Social emotional learning and academic slippage in the post-Pandemic era

In the years since I originally posted this on Out in Left Field, the emphasis on social-emotional learning is greater than ever. Somehow the pandemic has become an excuse for shifting the balance away from straight-up academics towards even more social emotional learning, even as declines in academic skills are at least as worrying as declines in socio-emotional maturity.

Social emotional learning for everyone, or special interventions for disruptors?

Grit, growth mindsets, social emotional learning (SEL): these latest edu-fads are flourishing as never before–the more so as No Child Left Behind is succeed by the more optimistic Every Student Succeeds Act. In assessing our school children, states must now include at least one “non-academic” measure. The claim, of course, is that non-academic factors ultimately influence academic performance. And who would argue with the idea that how much you persevere and how engaged you are affect how much you learn?

But when schools divert students away from learning activities in order to engage in “social emotional learning,” (SEL), it’s reasonable to be skeptical–even when we encounter “research” that “shows” that some of these SEL programs are increasing academic test scores.

In particular, we must rule out:

1. The Hawthorne Effect

2. The possibility that the extra staffing and investment involved may, independently of any SEL-specific activities, have positive ripple effects on classroom academics

3. The possibility that SELs programs improve academic achievement only inasmuch as they improve classroom behavior.

This last factor strikes me as the most likely reason for the efficacy of those SELs programs that are in fact effective. Disruptive, distracting behavior imposes a tremendous drain on teaching/learning—for perpetrators and victims alike.

But then the question becomes: is having the entire school population participate in weekly/daily SEL programs really the most efficient way to improve the behavior of the specific students who disrupt learning? How about instead doing the following:

1. Split the classroom teaching/classroom management positions into two separate jobs.
2. Put highly qualified teachers up front and highly qualified classroom managers in back.
3. Give the latter the authority to remove disruptive students (temporarily or for the long term).
4. Offset the expense of extra adults in classrooms with substantially larger class sizes.
5. Spend the money that would have been spent on SEL instruction for the entire student body on special psychiatric and academic services for disruptive students.

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