Social-Emotional Learning for the Layperson

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I am dedicated to an ideologically pure form of anarcho-capitalist thought in the libertarian style, following the mold of great thinkers like Murray Rothbard.

This is a slight deviation off-topic for me, since I normally use this space to write about politics and my opposition to SEL is not strictly political. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be, because I am formerly a professional educator who has seen it in action and had to deal with the messes it makes.

What is social-emotional learning?

Let’s start with the ideal. Social-emotional learning presents itself as the teaching of self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills.

However, this is the equivalent of saying that Common Core involves the teaching of English. It’s not explicitly a lie, but it’s not a useful presentation of information.

In particular, social-emotional learning is a strategy that ties into certain modern psychological and therapeutic theories, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, and attempts to apply it out to the classroom setting.

SEL’s Theoretical Foundations

The root of SEL is the idea that we can achieve what we desire from our own behavior through conscious awareness of what we think—metacognition.

This is mostly correct on the surface. Metacognition, the ability to think about thinking, and correlates with good social outcomes and desirable qualities. For a libertarian audience, I might use the phrase “low time preference” to explain the mixture of the delayed gratification and reduction in aggression we see in metacognition.

SEL is a broad umbrella, so there are individual applications that have their own toolset and values. For instance, when I was in my undergrad, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” by Peggy McIntosh, was part of our social-emotional learning curriculum, though it aligns more strictly with critical-race theory.

I oppose both SEL and CRT, but it is important to distinguish between them. SEL has roots in Popperian social engineering, while CRT has roots in Marxism’s class polylogism.

One distinction that is important to draw here is that SEL can be applied to students as individuals, not identities, while CRT is always inherently identitarian.

In my master’s program (which had a post-secondary focus) and my bachelor’s program I encountered both CRT-derived and queer theory-derived (extreme LGBTQ) materials under the umbrella of SEL, so anyone who is not skeptical of SEL for its own sake should consider that it often accompanies these materials.

However, SEL is not specifically CRT or LGBTQ-aligned, and should be better thought of as a way to apply cognitive-behavioral therapy to the classroom setting. The additional accoutrements simply reflect the other beliefs of the SEL community and efforts to make it work.

The one thing that is consistent across SEL as I’ve seen it used in the field and in textbooks or training materials is a connection to cognitive-behavioral therapy either as a source of tools or the justification for methodologies used.

Does Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Work?

It is worth taking a moment to discuss whether cognitive-behavioral therapy works.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is similar to but distinct from psychoanalysis, where an individual works through their issues with a therapist and receives advice on how to solve them.

Typically, this takes the form of conscious actions or thought patterns (like positive self-talk) that are supposed to provide a barrier against undesirable behaviors, as the individual undergoing therapy views them. One difference between CBT and psychoanalysis is that CBT has its roots in behaviorism, as opposed to psychoanalysis’ less quantifiable and objective theories of the mind.

The important thing to know about behaviorism is that it’s a materialistic and deterministic approach to the human mind. This is at odds with Jung’s psychoanalysis, which takes a position we might regard as spiritual.

We ought to question the effectiveness of CBT.

When a patient chooses CBT and receives help from a professional, the effects are generally acceptable or comparable to other results (at least so far as a literature review can point to). The worst performance of CBT happens with the worst symptoms, which falls outside SEL (which is more focused on reaching baseline social proficiency than overcoming a mental health issue).

Because studies are not double-blind, there are methodological issues in most studies of CBT effectiveness. While there is probably no reason to falsify these findings deliberately, the deterministic philosophy of CBT puts it at odds with other methods and may incentivize some people aligning with it over political considerations against, for instance, Jung’s psychoanalytic framework or faith-based counseling which are smeared as “non-scientific.”

Another, and more important, consideration is the fact that CBT has a high drop-out rate. People are likely to cease further treatment and relapse into symptoms at a higher rate under CBT than many of its alternatives. Whether this can may parallel students “dropping out” of SEL by choosing to parrot unheld beliefs back to educators is unclear.

I should point out that SEL does not necessarily consider itself a form of CBT, but it draws from the tools used in CBT. For instance, a teacher might encourage a student to use positive self-talk when they encounter an issue.

Misapplication Issues

First, there is a key distinction between teacher and therapist. The role of the therapist has been distinct from other social roles since Freud founded psychoanalysis, and ties into the idea of doctor and patient.

There are a few important assumptions here.

The Therapist and the Teacher

First, the relationship between therapist and client is unconfused. While there are debates on whether this is a hierarchal relationship (and whether it should be) the therapist ideally does not have undue influence over the client. The ultimate power belongs to the client, who could choose to leave or choose an alternative therapist. This does not hold under certain legal conditions, but the negative effects of the state on therapeutic practice deserve consideration at a different time.

In particular, the teachers using SEL curriculums with students do not have this voluntary relationship, and the relation between teachers and students is rarely uncomplicated. Despite efforts to remove social hierarchies from education, in practice there are few teachers who present themselves as true equals to their students. And even those who claim to eschew the hierarchy in words often create a hierarchy through the natural processes of grading, reporting to parents, and providing instruction.

While this critique of hierarchy has a distinctly left-wing bent and I do not consider it valid for teaching, it is something that has more weight in this context. SEL attempts to compel certain behavioral strategies for students.

It is not entirely coincidental that SEL seeks to root out things that impair school functions. Self-control and self-value correlate with sitting still and doing work, but even when SEL delivers what it promises there is little evidence to suggest that it is more than a cover for the discipline-and-medicate philosophy that blends the worst of the Prussian roots of modern education and contemporary pharmaceutical interventions.

This effect may be behind many of the issues that boys face in school, and it may be the case that SEL imposes more harms than benefits when combined with ADHD medication and a society that has conflated adolescent rebellion with adult anti-social behavior. For instance, a kid who brings a water gun to school but displays no other untoward behavior is probably engaging in play, not terroristic threats.

How Competent are Teachers?

Second, the level of competence that educators have in actually carrying out SEL programs is limited, and this means that the use of CBT-derived elements likely underperforms even the questionable performance of their originator.

For instance, how much does positive self-talk help as a classroom strategy? It may make the difference between a student trying or simply not attempting an assignment. But teachers can encourage students by other means, and positive self-talk can mask unexamined issues.

Worse, unlike in the medical field where there is a tacit recognition that the first step is to do no harm, many educators seem to lack this philosophical understanding or believe that they can never do harm. This second claim is bold, but not baseless. One need only examine the literature and messaging in teachers’ programs to notice that there is very little introspection and a lot of self-beatification in it.

Professional peer pressure, unions, financial incentives, and academia discourage asking questions about the education system’s effectiveness. Assigning the problems students and teachers face to society, families, or the students themselves goes down more smoothly.

One consequence of this is that the education programs at universities aim to produce thoroughly mediocre, but highly politicized, people. I say this as a product of that system, and as someone who has had the pleasure of working alongside several people who were exceptions to this rule.

Because the party line is as much the goal of these programs as effective pedagogy—and effective pedagogy is often suppressed, as anyone who worked as I did in the field of remedial reading should be keenly aware—there is little question that even a perfect theory applied to education should be assessed on its worst- and average-case outcomes, not its best-case outcomes, and this is precisely where SEL’s behavioral roots betray it.

Classrooms as Safe Spaces

Third, there is the question of the idea of classrooms as safe spaces. This is a presupposition for social-emotional learning, but it is something that needs to be examined.

The goal of SEL is in part to promote a harmonious classroom environment, which the teacher facilitates by creating a safe space for students. Beyond being a backdoor for LGBTQ indoctrination, it neglects the fact that this is likely outside teachers’ control.

Schools remain one of the most violent places in America. The left blames this on culture, but the issue is systemic because of compulsory education and forced association. Concentrating adolescents—who have severely limited impulse control and awareness of others’ minds—in systems that center on a struggle for recognition and attention has massive consequences.

This is true even with well-run private schools that serve small and homogenous communities, but is exacerbated by the performance differences between students, social barriers, and other less individually significant considerations. SEL aims to demolish social barriers, but it depends on conditions which do not exist as part of the procedure for this.

Further, another consequence of SEL is that the induction of CRT and queer theory increases student fragility. These encourage students to look for offense and take on a victim mentality, creating barriers that would not have naturally existed.

Combine this with the inherently hierarchal role that teachers must take on to impose a SEL curriculum, which often involves stripping students of privacy and forcing them to work with others they fear or dislike—which often stems past events and perceived behavioral trends, not prejudice.

Even if we assume that teachers have no character flaws—both anecdotal and statistical evidence suggests this is untrue—there is an inherent trust required for these classrooms to serve as safe spaces which SEL relies on but cannot provide.

SEL as Shield for Other Programs

Another important point here: nefarious actors use SEL as an umbrella for many other programs.

It has questionable foundations and undesirable consequences, but it is even worse because it permits indoctrination.

Even something as simple as the idea that children do not really belong to families and themselves so much as communities winds up in SEL and runs contrary to students’ and parents’ interests. This idea is as old as Plato, but it is also the foundation of social engineers’ tyranny.

While the internal core of SEL may be benignly misguided, the use of SEL to push political and social agendas is well-entrenched. As mentioned, the CRT and queer theory I encountered at university came alongside SEL programs. For reference, my academic focuses other than education are English language and literature, history, and creative writing.

These are fields which are associated with leftist drivel, but even though post-Marxist thought of one form or another dominates them, it was education which had by far the furthest left-wing perspectives and least tolerance of ideological heterodoxy.

Perhaps my own experiences are not a good basis from which to condemn the system, but I have examined the system and found that it is quite standardized. In practice, many teachers revolt against or choose not to apply the more extreme Lysenkoist principles, but government and unions advocates for them.

And I suspect, not without evidence, that one reason SEL is so heavily favored by the education elite is its ability to serve as a trojan horse for social messages, something made more obvious by the things SEL replaces.

What does SEL Replace?

Advocates of social-emotional learning would argue that it doesn’t replace anything. They claim that as a pedagogical strategy, it does not preclude the teaching of anything else.

It is correct to call it a pedagogical strategy, or perhaps pedagogical meta-strategy, since there are various different ways to interpret or implement it, but this is splitting hairs.

SEL is a means to achieve an end—namely, to create students who behave themselves. Instructional time is the scarce resource of education. Even money is a trivial concern when compared to the difficulty of acquiring instructional time, which involves the mixture of having students present on campus, educational faculty, facilities, curriculum, et cetera.

A consequence of this is that implementing SEL must replace something. On one hand, teachers themselves are the products of scarce instructional time, so teachers trained in SEL methods are losing out on other methodologies which they could have received during instruction.

Many educators have picked up skills and information from outside their professional practice and educational background because of existing deficiencies, but this imposes costs on them, and is likely one reason teacher job satisfaction and retention is so low.

Another consequence is that SEL will push out elements of the curriculum because teacher-student contact is heavily limited. With 180 instructional days and 8 hours a day of instructional time (which is optimistic), schools need to slot SEL into a window of 1440 hours.

This time competes with all the core subjects and electives a student may take during the day, and because SEL is an integral part of curriculum and school discipline, schools cannot make it optional without contradicting its own prescriptions.

SEL winds up in civics classes, or their modern equivalents where the term “civics” is too politically incorrect. These often have a student citizenship angle or may be called character education.

In the first case, a major problem here is that SEL is not ideal for a classroom setting outside specific conditions with small, well-adjusted cohorts. SEL advocates are aware of this criticism, but I have never seen them refute it.

Instead, it usually gets a small mention somewhere as a concession to the appearance of academic honesty and they do not discuss the matter further.

The Emotional Citizen

In the first case, SEL aims to replace anything that cannot be justified via a positivist picture of society.

Because old-time morality is based on deontological and often spiritual considerations—e.g. the Ten Commandments—it is to be relegated to a historical or literary study and they use a more utilitarian approach in SEL.

SEL involves such things as empathy training, where people spend a lot of time thinking about their own thoughts and the thoughts of others.

This is not inherently bad, though the medium used in SEL has certain questionable influences on the process.

The more dangerous element here is that social-emotional learning, as its name implies, is heavily vested in emotions. As with most other utilitarian and consequentialism-derived value systems, it attempts to reverse engineer iron laws of action based on how they are perceived in the world.

Here, the harm that is to be avoided is not even quantifiable—it is based on the sensed or expressed emotions of others.

In the first case, emotion is not always a great basis for action. It is true, of course, that it is not admirable to inflict distress intentionally. But it is also the case that distress can stem from wrong action and be an appropriate outcome of someone’s action. Society does not exist to protect people from feeling bad about themselves, it exists to keep them fed and prevent wildlife from predating them.

Further, this emotion-based morality touted by SEL as a mechanism for students to make judgments is a massive vulnerability that will follow them throughout their lives.

By contrasting this to civics and character education rooted in older forms of thought, even those of an otherwise inferior nature, SEL is incredibly useful to the current ruling class, since they are able to use appeals to emotion to appear “righteous” rather than providing actual evidence of effectiveness and benevolence.

It also gives an opportunity to perform psychological manipulation beyond the mere focus on emotion.

The Exclusionary Nature of SEL

Psychometrics are not something I swear by, but they have correlations.

IQ tests, for instance, have a hard time exactly describing what they measure, but you can point to people who have certain results and make predictions about their capabilities.

Qualitative psychometrics that focus on personality are interesting, and while they should be taken with even more of a grain of salt they show interesting things when applied to social-emotional learning.

We can observe preferences and traits that can be lumped into broad categories. I’m a fan of the Big Five (OCEAN) model if I have to use one, and it’s particularly useful to compare to SEL because SEL is, as a program, designed to encourage compliance to certain OCEAN characteristic profiles.

OCEAN is non-value driven. There are practical benefits and disadvantages from being high, balanced, or low in any given trait, and people may be able to improve their quality of life by being aware of how they fall.

Some SEL programs are actually beneficial, though they tend to involve self-reported and amateurish efforts at psychometric profiles (e.g. the Myers-Briggs test, which has known validity and reliability issues).

Openness

The first trait of OCEAN is openness to experience—that is, a measure of whether an individual is curious or cautious.

In this case, openness is associated with risk-taking. SEL doesn’t have an inherent bias toward a particular openness outcome, with its relation to openness being correlated to how well someone fits into its mold in other psychometric elements. For instance, those who “fit in” well with the SEL ideal can be very open, while the lack of true value-free approaches to social-emotional learning (even if educators are good on this, peers are unlikely to be), encourage disagreeable people in particular to hide their nature.

Conscientiousness

Conscientiousness is the next OCEAN trait, and can be thought of as a scale between organization-planning and carelessness-recklessness. SEL leans toward pro-conscientiousness in its implementation, especially with the empathy work it often requires students to do.

This is actually one of the places where SEL can be beneficial to students low in conscientiousness, though low trait conscientiousness can make the activities involved in SEL more difficult for students who would do fine with alternatives.

Further, it is worth noting that conscientiousness is not actually tied directly into empathy and understanding of others. That comes from other traits. Low conscientiousness just means that a person is predisposed to hasty actions and inclined against methodological behavior.

Extraversion

Extraversion measures how outgoing or reserved someone is and is probably one of the better understood psychometric scales.

SEL has an unspoken preference for extraversion, as opposed to introversion. That is, it treats the relationships between people as more important than the relationships between people and objects.

The effects of this are complicated and it generally is not a major barrier, but SEL implementation can have undesirable effects that often hinge on low extraversion, especially when it accompanies high-functioning autism-spectrum disorders.

For instance, conscientious introverts may find themselves “failing” despite their best efforts, which can cause significant distress. Disagreeable introverts may react to SEL-related impositions with aggression and distrust.

Agreeability

Agreeability is often thought of as friendliness versus contrarianism, but it’s more akin to caring about people versus rationally approaching the world.

SEL is basically agreeability training, which has some benefits in some cases. However, there is dysfunctional agreeability, and few SEL models seem to account for this.

For instance, the use of emotion as a basis for moral action is dangerous because it encourages agreeable students to regard emotion as tied to the best interests of others even when this enables toxic behaviors.

Worse, conscientious and disagreeable people can quickly learn to manipulate emotion, making SEL a hotbed for future bullying issues.

When it is combined with CRT or queer theory, SEL becomes the worst possible mixture for functioning and healthy classrooms and students.

Neuroticism

Neuroticism is a scale between nervousness and confidence. Of all the Big Five, neuroticism is probably the one we most aspire to rid students of, and it is where SEL brings in most of its cognitive-behavioral therapy roots.

For instance, positive self-talk (in which a student affirms their own capabilities) is a plan to overcome neuroticism.

One issue here is that this is fundamentally unnecessary (though probably not harmful) for non-neurotics. Further, the effectiveness of CBT in ameliorating neuroticism-aligned disorders (depression and anxiety) is questionable—it seems inferior to many alternative treatments for neuroticism-related disorders while requiring levels of intervention that SEL cannot deliver.

In-short, SEL may help neurotic students slightly, but it is most likely to help the sort of students who would, for instance, be able to derive positive self-value from success and an affirmation and not those who are dysfunctional.

SEL and the Boy Crisis

In short, SEL favors high-openness (or low-openness, if students lie or tune out to get through it), extraverted, and agreeable students at the cost of others. Neurotic students likely derive little benefit, though there is enough benefit for borderline neurotics and low-conscientiousness extraverts to feel like the program has benefits.

It’s worth noting that this is primarily a feminine profile, which could explain a rise in the issues surrounding poor male academic outcomes as SEL has become increasingly entrenched in the learning process.

Combine this with stereotypical male hyperactivity (something likely worsened by electronics, though the actual evidence on this is not as clear as some portray) and the systems involved in school and you see an increase in frustration, especially since male brains develop some of the social and reasoning functions more slowly than their peers, creating a perceived disadvantage in conscientiousness and agreeability that smooths out a little with age.

Ironically, the openness of boys is likely to increase the chances that they are regarded as being callous or offensive in schools which apply SEL programs. If much care is to be taken about feelings, adolescent boys who have a psychological tendency toward acting to get a rise out of people become aggressive victimizers, rather than unruly explorers.

SEL as Disciplinary Model

The most dangerous use of SEL is that it enters into the decision-making process for discipline.

Usually this is unintentional.

For instance, a teacher would be equally upset if they told their students a moral story about stealing and then caught students stealing as they would if they told their students a moral story about rude words and then caught students using rude words.

Unfortunately, because SEL has a tendency to focus on emotion and not damages as traditionally understood, this means that a much greater focus is placed on rooting out typical adolescent behaviors—insults, pettiness, social ostracism, and the like.

This has the side-effect of punishing students for personality-related offenses instead of actual harms they may have caused their peers. Given the forced association involved in the school system these offenses can probably not go unpunished, but investigations of naughty words said off-campus cut into investigations of on-campus issues.

It also leads to a difference in the nature of behavioral interactions between students. A focus on feelings leads to more conflict, not less, between students because it re-invents an honor-based system without the foundation of actual merit or honor.

In short, every hurt feeling becomes tantamount to an insult and encourages reciprocal challenges where a better solution might be to write off an awkward statement or not raise a fuss about an offense.

SEL often integrates specific examples and role-playing activities to try to curtail this negative effect, but since the school administrators and teachers seem to exhibit more of a feelings-first approach when SEL is in use this leads to a divergence in modeled and idealized behavior.

Social-Emotional Learning: A Simple Definition

Social-emotional learning is a curriculum and pedagogy focus on students’ roles in their relationships with peers and adults.

It attempts to use this in the classroom with a broad toolkit of potential lesson plans and represents a philosophical break from traditional methods of character education or civic education.

Unfortunately, SEL does not have strong evidence-backed support, despite many of its adherents’ claims, with many of its tools and techniques having questionable effectiveness. It also permits a back-door smuggling in of radical agendas and stigmatizes students who do not fit in with its model of the ideal student.