The intentions of social-emotional learning (SEL) programs are good—and so are the results. With outcomes like increased academic success, improved relationships with peers and teachers, and decreased risky behavior, few could deny that implementing SEL in schools is a win-win situation.
But recent studies have found that there’s no guarantee that a student will use SEL skills outside the classroom, a finding that requires us to ask the obvious question: “Why not?” And perhaps even more importantly: “What is our ultimate purpose in teaching SEL?”
How SEL might look to different cultures
Before considering these differences, I want to share two caveats. Most of the research compares individualistic cultures—e.g., U.S., UK, Australia—with collectivist ones, like China, Korea, or Japan. (Some research indicates that African-American and Latino-American cultures contain elements of collectivism, too.) This gives us a start in understanding our differences, but it’s still limited. Also, the differences between the cultures are not black and white: Elements of both cultures are found within each one.
For example, individualistic cultures view the self in relation to the individual, where a person’s goals, achievements, and rights matter the most. Thus, personal expression, autonomy, and high-arousal emotions such as enthusiasm and excitement are valued, as is being aware of and managing one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Children are encouraged to articulate their emotions as a way to build healthy self-esteem, and to exhibit self-confidence and assertiveness. In resolving a conflict, the norm is to express one’s desires and work out a win-win solution. All of these qualities mirror much of what is taught in SEL programs.
Using SEL to surface social tensions
In addition to cultural differences, SEL programs and the educators who use them need to take into account the society in which students live and the impact this has on students’ likelihood of using SEL skills. It also pays to question a school’s purpose and methods for teaching these skills.
One of the great misfortunes of our world is that issues of racism, prejudice, power, and privilege still exist—and are quite rampant, as situations such as the U.S. primaries and the refugee crisis in Europe glaringly reveal.
SEL and the hidden wounds of racism
SEL can also serve to address the difficult issues of racism, privilege, and power at an even deeper level. And this is where we have to consider the question of what our purpose is in teaching SEL in the first place.
For instance, is it to be used as a band-aid for fitting the student into a particular academic mold determined by the dominant culture? Or can it help educators and schools understand and prevent the violence children experience when their authentic selves, cultural identities, and experiences are not acknowledged.