort with expert jargon drives these parents away while the district distracts itself with therapeutic programs that garner funding and publicity but either ignore real problems or actively make them worse. “I get along well with the parents of the kids I deal with,” the teacher says. “I feel just like them; I can sense their frustration with the district and their intimidation.”
Broad statistics from parents who can afford to either fight back or leave support that point. Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Graff stepped down in 2022, a year after being nearly ousted by his school board in response to parental frustration over declining literacy rates in the district. (Graff’s interim successor appears cut from the same cloth, having been the recipient of an SEL award from CASEL. The Department’s chief of accountability, research, and equity, a major SEL backer, is also eyeing the superintendent’s position.)
And in 2022, more families left the district for private and charter schools while teachers went on strike. In Ferguson, Missouri, one mother said that 42 fights had broken out at one of the high schools in the last school year, and teachers staged strikes or de facto walkouts over violence and drug use.
Like most radical abstractions developed in the university ether and distributed through nonprofits, SEL always proves disastrous when put into practice. Parents are fighting back—especially in middle to higher income districts—requesting that schools “leave mental health and parenting to parents” and confronting school boards to ensure district accountability.
But the institutions promoting SEL have their own agendas and arguments, independent of reality. Tackling SEL means reckoning with 30 years of stealthy growth in self-help purveyors, ideologically motivated nonprofits, academic associations, consultancies, and state and government agencies which survive off it. Tackling SEL also means combating Daniel Goleman’s original argument, used by even some teachers, that in times of social fragmentation schools are the only fallback for developing children’s personalities.
Reclaiming parents’ authority over children doesn’t sound controversial—but thanks to the SEL industry it means a fight, and one worth having.