CASEL defines social-emotional learning (SEL) as “…the process through which young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that help us to understand ourselves, connect with others, achieve our goals and support our communities” (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-XNp3h3h4A). But support for SEL, despite research evidence of its effectiveness in promoting social and academic gains, has wavered due to concerns that it may place focus away from academics (Tyner, 2021) or promote “soft” consequences to disciplinary issues (Buck, 2023). There is also a small but vocal group who argue that SEL is a means to indoctrinate youth to adopting progressive social values and intersectional identities.
We’d like to take this opportunity to dispel some myths about SEL and positive behavior support—by disassociating from political rhetoric and focusing on facts—to foster clear and productive discussions about their utility and effectiveness in daily classroom practices.
|Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a distraction from academics.||Social-emotional learning (SEL) helps students build critical academic and life skills.|
|Strict disciplinary policies are needed to address challenging behaviors in school.||Zero tolerance and exclusionary discipline policies negatively impact students’ mental health, worsen student behavior, and are disproportionately imparted to students of color.|
|Students with challenging behaviors cannot function in schools with typically developing peers.||Students placed in segregated settings or alternative schools typically show worse behaviors and reduced academic performance.|
|Extreme security mechanisms and student restrictions are the only ways to make school safe.||Comprehensive school safety approaches that balance supports for physical, social, and emotional safety can effectively prevent school violence.||Services and supports to help troubled students are readily available and accessed.||Most children and adolescents with mental health problems do not receive treatment; those who do typically receive help in schools, where funding limits the scope and availability of services.|
Myth: Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a distraction from academics.
Fact: Social-emotional learning (SEL) helps students build critical academic and life skills.
Our school communities continue to experience layers of complex traumas—from the global Covid-19 pandemic to racial trauma and social unrest to severe climate events. It’s not uncommon to hear educators expressing concerns about the number of students who need additional supports and accommodations to engage productively in learning and be successful in school and life.
Although some people worry that a focus on SEL will take precious time and attention away from academics, evidence shows that SEL helps students build critical academic and life skills. Social-emotional competencies like critical thinking, relationship building, and coping skills increase students’ positive attitudes and prosocial behaviors, reduce the need for more intensive and costly supports, and improve academic engagement and performance (Durlak et al., 2011; Mahoney et al., 2018; Sklad et al., 2012). Developing, delivering, and evaluating SEL programs with a lens of equity and inclusion is critical to realizing the promise of these positive student outcomes (Gagnier et al., 2022).
However, district mandates to implement SEL may not have a positive impact on learning environments and students’ social and emotional skills if teachers are not fully engaged in supporting these programs. In contrast, teachers who are professionally prepared to deliver SEL and enhance their own social and emotional skills while doing so improve their own well-being and also the social, emotional, and academic development of their students (Reyes et al., 2012). Research demonstrates that positive outcomes are possible only when schools’ universal and targeted supports simultaneously promote the well-being and self-reflection of their staff, such as by providing educators with access to mental health consultants and professional development (Zinsser et al., 2016).
Myth: Strict disciplinary policies are needed to address challenging behaviors in school.
Fact: Zero tolerance and exclusionary discipline policies negatively impact students’ mental health, worsen student behavior, and are disproportionately imparted to students of color.
Some educators have concerns that positive approaches to addressing student behavior are too “soft,” and that only punitive responses such as suspensions are effective. Efforts to emphasize more assertive forms of discipline are not new. In the 1990’s, concerns about gun violence resulted in the widespread adoption of zero-tolerance policies. Predictably, this led to great increases in suspensions, but surveys of school principals indicated there were no improvements in student behavior after adoption of these policies (Curran et al., 2016). In fact, several studies show that suspensions are related to poorer mental health for both students receiving suspensions and their peers at school (Eyllon et al., 2022), greater risk of dropout, and more involvement with the juvenile justice system (Lamont et al., 2013). Students of color overwhelmingly bear the burden of these harmful practices; they are disproportionally excluded from instruction even though they are not more likely to engage in problem behaviors than their white peers (Huang, 2018).
Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) emphasizes an approach that balances positive reinforcement of appropriate behaviors and suitable consequences for challenging behaviors, with an intentional focus on preventing problems from happening in the first place (Tyre & Feuerborn, 2021). To learn more about how educators who use PBIS can achieve this balance and address disparities in exclusionary discipline practices, please read more in our blog series on PBIS.
Myth: Students with challenging behaviors cannot function in schools with typically developing peers.
Fact: Students placed in segregated settings or alternative schools typically show worse behaviors and reduced academic performance.
There is no evidence to suggest that students with emotional or behavioral disorders are implicated in extreme school violence incidents at higher rates than other students (Collins et al., 2020). Although some argue that these students can be better served in segregated settings, placements outside general education classrooms can violate Title II of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (1990) if they do not provide students with appropriate education in the least restrictive environment.
Placing a student in an alternative school that focuses on remediating challenging behaviors does not necessarily result in better outcomes; in fact, students attending these schools may show a worsening of behaviors, such as drug use and delinquency (Dishion & Tipsord, 2011). When alternative settings are effective at reducing the frequency of challenging behaviors, this often occurs at the expense of academic performance and engagement (Kennedy et al., 2019; Wilkerson et al., 2016). Subsequently, students who return to general education settings experience difficulties reintegrating (Gurantz, 2010), in part because teachers and peers may not be adequately prepared to help them “catch up” from their social and academic losses (Kennedy et al., 2019). To help support school leaders, teachers, students with disabilities, and their families—and to avoid unnecessary disparities in discipline and segregated placements—the U.S. Department of Education has compiled a number of resources and guidance documents here.
Myth: Extreme security mechanisms and student restrictions are the only ways to make school safe.
Fact: Comprehensive school safety approaches that balance supports for physical, social, and emotional safety can effectively prevent school violence.
Given the news media’s extensive coverage of school shootings, one could easily believe that we have an epidemic of extreme and continuous violence in our classrooms. In reality, violence is much more likely to occur at home and in other community settings (Thrasher, 2022). Another common belief is that if someone is at risk for violent behavior, there is nothing we can do to stop them. Research has demonstrated that SEL and PBIS programs are both effective in preventing student aggression and bullying (Frederick et al., 2020; Mahoney et al., 2018; Waschbusch et al., 2019). In addition, a comprehensive school safety approach promoting social, emotional, and physical safety reinforces help seeking for oneself and others, thereby reducing the risk of violence (Dwyer & Osher, 2000; Osher et al., 2006).
Well-designed threat assessment methods can also effectively identify students who are at immediate risk for violent behavior and provide them with needed services and support. For example, the application of threat assessment guidelines is associated with reductions in bullying, suspensions, and increased use of counseling services and parent conferences to address challenging behaviors (Cornell et al., 2012). Effective threat assessment procedures focus on identifying threats of violence at school, evaluating associated students and their level of risk to others, and managing threats by addressing the challenges and conflicts that precipitate them and providing individualized services to those in need (Cornell, 2020).
Myth: Services and supports to help troubled students are readily available and accessed.
Fact: Most children and adolescents with mental health problems do not receive treatment; those who do typically receive help in schools, where funding limits the scope and availability of services.
The Individuals with Disability Act provides students with emotional disturbances a robust set of mental health and behavior support services in and outside of school; however, less than 1 percent of students qualify for these services (Hirsch et al., 2022). About one in five students experience mental health problems, including stress, anxiety, bullying, depression, and alcohol and substance abuse, but most are not eligible for special education services. These problems can lead to an inability to form and sustain friendships, develop healthy sleeping and eating habits, and succeed academically (CDC, 2023). School-based mental health services and SEL initiatives can help to prevent, address, and ameliorate these negative effects, but unfortunately many youth do not receive the help they need – especially those from low-income and minoritized communities.
For example, among the nearly 4 million adolescents ages 12–17 who reported a major depressive episode in the past year, 57 percent did not receive any treatment at all (Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, 2021). In addition, research indicates that Black youth are less likely than their White peers to receive treatment for anxiety or depression (Gudiño et al., 2009). But studies show that school-based mental health services can facilitate access to and use of mental health services (Green et al., 2013)—of the adolescents who do get help, nearly two thirds do so only in school. Schools provide an ideal context for mental health services and supports, due primarily to an environment that facilitates caring relationships and consistent connections between students, families, and staff. More than half of schools (54 percent), however, report that their efforts to provide mental health services are limited by inadequate funding, with 40 percent having inadequate access to licensed mental health professionals (NCES, 2022).
Allegretto, S., García, E., & Weiss, E. (2022). Public Education Funding in the US Needs an Overhaul: How a Larger Federal Role Would Boost Equity and Shield Children from Disinvestment during Downturns. Economic Policy Institute. https://www.epi.org/publication/public-education-funding-in-the-us-needs-an-overhaul/
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Green, J. G., McLaughlin, K. A., Alegría, M., Costello, E. J., Gruber, M. J., Hoagwood, K., Leaf, P. J., Olin, S., Sampson, N. A., & Kessler, R. C. (2013). School mental health resources and adolescent mental health service use. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 52(5), 501–510. https://www.jaacap.org/article/S0890-8567(13)00150-0/fulltext
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Topics: Social-emotional learning