Setting the Record Straight on Social-Emotional Learning: What Do Parents Think?

Setting the Record Straight on Social-Emotional Learning: What Do Parents Think?

Social-emotional learning (SEL) has been in the news a lot lately, and this recent surge of news about SEL has come with a good deal of misinformation. In this blog series, we’ll attempt to set the record straight on SEL by exploring the benefits and importance of SEL for young children, highlighting its recent politicization, and understanding what polling tells us about the best way to communicate with parents about the topic. While trying to gain a better understanding of parents’ perceptions around SEL, I found a 2021 survey of K-12 parents commissioned by the Fordham Institute to be particularly helpful. To learn more about the survey’s findings and in an effort to better understand some of the concerns about SEL that have been expressed by conservatives, I interviewed Fordham’s Adam Tyner via email. Adam is national research director at Fordham and managed the survey project.

Let’s start with the basics. What made you decide to poll parents about their views on social and emotional learning (SEL)?

As your readers surely know, SEL has become a big buzzword and a big industry in recent years. The term has been around for a couple of decades, but around 2015 it really took off. What wasn’t clear to us is what parents thought of this new fad in education, so we worked with the global polling firm YouGov to conduct this survey.

How many parents were surveyed in the poll and when was the poll conducted? What were the key findings from the poll?

We surveyed 2,000 parents of students in grades K through 12 in the spring of 2021, but we also conducted some mini-surveys in the months before and after that to see if parent views were fluctuating substantially in response to the pandemic or the 2020 election. Parent views were relatively steady during that time, but after the controversies around critical race theory and school reopenings emerged in the summer of 2021, it’s quite possible that parent views on SEL have also shifted somewhat since our study concluded.

We wrote a whole report that is available at sel.fordham with five key findings and four policy recommendations — along with selections from parent free responses and other background and context. A couple of things stood out to me about parent views of SEL.

First, parents strongly support schools teaching all of the specific SEL-related competencies we asked about. These include stuff like setting goals, navigating social situations, and controlling their emotions. On the other hand, parents aren’t nearly as excited about the term “social-emotional learning” itself. (They far prefer the term “life skills,” however cringy that is to education experts.)

Second, when forced to make tradeoffs, parents want schools teaching analytic and practical education above all: the top valued skills were reasoning, math, vocational education, English, and taking responsibility for one’s actions. This may be because the survey also found that parents overwhelmingly see the family, not the school, as the most important venue for cultivating SEL.

Something I’m not sure about is whether the average parent who is busy with their job and raising a family really knows what is meant by the term “social and emotional learning.” What did the poll find in terms of describing these life skills in ways that parents understand and support?

Consider the fact that when we asked parents a bunch of agree/disagree questions related to SEL in schools, there was over 90 percent agreement with the statements, “I want my child’s school to give them honest feedback on their academic progress and performance even if it may hurt their feelings,” and “Working hard helps students develop strong character.” Of all the SEL-related skills we asked about, “reasoning” and taking “responsibility for actions” were the top two most important. But I’m not sure this kind of stuff is what most SEL advocates are promoting.

This is all to say that there may be a big gap between the world of practices that support students’ social and emotional learning and new programs serving up trademark SEL. Since ours was a survey of parent views, it asked a relatively broad set of questions related to SEL and its implementation. Some of the survey questions were aligned to SEL domains in the Harvard EASEL Lab, and the survey defined the term as “the process of developing self-awareness, self-control, interpersonal skills, responsible or ethical decision making, and civic awareness.” Hopefully parents understood that, but I think it’s doubtful that the average parent has much of a sense of the nuances of the jargon-laden conversations around SEL.

A recent Washington Post article quoted a conservative parent group that referred to SEL as, “the latest child indoctrination scheme.” Why do you think SEL has become more controversial to some activists on the right recently?

I think there’s a few things going on. One is that there’s always been a “three Rs” contingent among parents that is skeptical that schools can do anything besides basic academics well (and maybe not even that). That means that when you start talking about the “fluffier” stuff in education, it automatically turns some people off. Then you have some people who are skeptical of the education establishment more generally and may feel like public schools are in some ways promoting values at odds with their own. When these folks hear about the fluffier stuff, they may perceive ulterior motives. SEL is more related to values than is, say, how you teach the periodic table, so it is natural that the topic will stir up more passion than more mundane school policies.

Another issue is that many conservative parents probably aren’t very interested in using the education system to equalize outcomes at an individual or social level, and tying SEL to equity as the CASEL organization and others have done, raises red flags for them. Many conservatives will get on board with the idea of “leveling the playing field” — and many strongly support their local public schools — but equity implies equalizing outcomes, which many conservatives do not think is ideal or practical. That means that connecting SEL to equity will naturally raise red flags for some conservative parents, especially those who are skeptical about what is going on in schools in the first place.

The jargon is also part of the problem. Along with terms like critical race theory, you’ve seen SEL pop up on lists of education terms that conservatives are concerned about in part because of what I was alluding to earlier about how ill-defined the term SEL is. The jargon excludes people from the conversation, and an understandable reaction to being excluded through jargon is to wonder what is being hidden.

Considering the recent controversy around teaching SEL in some communities, what should educators and policymakers who are looking to productively engage their communities in SEL efforts take away from the poll’s findings?

Our survey showed that parents — whether Democrat or Republican, Black, Hispanic, or White — believe that the family is the most important venue for cultivating SEL. That means that engaging the community is more important on this issue than it would be for an issue that is more squarely in the school’s wheelhouse.

Diverse communities are going to include some skeptics, and some of these skeptics are going to connect SEL to other controversies. That makes it very important for educators to speak plainly and concretely about whatever SEL-related plans they’re making. If you’re arguing about the abstract idea of an SEL program, not only does that term not resonate with parents the way “life skills” does, but also vague and abstract ideas are more likely to get people’s preconceived ideas projected onto them. So some parents might imagine it is helpful, while others suspect SEL might be related to outrageous examples of school policies or teacher misbehavior that they’ve seen on the internet. Instead, speaking about a very specific new practice that the school is implementing — adding a box to math worksheets to remind students of the importance of their effort, etc. — allows parents to engage that on its own terms rather than just projecting something, good or bad.

As I alluded to earlier, it’s not always clear what SEL programs are supposed to be doing or why all this new jargon is necessary in the first place. Putting up a wall of jargon around an issue on which the public has a strong stake and significant knowledge is elitist, and no one should be surprised by the pushback. Recall that parents strongly supported schools teaching all of the specific SEL-related competencies our survey asked about. But whether they support it or not, saying it in plain English will allow parents to engage, and since parents know a lot about their own children, getting their input will probably lead to better policy.

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY 4.0). It is attributed to Aaron Loewenberg and Nicole Hsu. The original version can be found here.

Setting the Record Straight on Social-Emotional Learning: An Introduction

Setting the Record Straight on Social-Emotional Learning: An Introduction

A few weeks into my first school year as a pre-K teacher* I had an important realization: While much of class time was spent engaging in center-based activities that helped grow students’ early skills in math and literacy, perhaps the most important lessons I would teach all year were focused on things like learning how to share and take turns, how to make friends when surrounded by unfamiliar people, and how to resolve conflict peacefully. I distinctly remember observing a three-year-old boy push the student in front of him while they lined up to go outside. When I asked the boy why he had pushed another student, he calmly explained his logic: “I wanted to go outside and he wasn’t moving fast enough.”

Social-emotional learning (SEL) has been in the news a lot lately, and this recent surge of news about SEL has come with a good deal of misinformation. In this blog series, we’ll attempt to set the record straight on SEL by exploring the benefits and importance of SEL for young children, highlighting its recent politicization, and understanding what polling tells us about the best way to communicate with parents about the topic.

What is SEL?

If you had to put a technical label on it, that lesson about not pushing other students and subsequent lessons about getting along with peers, managing strong emotions, and developing friendships are all a part of what is called “social-emotional learning (SEL).” According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, SEL “refers to a wide range of skills, attitudes, and behaviors that can affect student success in school and life,” such as critical thinking, emotion management, conflict resolution, decision making, and teamwork.

Social-emotional learning (also known as life skills, whole child development, soft skills, character education, self-regulation, and a myriad of other terms) is a fundamental component of healthy development for young children. While not as well known as the core education topics of literacy and math, social-emotional skills are also skills that must be taught. It is especially important in early learning settings, as pre-K or kindergarten are many children’s first encounters with formal education settings.

Early childhood is an important developmental period where developing these skills can have an impact in multiple areas across the child’s academic and life trajectory. Young children who learn to understand and manage their emotions, develop healthy interpersonal relationships, and practice social problem solving have increased success in school and life. These skills enhance children’s learning by facilitating adjustment to new environments and reducing negative social behaviors like bullying. Strong social-emotional skills in early childhood also predict long-term outcomes in the areas of mental health, financial stability, civic engagement, substance use, and interactions with the carceral system. Social-emotional skills are malleable and teachable, meaning they shift and change as children are exposed to new experiences and environments, such as classrooms.

The current controversy over SEL

While the topic of social-emotional learning is relatively commonplace in America’s schools, recently it has generated considerable controversy among some conservative parent groups. For example, Minnesota’s Child Protection League has deemed SEL “the latest child-indoctrination scheme” and linked SEL to critical race theory. Parents Defending Education, a prominent conservative parent group, has gone so far as to include several SEL examples in their “IndoctriNation Map” which purports to illustrate places where activists are imposing a harmful agenda onto children. Conservative media is chock full of articles linking SEL to more controversial topics, such as critical race theory. Recently, education leaders in Louisiana looking to adopt new early learning standards were met with opposition due to the inclusion of social-emotional topics in the standards. And a bill introduced in the Oklahoma Legislature would bar public schools from using state, federal, or private funds to purchase or implement any sort of SEL curriculum.

How widespread is SEL?

According to a report from CASEL, 81 percent of principals and 60 percent of teachers in elementary schools across the country reported that their schools implemented an SEL program during the 2021-22 school year. Some schools might pay for a specific social-emotional curriculum to use in their classrooms, such as the Second Step curriculum I used when teaching pre-K and kindergarten. Other schools might teach social-emotional concepts in an informal manner that is embedded in lessons throughout the day.

What’s clear is that schools seem to be increasingly realizing the importance of SEL, in large part due to impacts from the pandemic. Total district and school spending on SEL grew by about 45 percent between November 2019 and April 2021, rising from a total of $530 million to $765 million. And, according to a report from FutureEd, about a third of districts plan to spend some of their federal COVID relief funds on SEL for things like curricula, classroom materials, and training.

The recent backlash to SEL comes as a surprise to many teachers and other education professionals who view the core principles behind SEL as central to helping students succeed both in school and life. After all, it would seem that if there’s one thing both political parties could agree on it’s that students, especially young students, need to learn basic lessons about managing their emotions, feeling empathy for others, and making responsible decisions.

So what do parents think about their children developing these skills in the classroom? In the next post in this blog series, we’ll talk with Adam Tyner of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute to learn more about a recent nationally representative poll of 2,000 parents that helps to illuminate parental views on SEL and how to more effectively communicate about SEL topics.

* Author Aaron Loewenberg was a pre-K teacher in Washington, D.C.

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY 4.0). It is attributed to Aaron Loewenberg and Nicole Hsu. The original version can be found here.

Early Works has Changed my Community

Early Works has Changed my Community

By Brian Berry, Yoncalla Superintendent; as told to Rafael Otto.

I’ve been working in the Yoncalla School District since 1996. I was a teacher first, then the high school and middle school principal, and now I’m the superintendent. Yoncalla is a small rural community in Northern Douglas County. We have approximately 300 students in preschool through 12th grade. Yoncalla is a farming community with rural conservative values, and it’s an absolutely awesome place to work.

Becoming the superintendent in Yoncalla meant I was part of Early Works — a Children’s Institute initiative that offers parenting education and engagement, professional development for teachers, support for families, and publicly funded preschool at our elementary school.


Early Works is a model for the state and it’s foundational for our community. Thanks to Early Works, every child in Yoncalla can attend preschool and the school is more connected to families. With this approach, we have seen reading scores go up, attendance has improved, and we now have a local health clinic. Working closely with Children’s Institute has enabled us to partner with parents and community members every step of the way, listening to them, recognizing them as experts in their own lives, and encouraging them to get involved.

For some of our parents, getting involved means traveling to Salem with Children’s Institute to talk with the Governor about what’s happening in our community. We have other parents who bring their toddlers to our play groups, attend parenting education classes, or share their ideas to improve our school at the Early Works meetings.

Early Works is truly a community initiative. I’ve walked into stores in Yoncalla and heard, “Love the things you guys are doing with the preschool!”

Our school board understands that the preschool drives everything we do in K-12, that we’re taking all the incredible things that are happening in the preschool and adapting them for elementary, middle, and high school. Our community is empowered. We’re changing the whole system.


Related Links

A Glimpse of How Yoncalla’s Youngest Learners Spend Their Day

Who’s in Charge of Student Success? In Yoncalla, It’s Everyone

Podcast: Empowering Community Members in Yoncalla Gets Results



The Early Childhood Coalition Gave me a Space to Speak as an Expert in Family Care

The Early Childhood Coalition Gave me a Space to Speak as an Expert in Family Care

By Zakkiyya Ibrahim, owner and director of Education Explorers, child care provider, and advocate; as told to Celeste Yager-Kandle.

In 2017 I opened Education Explorers, a high-quality, home-based early learning and out-of-school program in Washington County. Despite running a licensed  business for three years from my rental home, having an excellent rental history, no history of injuries, and no damage to the property or other issues, I received an ultimatum from my landlord: close my business or be evicted. Neither of these were options. I have many families that rely on Education Explorers for child care so they can work. My experience is not uncommon among providers operating out of rentals.

Finding another rental is difficult and not every rental property meets licensing requirements. When they do, there’s never a guarantee that the landlord will rent to someone who is looking to run a licensed child care business in the home, as there is significant bias against renting to child care providers.

I was frustrated by policies being created by people with no knowledge of child development and age appropriate practices, or had experience caring for children. When I was invited to participate in the Early Childhood Coalition to share my story and advocate for child care providers, I jumped at the opportunity. 


Working with Children’s Institute and the Early Childhood Coalition gave me a space to speak as an expert in family care and I was able to help shape priorities for the 2021 legislative session. This led to the proposal for House Bill 2484, a policy that focused on creating protections for renters to operate child care businesses from their homes. 

The Early Childhood Coalition is doing essential work to ensure that early childhood policies in Oregon support providers and ultimately, young children and families.

Because of Early Works, I Know my Voice Matters

Because of Early Works, I Know my Voice Matters

By Josette Herrera, Earl Boyles parent, advocate, and community ambassador; as told to Ashley Walker.

When my oldest children started school, I was not a “joiner.” I wasn’t involved. That just wasn’t me! But that all changed with the Early Works project, more than ten years ago now.

I first heard about Early Works from Andreina Velasco, who was Children’s Institute’s site liaison at Earl Boyles, where my kids went to school. She was running a program, two weeks of kindergarten readiness in the summer. My daughter went, and that’s how I met Andreina. She told me they were planning to go out into the community with surveys, asking parents what they wanted and needed for their kids. She wanted me to help.

I don’t know what it was about the way she talked to me, but I couldn’t say no! I was skeptical, but she kept telling me, “Come on, you can do it!”

And eventually I said, “Sure, why not?”


I’m thankful for that to this day, because being a part of everything that has happened at the school since then has been an awesome experience.

Things happen for a reason. There was a reason I was put in that situation to help at the school. 


I always wanted to be a bilingual interpreter and work in the hospitals. But because of my background, I would have had to work really, extra hard to get to that point. And if I had gone to school for that, I would owe a lot of money now!

But because of Early Works, I’ve had opportunities to do the kinds of work I’ve always wanted to be doing. I’ve been able to help people. I’ve become a community ambassador for the school, and trained as a community health worker. My whole job is to help our families. When they need clothing, housing assistance, utility assistance, anything… they know they can come to me. 

I’ve also been able to go to Salem and talk to our government about why preschool is important for our children, and how it should be available for all kids, whether they have money or not. When I first started doing that, of course I was nervous! And I’m always nervous when I go. But someone from Children’s Institute — Elena, Dana, Marina — is always there for us parents, telling us, “Just say how you feel. Tell them what you know.” 



The team at CI is awesome. They’ve been, always, a lot of support to us. They know that our voices should matter in what’s going to happen for our children, and with their future. 

My kids are no longer at Earl Boyles. They’re older now. But I’m not going anywhere! There’s so many kids at the school that know me. They see me in the neighborhood and say, “Oh my god, there’s our teacher!” And, I’m not a teacher. But to them, that’s how they see me.


Related Links

Ten Years of Early Works at Earl Boyles

Transforming Schools: Community Health Workers in Action

Podcast: Parent Advocacy, SB 236, and Changing the Way we Talk About Children

Pin It on Pinterest